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   Gary Schouborg, PhD

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Schouborg, Gary (2005).

"Degrees of Separation"




Degrees of Separation


Gary Schouborg



Perhaps our most psychologically painful experience is a sense of separation from others. Teachers of Eastern spirituality say that such suffering arises from ego’s distinguishing between our self and others, so that to free ourselves from the pain we must move beyond ego to non-ego, where we see the distinction between self and other to be an illusion. Unfortunately, this explanation obscures as much as it illumines.


Closer to the truth is to say that the pain of separation arises not merely from distinguishing between self and others, but from identifying with the differences that we draw. To understand what that means and apply it effectively in our lives, we need to clarify the contrast between ego and non-ego so that we can distinguish among various aspects of separation and identify how each contributes to our suffering.


Ego performs specific functions such as desiring, sensing, thinking, and doing. Most importantly, ego maintains its physical existence by evaluating everything in relation to its own desires. For example, ego evaluates bananas as good insofar as it desires to eat something nourishing, cyanide as bad insofar as it desires not to ingest something that is lethal, fun as good insofar as it wants to experience what is enjoyable, and disappointment as bad insofar as it wants to avoid experiencing what is unenjoyable. In itself, the ego is good because it helps us make our way in the world.


Where the ego goes awry is when it clings or fixates, when it loses track of the fact that all its functions and the world with which they interrelate are transient. They constantly change. Instead, through its ability to create abstract and therefore static concepts, the ego creates the illusion that some things last. The illusion is more than merely a mistake about fact. It’s primarily an illusion of value. We insist that things accord with some of our ideas, those to which we are especially attached. And we conclude that unless they do, we cannot really be happy. When reality inevitably continues on its merry way oblivious of our pet ideas of the way things should be, the ego suffers.


There are, then, two different ways in which the ego behaves. When acting realistically or purely functionally, the ego creates concepts to distinguish among things, including between itself and others, while keeping alert to the fact that the interrelationships among all these realities are constantly changing. This functional ego is aware of the disparity between its distinctions as useful approximations and the richer reality that is constantly on the march. Accordingly, it evaluates a currently pleasant experience as something for which to be grateful while it lasts. And it evaluates a currently unpleasant experience as something about which to be relieved that it won’t last forever. In contrast, when the ego is dysfunctional it fixates on its experiences, losing track of their transience. To put it another way, it identifies with its beliefs and evaluations. It takes its beliefs to reveal absolute facts and, even more disastrously, it evaluates certain things as essential to its basic happiness. When reality inevitably changes, this fixated ego suffers. It is disoriented when facts turn out to be more complicated than it supposed and it despairs when what it took to be lasting happiness morphs into something new.


Corresponding to the two ways in which ego behaves are two functions of non-ego: freeing us of unnecessary suffering and providing us with enduring happiness.


The non-ego frees the dysfunctional ego of unnecessary, self-manufactured suffering. Where ego identifies with its beliefs and evaluations, non-ego does not. In this case, moving from ego to non-ego frees us of unnecessary suffering by seeing through the illusion that our beliefs and evaluations adequately express reality. As we have just seen, this liberation is straightforward. Freed of the false belief that any current happiness will last forever, we avoid setting ourselves up for unnecessary disappointment through false expectations. Freed of the false believe that any current unhappiness will last forever, we avoid despair. However, this very insight into the transience of our experience presents a problem. How then is abiding happiness possible? For happiness is more than merely absence of suffering.


As complement to the functional ego, the non-ego facilitates abiding happiness by broadening our attention from the goals of our various ego functions to the associated pleasant feeling that our body naturally provides while performing them. In conducting any activity, we all-too-easily focus so intensely on its aim that we lose awareness of the pleasant feeling that naturally accompanies its performance. Rather than sit still long enough to enjoy a pleasant moment, we rush to finish some task that is yet undone. Rather than enjoy the process involved when we attempt to achieve some goal, we insist that we cannot be really happy until we have succeeded. Our insistence on a future achievement draws our attention away from the satisfaction immediately available to us while pursuing our goal and sets us up for added disappointment should we fail. In these and many other such ways, our functional ego can be easily seduced into so concentrating on its goal-oriented job that it loses track of its embodied existence, which naturally provides a satisfaction to everything it does. Talk of non-ego is just a way of saying that ego can enjoy whatever it is currently doing if it realizes that success in achieving any of its goals is not the key to its happiness. Since the embodied ego can enjoy anything it does, its constant functioning provides it with abiding happiness.


