Wanting to Feel Safe in the Crowd, plus Meditation

Nancy Hitt at Preaching Peace synthesises some Sunday news and sees in it humans’ desire to feel safe in a crowd. She reads three stories — one about a man who couldn’t pee standing up anymore, so wanted a penis transplant primarily so that he could again stand at the urinal like other men; the second about couples who choose to implant “abnormal” in vitro zygotes so that their children will fit into their household better (e.g., deaf parents who choose to implant only deaf embyros); and the third about surgeries done early in life on people who are born hermaphrodites (with sexual organs for both gender) — and she wraps them together with this comment:

“What amazes me are the painful lengths to which we will go [as a species] to be able to be safe in the crowd. The man who wanted to join the crowd at the urinal, the parents who wanted to make sure their children would not be singled out either by illness or by sex, even the parents who chose a particular status customarily defined as a handicap were doing so in order that their family might be ‘balanced’ (their word) and no one would stand out in the crowd.” …

“[S]cience has given us new tools to carve up our bodies so that we and our children will more closely conform to the model body. In these complex situations with many variables and possibilities, there is a common theme of sacrificing the body in order to fit into the crowd which is still perceived as the place of safety.”

This piece reminds me of Girard’s on eating disorders (more body-altering conformity cloaked as independence), but even more so of some Buddhist stuff I’m reading now (Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind Into An Ally).

I’m thinking about two ideas that seem to underlie having surgery in order to fit in: the generally unquestioned assumption that suffering is to be avoided and pleasure or comfort is to be sought; and the illusion that “I” exist wholly independent from everyone else.

Mipham says, “We suffer because we want life to be different from what it is” (p. 12) and it is by “accepting the impermanence and selflessness of our existence” (p. 12) that we realise peace.” Selflessness in this sense seems  to me closely related to the Girardian idea of the essential alterity and priority of the other, the notion that “I” am formed, to a much greater degree than I want to acknowledge, by my relationships with others and by imitating their desires.

Mipham says, “This sense of self is mentally fabricated, defined by outer conditions” (p. 16).  He talks about the “overriding need to maintain the comfort of ‘me'” (p. 19) and how much energy we expend to “draw in what will make us happy, fend off whatever causes pain, and pretty much ignore the rest” (p. 20). He says, “True liberation is life without the illusion of ‘me’ — or ‘you’” (p. 22)

Reading Mipham reminds me of much of James Alison in The Joy of Being Wrong. For example, “The process of faith in the life of the person is therefore precisely the learning to relax into the suggestion of this other “Other” [God], a process that is arduous because what is being undone is the way in which our selves are formed and constituted by the ‘worldly’ other” (p. 60).

When I am meditating (or, in my case, practicing meditation), I feel I am relaxing into another’s suggestion (a very faint suggestion, so subtle it’s like a breath) and I’m reminded each time, each moment, of how much Alison’s so-called worldly “other” lives in my brain and converses with me incessantly! Evidence that I am deluded that there is a “me” — and that it is somehow independent of all the other “me”s in the world — is that I find myself trying to protect myself, defend myself, argue from my opinions, make known my “rightness,” and keep myself at the center of my comfort zone, almost always at some cost to the “other.”  As Mipham says, “we imagine our self as solid and unchanging. We stick up for it; we protect it. We feel angry when someone challenges the opinions we hold dear” (p. 15).

Alison sees a way for us to form a new “self” (which he puts in quotes), a self that is being called into being by God. For instance, when we remember that our self is held by this loving, friendly Other, we might do practical things like forgive and even feel friendly towards someone who is harrassing us (thereby imitating Jesus/God and not the usual human way of things), which is a momentary step out of the trap of culturally sanctioned mimetic desire and into participation with a pacific (vs. a violent) Other.

This idea seems not incompatible with Buddhist thought; by practicing meditation, the idea is that one may likewise “step out of the trap,” however briefly and infrequently, of habit, chatter, preconditioning, numbness, living our lives in the past (remembering, regretting, nostalgically wishing) and the future (worrying, hoping, rehearsing), sleep-walking — and in doing so, I might see my “self” and the selves of “others” clearly. To flip back to Alison again, perhaps it’s this clearer sight that constitutes in some way “being called into being by God.” I see both ideas resting in a sense of receiving and being grateful for what is, and in not grasping for what isn’t, including the identity of the self.

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