With an infinite understanding, there is always more to see and it is good to review the basics because that is all we have. As we deepen our understanding we get to see the basics more deeply. What is being reviewed here is the recognition that our experience is created from within. Seeing this helps us to take care of ourselves when we are suffering and has profoundly beneficial consequences for relationships.
There is a lot written about personal responsibility. The idea that we are 100% responsible for our experience can feel burdensome and make us feel like we should do something if we don’t like the experience we are creating. So rather than use the term personal responsibility I’m going to frame it as impersonal responsibility.
I agree 100% that our experience is created from within. However, I don’t agree that I am personally responsible for creating my experience because if I was I would definitely create a lovely experience all of the time.
Experience is 100% created from within yet we aren’t personally responsible for creating it.
My experience is a reflection of the thinking I am identifying with. That is what creates my experience. If I am identifying with anxious thoughts, I will have an anxious experience. If I am identifying with positive thoughts, I will have a positive experience. Because it works this way it looks like the trick to having a more positive and happy life is to change my thinking. If I could just make myself have more positive thoughts, I would be happier. The trouble with this is I am not personally responsible for the thoughts I have.
I can't control the tens of thousands of thoughts I am having. I can’t control what thought I am going to have next. I can’t control when I am going to have thoughts. Most of my thoughts aren’t even in my conscious awareness -- thank goodness! I don’t want to be aware of all the brain activity that is required to keep my body healthy and functioning.
Not only am I not personally responsible for what thoughts I am going to have, but I am also not personally responsible for what thoughts I identify with. I can’t help what thoughts I am identifying with. Some thoughts are more compelling than others. Depending on my state of mind I am more likely or less likely to get gripped. And if I am trying to use my willpower to change the thinking I am identifying with I magnetize the power of the thinking I am resisting. As Jung wrote: what we resist persists.
What to do?
I don’t control the thoughts that I have and I don’t control the thoughts I identify with. Understanding is what makes the difference. If the answer is not in controlling or manipulating our thinking or in manipulating or controlling what we focus on, freedom can be found in simply understanding how our experience is created and recognizing the transitory nature of experience in general.
What this does is it lets us relax into our experience exactly as it is and takes the pressure off us. This is freeing. This is healing. This is revelatory!
Suffering does not come from the experience itself. It comes from our resistance to our experience. The quote often attributed to the Buddha, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” sums this up. We will have experiences that come and go, some of them will be painful, but the more we are open to experience and allow it to be, knowing that it will naturally shift and evolve the less suffering we have. We aren’t personally responsible for our thoughts and what we identify with, and we don’t need to manage our thoughts or control what we focus on because we are okay no matter what our experience is. We don’t need to try and adjust ourselves because we naturally return to equlibrium. There is a deeper impersonal intelligence within us that stabilizes us and moves toward integration, balance, and harmony. Understanding this and relaxing into it is freedom.
The Coping Mechanism of Blame
Surrendering to our experience exactly as it is, however, is counter to most of our conditioning. We all learn coping mechanisms to try and escape suffering rather than see it for what it is. Some coping mechanisms are socially acceptable like working hard, others are frowned upon like using substances to self-regulate.
In relationships, blaming our partner for our experience is one of the most common coping mechanisms Angus and I see and find ourselves using at times too. It often looks justified because frequently, not always, the partner’s behavior is hurtful and unkind. It, therefore, looks like common sense that their behavior is the source of our suffering. However, even when this is the case, blaming our partner for our experience is disempowering and not helpful for taking care of ourselves. It misses the role our perceptions and judgments in the form of thought play in creating suffering. And when we don’t understand the source of our suffering, it is very hard to take care of ourselves.