"But even the most praiseworthy acts / should be done with complete nonattachment / and with no concern for results; / this is my final judgment." (18:5, p. 183) "An embodied being can never / relinquish actions completely; / to relinquish the results of actions / is all that can be required." (18:10, p. 184) Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harmony Books, 2000.


We now have the framework within which to understand the nature of separation and how we can reduce the suffering it causes us.


We experience various kinds of separation, not all of them painful. For us to function effectively in the world, we need to have a sense of ourselves as distinct from other objects and persons. This allows us to ward off dangers, employ the useful, cooperate with others, enjoy the pleasant and beautiful, and ignore the irrelevant. Maintaining a certain separation from others can even have a spiritual function, allowing us our own personal space so that we can listen to ourselves, identifying and attending to our deepest needs and leveraging off that knowledge to understand and attend to the deepest needs of others. These kinds of separation are cognitive. They do not of themselves have any emotional ramifications. They do not necessarily induce loneliness. They merely distinguish between ourselves and other objects and persons in our world for practical, pragmatic purposes.


The separation that hurts is emotional, where we feel cut off from others. The intensity of such pain varies according to the extent and duration of separation, our control over it, and our identification with it.


The extent of separation may vary. We may feel lonely because one friend is absent, but we can still find comfort with other friends. Or perhaps all our friends are absent and no such consolation is available.


The duration of separation may vary. We may feel lonely because friends are absent, but we can console ourselves with the expectation that they will soon return. Or our consolation is greatly diminished because we are uncertain of their return. Or no consolation at all is possible because all our friends have died and their enduring absence is certain.


Our control over separation also varies. We can console ourselves in our loneliness, whatever its extent or duration, to the degree that we believe that we can control the return of old friends or develop new ones. In the darkest extreme, we may believe that we are emotionally incapable of any friendship at all, so that we suffer from the expectation of endless loneliness beyond our control, a pain that we may intensify even further by believing that it is deserved.


Finally, and most fundamentally, we may identify with our separation. To identify with anything is to take it to be essential to our happiness. Accordingly, when we identify with separation from something or someone we believe that no alternative source of real happiness is possible. Alternative sources of happiness that could otherwise console us we then perceive as merely distractions from the painful realization that an essential source of our real happiness is unavailable.


In identifying with separation, we are not just cut off from others. More profoundly, we are cut off from ourselves, from the deeper feeling within ourselves that provides an enduring sense of satisfaction independently of success or failure. By identifying with a particular, transient source of happiness, our ego (all our specific experiences of desiring, sensing, thinking, and doing) cuts itself off from non-ego (the fundamental satisfaction that is inherent in everything we do and that abides through our continual activity over time).


To heal a sense of separation we must incorporate ego, not jettison it. We incorporate ego by realizing that its satisfactions and sorrows are transient and do not speak to our deepest need for happiness. Such a realization is both cognitive and emotional: cognitive in understanding the transient and conditional nature of ego-related experiences; emotional in allowing non-ego, an enduring sense of satisfaction, to emerge. By incorporation, from the Latin in corpore (in the body), we embody our ego by experiencing the bodily feeling of satisfaction that is inherent in our every activity. Because while awake we are continually doing something, incorporation provides us with enduring satisfaction in living.


When embodied, we may still experience separation from friends as painful, but no longer as tragic. Absent friends, we are truly cut off from particular sources of happiness; but we are not cut off from its primal source, the satisfaction inherent in everything we do. Since one thing we do is acknowledge an absence of friends, even our painful acknowledgment also brings us a certain satisfaction, which gives the truth to Shakespeare’s immortal observation that parting is such sweet sorrow. It is deeply satisfying to face the painful side of life with eyes wide open and to be grateful for happiness now past,


Blessedly, we may sometimes not experience separation as painful at all. Freed of the illusion that the particular separation we’re currently facing is not absolute and does not cut us off from our primal and enduring source of happiness, we are better able to sense the presence of our friends enjoying us and caring for us even in their absence.


The following are exchanges in response to the above essay.


Exchange with M


By this definition of ego, love...to the extent that it identifies so closely with another's existence as to become altruistic toward that other, willingly sacrificing itself for that other if the situation demanded that sacrifice to protect the other...love is a dysfunction.  "...ego is dysfunctional <as> it fixates on its experiences, losing track of their transience."  Fixation on the experienced life of the loved other to the point of altruistic self-destruction is, I think, "losing track of <its> transience".  Purely from an evolutionary point of view, if not emotionally, I find this hard to accept; specifically that a dysfunction would become the most important key to the survival of the race.  This is what I read in your short essay below.


