Knowing when to give up, Part III

Parts I and II.

Serendipity is wonderful thing. Our Zen group had a visit from a teacher today and somehow the things he started talking about made me think about what I was going to post here though I never quite got to raise it in the discussion.

He was talking about the need for disengagement from attachment and how we become not just attached to things, but perceptions, judgements and feelings for others. Isn’t that what my whole question about when to give up is about? My attachment to wanting to be somebody or something. Here are the three things I have been thinking about whether to give up on:

  1. My place of work. For being unconcerned with staff morale and welfare. For compromising on standards. For turning people I respect around me into mercenaries and/or cynics. I am not thinking of quitting this minute (but I’m looking, and biding my time till the thesis is done); but I was thinking of giving up on hoping it will be better.
  2. My thesis. I am still writing it, and I think it is the better for it. I am not thinking of giving up on writing it or submitting it, but on the desire for it to count for something. Could I drop academia at a whim? What’s preventing me from doing so? What am I attached to? The idea of whom I am as an academic and an intellectual. The teacher said it is okay to have attachments, but one must be aware of having those attachments in order to be aware of the price one is paying for having them.
  3. A friend. Let’s call her Yolanda. Yolanda and I have been friends for at least 12 years. We have good chemistry, we share the same ideas and points of view; we even share matching horoscopes. Yolanda, however, is a crisis junkie (I was going to type ‘magnet’ but my fingers spelled ‘junkie’ instead; my unconscious seems to be more aware of what’s going on than my conscious mind). Since I’ve known her, she has been engaged in crisis after crisis, from untenable relationships, work stresses, and endless domestic duties; otherwise known to most people as ‘life’, only for Yolanda these become so escalated in her mind and intensified in feeling that going out to get some food for the cat (or herself for that matter) can seem like a chore.
  4. My friendship with Yolanda began when I tried to be her friend through all her various crises; but my loyalty to her was sealed when she revealed, in a moment of closeness, or perhaps as a way of enacting closeness, that her biggest fear was the fear of abandonment. Not only was the ball in my court, the entire barrel was now parked in my basement.
    It reached the point many times where I was so drained I had to distance myself from her for a while before I could be her friend again. I read up on emotional vampires; and decided she was one. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I was wracked with guilt every time I sought relief from her — I knew I wasn’t abandoning her, but I knew she would think I was. I let her control the narrative. So every time I went back, I felt like I was dragged through the gutter again. It was a long time before I realise that Yolanda doesn’t want to be relieved from her pain. She wants to pick at it until it bleeds. It was emotional self-harming; but I was too blind to see it then.

    Recently, it got to a point where my own friendship with her became a crisis — mine. I finally put my inadequacies on the line, perhaps unwittingly thinking it would square the account and we could be friends on a more even footing. My major inadequacy, as I’ve mentioned several times, is the fear of underachievement, which is currently being played out through my thesis. My major cause of anxiety, however, is lack of reciprocation or feedback. Yolanda, however, is chronically unable to reciprocate. This is a typical example of communication between us:

    – She texts to say, ‘Call me next week. I have news’
    – I call next week. No answer. I call right through the week. No answer. No message to say busy, waylaid, or whatever. I worry if she’s in the bottom of another self-made well (because of our history and because she is very often at the bottom of a self-made well).
    – I finally reach her at some point. And am so relieved to have done so, that I don’t complain about the lack of reciprocation, and plain manners (because that’s what it is). I think, ‘Don’t be so attached to being right.’ But I’m annoyed.
    – We have an intense conversation (as we do) in which I feel that this person really understands me. And she probably does. Only there is always a price to be paid for that connection (like toll). The price is the stress I experience the next time I try to reach her again.

Extrapolate from that model other scenarios, which for me have greater emotional consequences, like she volunteers to read my thesis chapters (sometimes openly willing, sometimes begrudgingly), then becomes unavailable, and my panic escalates, because I was counting on the feedback. Or I am in a relationship crisis myself (haven’t had one in years, thankfully), and am desperate for closeness with this person I believe understands me, and she is unavailable, or in a bigger crisis than me, or so it seems. Sometimes, in my own moments of severe pain, like having work rejected by a reader, I end up having to comfort and reassure her that she does not do the same thing to other people!

All this, however, is to an extent already in the past. My recent efforts to repay my karmic debts and strengthen my spiritual path made me think a lot about how to reconfigure my relation to her. At that time, I thought, and I still think, that breaking off relations in a huff is immature; I wanted a way to remain friends without the burden of emotional debt. But I am not sure it is possible as long as the currency of exchange is traded in emotions.

So I am wondering if it is time to give up. On my hope for something more equitable. I guess – as I am writing this the thoughts are emerging – I am attached to the moments of closeness which I keep expecting to outweigh the disappointment of non-reciprocation. The teacher reminded us of the concept of dukkha today — and the metaphor of the ill-fitting chariot wheel.

I give up — that’s ego too, isn’t it? I give up on something because it no longer fits into my perception of how the world should be. Giving up is a passive-aggressor’s exercise of ego. Perhaps the task is to become aware of the attachment one has to what one feels one has to give up; giving up is aversion, and aversion is attachment to what one does not have. What am I averse to?

Someone asked about koans tonight. And the teacher said that in some traditions it is possible to practice life as a koan. He offered the suggestion that if we wanted to try it, we could pick something, a question or a dilemma, one that generated a tension of opposites — such as, what am I averse/attached to? — and sit with it, when we have reached a certain point of stability and calm, to the point where the tension implodes upon itself, and the answer is revealed.

I’m going to work on it. That is my resolution for this new moon in Aries. I want to find a way to be in the job while I am in it, be in the writing of the thesis while I am writing it, and be in the state of being a friend without also having to be an enemy.

Serendipity brings great gifts. The interim answer, as ever, is ‘practise’.


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