Buber’s I & Thou and inquiry

Buber’s main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways:

  1. The attitude of the “I” towards an “It”, towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.
  2. The attitude of the “I” towards “Thou”, in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber’s view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.


I haven’t made many connections between traditional philosophy and inquiry here, but I thought I would mention a few (pretty obvious) things. For instance, Martin Buber’s I and Thou and how it relates to inquiry.

As I mentioned in the post about the client and her dog, inquiry can soften any sense of boundaries which in turn opens for a natural sense of intimacy. This intimacy can be with ourselves, our immediate experience, others, the wider world, life in general, and presence (aka God, Spirit).

As we explore how our mind creates its experience of objects, beings, separation, boundaries, and any fears or compulsions created from this sense of separation and boundaries, our experience of these changes. It becomes much lighter, less invested with emotional energy. And that opens for a sense of intimacy.

Ecopsychology and inquiry

Inquiry can easily be used in an ecopsychology context.

Specifically how depends on the person and his or her situation.

For people concerned about our current ecological situation, we can look at fear, stress, a sense of inadequacy etc.

For people worried they are not doing enough, we can look at guilt, shame, fear, and commands to do more (or less!).

For people caught up in us vs them thinking, we can look at identities and perceived boundaries creating this sense of division and separation.

For people who want to experience a deeper connection with nature, we can look at identities with a charge that creates a sense of separation.

There is no end to possibilities. It would be fun to do a workshop on this one day. It could perhaps be combined with Practices to Reconnect developed by Joanna Macy.

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Inquiry and intimacy

A client mentioned that she had done inquiry on her dog. She explored how her mind creates its experience of the dog, which allows her to hold her perceptions about her dog more lightly. Some of the sense of solidity had gone out of it. I asked her if her relationship with her dog had changed, and she said it’s more intimate.

That’s my experience as well. As I continue to explore how my mind creates its experience of me, others, life, and more, there is a deepening sense of intimacy with myself, others, and life.

The boundaries created by the mind has less charge and seem less real and solid, so there is naturally a sense of intimacy.


Examining boundaries

It can be helpful to examine boundaries.

How does my mind create its experience of boundaries?

For instance: Is there a boundary around this body, between the inside and outside? Is there a boundary between me and others? Between me and the wider world? Between me and nature? Between me and anything I see as “out there”? (Universe, spirit, awareness etc.) Is there a boundary to space? To mind?

If there is a sense of boundary, how does my mind create that experience? Is there an image there? Is it associated with certain sensations? are there words connected with this experience of a boundary? What do I discover when I look at each of these? Is there a threat in not finding a real boundary? Is there a threat in having an experience of a boundary? Is there a command to have a sense of boundary? Is there a command to not have a sense of a boundary?

Through these explorations, my experience of these boundaries may soften and have less of a sense of solidity or charge. The “outside” and “inside” are recognized as happening within the same space. The boundaries are recognized as mind-made, as images sometimes connected with sensations.

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Can you find the separation?

Sometimes, we try to distance ourselves from a certain experience. It may be an emotion that a thought says is unpleasant. Or it may be discomfort, or physical pain, or even suffering. We may see it as “other” or separate from us, so a reasonable strategy is to try to keep it that way, and make use of the apparent separation to try to make it go away, or distract ourselves from it. It doesn’t really work, and it actually deepens the discomfort.

Another approach is to meet it, befriend it, make peace with, even find love for it. This too often comes from the appearance of separation. It still seems somewhat separate from us, but we realize that meeting it and getting closer feels better. It may seem scary at first, and thought will come up with any number of reasons why it’s a bad idea. And yet, we know it will feel better. It resolves the discomfort at a more deep and real level.

Here, there may still be a struggle between wanting to avoid the experience, and wanting to meet it and befriend it. And that struggle is created by the apparent separation, which still seems somewhat real.

Then, we may realize there is actually no real separation. Any sense of separation is created by the mind. Our experience – the whole field of it as it is here and now – is what I am. I don’t exist apart from it. It’s who and what I am. So why would I even try to struggle with it? (Even struggle and resistance and apparent separation happens within and as what I am.)