Clarify please.





We’re using identification in different senses. In common parlance, we might say we identify with another’s suffering in the sense that we can empathize with it. We can imagine what we’d feel like under such circumstances. Such empathy is the root of functional altruism. But in the Eastern tradition that I’m referencing, identifying with another is dysfunctional because it makes the other your whole world instead of just a part of it, however important. Such identification can lead to an illusory altruism. You can sense when you’re the object of such dysfunctional altruism when someone does something apparently for you but you feel as if something’s been taken from you (your autonomy). To distinguish between these two types of identification, Western psychology sometimes refers to the functional sort as identification and the dysfunctional sort as over-identification.




I see your point, but it sound less like an expansion of the idea and more like parsing it.  Where does one draw the line, for instance, between identification and over-identification?  I would, also, refer to 'illusory altruism' as 'false altruism'....we are all aware when someone is doing us a good turn for selfish reasons, which is the way I read your statement.  I'm still resisting this on some level; admittedly do not quite fathom what you're driving at.  Other comments?





Identification runs along a continuum. Minimally, I identify with this email to the extent that I know that I, and not someone else, am writing it. In addition, I identify with the goal of this email to the extent that it is my goal and I am trying to achieve it. My goal, as far as I am aware, is to develop my understanding of identification and its relationship to enlightenment, and to communicate that understanding effectively to others. Because I identify with the email and its goal, the writing will have consequences for my happiness. To the extent that the writing is successful, then I will feel the satisfaction of achievement. I will also have demonstrated certain skills as a writer and will feel the satisfaction of knowing I have those skills. Conversely, to the extent that my writing fails to achieve my goals, I will feel disappointment. In short, to the extent that I identify with this email, its success implicates my happiness.


I over-identify with the email when I overestimate its importance, which I can do in terms of either endurance or identity.


Endurance. I over-identity with my goal when I so focus on it that I lose awareness of the embodied process within which it occurs. Instead of enjoying the physical satisfactions of typing on the keyboard, orienting my eyes and the rest of my body toward the computer screen, and even the physical pleasures of thinking itself, I so focus on the goal that I reduce my affective life to a timeless (non-experiential) vision of my goal. So even if I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, I am quickly disappointed to find that my satisfaction from achievement soon passes. This comes as a surprise only because I’ve lost track of the living, embodied process within which the goal was set, sought, and achieved. Had I maintained that awareness, I would have known that the satisfaction of achievement, like the rest of the process, would inevitably be only a passing moment. But having lost track of the embodied process within which I dwell, I overly identify with my goal. That is, I overestimate its importance. I overestimate how happy it can really make me. I fail to realize that the satisfaction of success can be only a passing moment in the constantly changing process that I am.


Identity. I over-identify with my goal when I overestimate its implications for who I am. If I succeed, I conclude I’m a genius. If I fail, I conclude I’m a fool. More likely, this single email has few implications about who I am in any lasting sense, since the quality of this email depends on many factors unique to present circumstances. More fundamentally, even when I draw correct conclusions about myself from the success or failure of this email, I over-identify when I take those conclusions to be timeless — that is, to be true for all time. This takes us back to the issue of endurance. I am an evolving process. Whatever this email may say about me at this moment, I will immediately evolve beyond that moment to something new. To over-identify with any aspect of my life or myself, I fasten on that aspect timelessly, taking it out of the embodied context in which it exists. In terms of endurance, I take it to persist more than it does. In terms of identity, I take it to be a greater part of me than it is.


From this perspective, we can distinguish at least two kinds of illusory or false altruism. There is manipulative altruism, where I feign altruism for my own self-interested purposes. There is also over-identifying altruism, where I’m genuinely concerned about your welfare but exaggerate the importance of specifics. Just as I can perceive some aspect of myself timelessly, taking it out of its embodied context and creating a false abstraction, so I can do the same for you. When I do this, you’ll feel a loss of autonomy, because your true autonomy is rooted in your reality as a constantly evolving process. My over-identification tries to fix you in some static condition and is therefore felt as an intrusion on who you really are and what you really need.