Here is a hypothetical illustration to illustrate the role of thought in creating experience:
Imagine you are walking down the street and there is a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk who is clearly agitated and angry. When you walk past him he starts yelling profanities at you and calling you names. Your nervous system reacts and floods you with all of the neurochemicals that fuel the fight, flight, and freeze response. You might cross the street. You might speed up your walking pace. You might not make any adjustments. No matter what you do, you feel the energy course through your body. But even with this physiological response, you most likely don’t take this experience personally because you recognize this man’s behavior means nothing about you. It is a reflection of his state of mind. Even though you have a strong emotional response it moves through you because you aren’t caught up in an internal narrative that perpetuates your emotional dysregulation. Your nervous system settles and your state of mind returns to equilibrium. You may even feel compassion for him. You know he was doing the best he could given what he is struggling with. However, you can’t give yourself a gold star because you didn’t take this experience personally. This isn’t in your conscious control. It happens automatically and is simply a reflection of your understanding of the situation and your clarity of mind.
And you can’t even blame the homeless man for your nervous system getting activated. This experience is also mitigated by perception. In order for the homeless man's behavior to be responsible for the physiological response everyone would have the same experience in that encounter. Causation, or in other words blame, is a direct relationship. If this is true without any mediating factor everyone would have the same experience.
But what if this man were fortunate enough to have a social worker supporting him and advocating for him? The social worker would know him and understand that he struggles with emotional regulation. The social worker’s nervous system may not even get activated at all when the man yells at him. Because the social worker’s experience of working with the man and knowing that he is not prone to violence even though he has angry outbursts, the social worker’s nervous system may stay completely stabilized. They may be able to approach the man while experiencing an inner calm. The perceptions of the social worker let them know they aren't in danger and their experience is different as a result of this even when confronted with the same behavior.
If the homeless man’s behavior were to blame, everyone would have the same experience. Blame is causative. There is a one to one relationship between cause and effect. A leads to B. Homeless man yells, nervous system responds, but if different people have different reactions then it isn’t causative. Even if the majority of people respond the same way, it isn’t causative.
And if it isn’t causative there is another factor that is to blame and that factor is thought in the form of understanding and perceptions. That is the causative factor. The one to one relationship is between our thoughts and feelings. And that is why experience is created from within. It is created via our own perceptions that are thought. Understanding this means that even though we aren’t personally responsible for the thoughts we have or the thoughts we identify with, it makes it clear that our emotional experience is created within and not caused by outside people or circumstances. This does not condone or minimize the very challenging situations some people find themselves in. It is in fact even more important that they understand where there experience comes from so they can better take care of themselves in challenging circumstances.
Understanding how our experience is created is empowering. In relationships it means that when we are emotionally destabilized rather than needing the other person to change in order to be okay we can look to the source of our suffering and see how we can take care of ourselves completely independent from the other person. Even if our partner behaves in an unkind way we don’t need them to be different to find our own wellbeing and peace of mind. The first priority when we are suffering is to take care of ourselves, to help ourselves stabilize, and to look in the direction of our own wellbeing and peace of mind.
Thinking about our partners, wishing they were different, judging them for how they showed up, none of these actions are self-care. They create more suffering and do not help us to stabilize. Believe me, I still do all of these at times, but I know they aren’t self-care and I know they don’t get me anywhere.
Understanding how to take care of ourselves is essential in relationships. Blame is not self-care. It is the perpetuation of suffering. Understanding where experience comes from so we can take care of ourselves effectively is freedom.
What helps to rewild our relationships back to their natural state of love is taking care of ourselves first. We need to be rewilded by our true nature so we can resource ourselves and have the clarity to see what actions are truly self-honoring.
Self-honoring choices sometimes mean that relationships don’t stay together. What is most important is that by having a deeper experience of the love and understanding within ourselves, people thrive. When people thrive often their relationships thrive, and sometimes thriving means leaving a relationship from a place of love. Sometimes greater health and wellbeing give someone the clarity to leave a relationship that is not self-honoring.
Rewilding is not about staying in relationships. It is about coming alive within ourselves so we can flourish in life and shine our light brightly in the world. Everything, including relationships, gets taken care of as we align with the untamed wildness of who we are and have the courage to honor what is true for us at our deepest level of knowing and express that into the world.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate a private couples’ intensives retreat program that rewilds relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.