There may still be the appearance of separation, so I can explore that separation. How does the mind create it? Is it really as solid or real as it may seem?

I notice an uncomfortable experience in my body, a contraction and tension. It seems somewhat separate from me.

Look at the word “separation”. Is that word separation? Does it separate anything? No.

Where do you find separation between you and the uncomfortable sensation? I see a vague picture.

Look at the picture. Does that picture separation you from the sensation? No, it’s a picture. But there is a sensation that seems connected to it.

Feel the sensation. Is that sensation the separation? No.

And so on, until the separation cannot be found anywhere.

Other things to look for are: A boundary. Distance. (Between me and the sensation.) The one who is separate. (From the sensation.) Something I am separate from. (An uncomfortable experience.)

As I cannot find separation, or a boundary, or distance, or a separate me, or even what I appear separate from, the whole idea of struggle or pushing something away looses it’s meaning.

Attention and boundaries

When attention is intentionally brought somewhere, I notice a mental image of a bulls eye and/or a boundary that guides (a) where attention goes and (b) how large area it includes. For instance, attention may go to the sensation of the breath at the nostrils (training stable attention), the sensations of the belly, or the movements of the whole body (Breema). In the first case, the imagined boundary is relatively small, in the second a bit larger, and the third even larger. Attention respect perceived boundaries, at least to some extent.

So when the imagined boundary between the inner and outer world, or this body and the wider world, is taken as quite real and solid, it follows that it may be difficult for attention to include both at once. It tends to go outside or inside.

And when it’s all noticed as one field – of awareness, experience – then it’s natural and even effortless for attention to include “inner” and “outer” at once, since it’s one field. As I type this, there is attention on sensations in my body and emotions and feelings, and also the screen, my hands and the sounds of the keys. It’s all part of the same field. And attention includes all of this partly because there is an intention and wish for it to include these parts of the field, and partly because it’s natural and quite effortless.

I imagine that if the imagined – quite literally imagined – boundary between “inner” and “outer” was taken as more solid and real, it would take more effort to include both in attention, it may even seem almost impossible. And when it’s recognized and known as simply an image, a guide, then it’s natural and happens on its own.

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Shaking up boundaries

Imagined boundaries can be placed anywhere, creating the appearance of an inside and outside, and us vs them.

There are many benefits of imagined boundaries. They are practical. They help us communicate with ourselves and others, and navigate and function in the world. If ideas of better and worse are added, they can give a sense of cohesion within the boundary (whether as an individual or group) and it can help us feel better about ourselves.

And there are also some drawbacks. We may get so used to a particular imagined boundary that we take it as real, as something “out there” in the world. We may get so used to it that we don’t recognize it as imagined, and that equally meaningful and useful boundaries can be placed anywhere.

So it is good to shake it up. It is good to place boundaries at meaningful yet unusual places, as a reminder that these are just imagined boundaries and that other boundaries give meaning as well.

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Boundary between I and other

Sometimes, it is said that awakening means the boundary between I and Other is recognized as imagined

That is true and a helpful pointer. It helps us see that boundaries are created in the mind. They are, quite literally, imagined. This is a good starting point. 

And it is just that, a starting point, because it leaves something out. It can be taken as saying that the boundary may be imagined, but the I and other is real. There is an I here and a wider world, but it is part of the same seamless whole. 

The truth is more radical than that. So the next pointer is to say – as many do – that there is no separate I, no other, no world, no boundaries. All of those are imagined. All of those happen within our own world of images. 

This is an invitation to notice not only boundaries as imagined, but any object is as well. They all happen as a mental field overlay on the sense field. They all happen within our own world of images. And this includes the wider world as well as any sense of doer and observer. They all happen as content of awareness. They all come and go, on their own schedule. They are all gestalts, made up of mental field overlays on each of the sense fields. 

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Boundaries vs. clarity

Byron Katie briefly mentioned the difference between personal boundaries and clarity during the workshop, and it is a topic that has been of interest to me for a while.

If I create and act from a sense of personal boundaries, there is a sense of something to protect, separation, precariousness, and fear.

If I act from clarity, there is a sense of intimacy, no separation, kindness, trust, peace.

The interesting thing is that my actions in the world don’t necessarily look so different in the two cases. I am in both cases more than capable of giving a clear yes or no, of taking care of myself, of being firm and even forceful when needed.

The difference is in my experience of it. In the first case, of coming from a sense of separation, precariousness, fear. And in the second case, from clarity, kindness, intimacy.

If I am clear, I don’t need to worry about boundaries. But if  I am not, they are certainly useful. And the stress that goes with trying to create, maintain and live from personal boundaries may encourage me to find another way, for instance through inquiry and clarity.

Paying attention to what’s behind the curtain


When I explore how a sense of I and Other is formed, I find three general zones:

First, a sense of subject, of an I as subject, experiencer, doer, and so on. This one is usually located in or around the head area, but can also be extended to other areas of this human self.

Then, a sense of self as object, as experienced. This is usually the rest of my human self and whatever thoughts filter as belonging to this human self, such as thoughts.

And finally, the rest of the world as object, which is made up of whatever is not a self as subject or object.

I also notice how the sense of subject and object are located in different areas of space so they can be differentiated from each other, which also means that when I bring attention to where the sense of subject seems to be located, it shifts to another location in space. Only the sensations it was placed on remains, but now as an object, as content of awareness, just like anything else, and free from a sense of subject.

For this sense of subject to appear real and substantial, it seems that it needs to be kept away from attention and awareness. Like the man behind in the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, it is kept hidden from view, and that is how its manifestations gets their appearance of reality and mystery.

But it is certainly possible to bring this sense of subject into attention and the field of awareness.

I can bring attention to the sensations the sense of subject is placed upon, and recognize them as just sensations. I can notice the thoughts placed on top of these sensations to create a sense of subject. I can notice how it shifts around when I bring attention to where it just was.

And I can also shift into Big Mind or headlessness, and immediately and directly see that what I previously took as subject – these sensations and this idea of a subject – itself is part of the content of awareness, just like anything else, and that a sense of identification with it can be released.

(There is a release of a identification with the with the sensations and thoughts making up the gestalt of a subject – even as they are still there, which is an interesting experience. The “I” goes out of the subject, the doer goes out of the doing, and so on.)

In each of these cases, I am looking directly at the man behind the curtain, and the reality of its manifestations falls apart. What initially seemed so real and substantial is now revealed as just appearances.

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Beliefs as protection


I talked with a friend yesterday about how beliefs seem to be created as protection… and it certainly seems true in several ways.

Ultimately, beliefs protect this separate self. They flesh it out, define it, create the boundaries separating it from the wider world, protect its identity, shoots down what puts these boundaries and identities in doubt, and do so as a continuous process. Beliefs protect the sense of a separate self against changing too much, and also from not existing (which is a very real threat, since it really doesn’t).

But what about that core belief of a separate self? Is that too a defense against something? I am sure there are many theories and models, and even accounts of direct perceptions, of how and why this belief forms in the first place (and sadly, I am not aware of that many of them). And each of these probably have some good points.

But to me, it seems simple: for most of us, when we were infants, everyone around us believed in a separate self. So we too, innocently, did the same. We too created a belief in a separate self, because that was obviously and clearly the thing to do.

So the primary belief in a separate self may have been formed since it was the thing to do. And the secondary beliefs (an attachment to any other story) aids in bolstering the primary one.

And it all comes from innocence. Although the results, in our own experience, may not appear so innocent.

Fear/hope life will show up outside of the boundaries of beliefs

From the previous post:

… any belief creates boundaries for life, for what can and should happen. So when life shows up outside of these boundaries, or even when we fear/hope that life may show up outside of these boundaries, there is also stress. When there are beliefs, we get stress from two sources.

This is something else to explore about beliefs: when we believe a story, when we take it as an absolute truth, there is both hope and fear that life will show up outside of the boundary created by the belief.

We hope, because somewhere we know that no story represent an absolute truth.

And we fear, because we have invested time and energy into the belief, and we (think we) are not familiar with the landscape that opens up without it.