Exchange with J


From J, Ph.D. (psychology)


In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful


Dear Dr. Schouborg:


As a therapist  who lives in the Near East, I have been watching the shadow play of attachment/non-attachment with some puzzlement as of late.  I find it synchronous that you should be writing about it here and will take advantage of that to further explore this if you and the other readers might be so kind as to indulge my more concrete and non-philosophical meanderings.  In the Near East, and perhaps in the Far East, and indeed in many religious cultures, being "non-attached" rather than attached to worldly concerns is certainly a virtue.   "Bearing one's cross," or being unattached, or having patience--however this process is termed, is a virtue in many religions and cultures.   Now, I realize that this is in itself an "empowerment", if not  purposely, then in effect, as it taps into a transcendental source of power and frees the individual from so much lowly concerns.  On the other hand, much of therapy aims at a different type of "empowerment."  An empowerment where one tries to work out the best possible relationships, to recognize and pursue your potentials, to find the job or calling that suits you best, in other words, teach you how to master, rather than to submit to your given situation.


 Now, where this whole thing gets pithy for me is here:


 Let us assume that total non-attachment is achieved by very few.    I once read a story of a woman in the Near/Far East who was married off without her consultation let alone permission (I assume this is not rare).  Now in her forties, she says that because she was  "unattached" she was able to see all of this on a higher plane and get through life in a placid state.  And I don't doubt that she did.


 Now, I'm getting to my question and concern here: What about all the individuals who don't reach the state of unattachment that she reached?  The person whose "cross" still chafes after years of bearing it?  From a viewpoint of most Western therapies we would say that these women, and include here, say, women in abusive marriages, or whose spouses are unfaithful [and I am speaking of women here because I see mostly women in therapy and wish to stay with what I know; perhaps men go through a similar thing]. When do we tell them to "suffer through it", accept the arranged marriage, submit to the will of the husband and overlook her own muse in the hope of finding "growth through non-attachment", stay in the face of betrayal, become "unattached" to the beatings; and when do we empower them in quite another way--get up and get out!


 For example, one woman was "patient" believing that her husband would outgrow his violent streak (this is what her famiiy and his family told her) and stop beating her when he reached 40.  He did; now their grown children are berating the parents, mother included, for raising them in an atmosphere of constant fear and anxiety.  (They were "attached" it would seem). Another woman has recently found that her husband is seeing a 20-year-old woman.  At first his denials (being discrete, aka telling white lies, is almost on a par here with non-attachment) made her doubt her own sanity. Then she decided to become non-attached, and as she put it, just tie the whole thing up in one big bundle and throw it out.  She now lacks her former zest in her marital and professional life, and has psychosomatic symptoms.


The women I see, many of whom are in their 40's onward, speak of an angst-filled dilemma: not wanting to throw away all of those years of "trying to become unattached", or trying to be patient, bearing the cross, etc.; yet realizing that they are gradually losing  hope  of reaching such a high and distant peak of human perfection.  They want to just cut their losses and leave while they still can, but are faced with a profound sense of failure, not just in terms of the marriage, but in terms of life's spiritual journey. And we have all  heard of people who instead of becoming "unattached" become "dissociated" in the presence of abuse or neglect of the self.


Further, if I may digress to a related issue--because non-attachment is so highly valued, discretion is certainly also a value.  That is, because one is to non-attached, what worth would there be in thinking about, pondering, or discussing something so "attached" as say, emotional attachment?  Thus there is a shame and sense of failure for the client who even wants to bring up such a matter, although she may be drowning a sea of despair and guilt.


So, how do you know if "becoming unattached" is for you?  Do you have to wait a lifetime to find out if you have "the right stuff?" Alternately, is "giving up and giving in" to the mundane, going for a life of emotional fulfillment or even material success always  a low thing to do?

 What I am saying is that I sense a sort of conflict between what therapy tells us is the path of health, and what some spiritual traditions (which I greatly respect) point to as the Path.

 I don't mean in any way to sound facetious here or to make light of the very special goal of "non-attachment." And, I grant that I may have misunderstood it, as I have only seen its imperfect attempts, rather than its perfect ones.  I am asking, is it at odds with psychotherapy, even existential/humanistic, etc.? And what of all those/us spiritual wannabees who tire half way up the mountain and don't have a second life to live?

I hope that I have been able to be relatively clear and apologize if I have brought your discussion to a low level.  Nevertheless, I would most appreciate the response of the readers. In peace.





Dear Dr. J:


Thank you for your wonderfully thoughtful and concrete reflections on non-attachment and empowerment. I'd like to address your concerns in two parts: theoretical (the nature of non-attachment and empowerment) and practical (to what degree an individual can be expected to achieve either).




Your distinction between what for purposes of present discussion I'll call non-attached empowerment and self-actualized empowerment is very helpful. In principle, I don't see them as mutually exclusive, as you seem to imply. Instead, I see non-attachment as the ground and facilitator of self-actualization. The reason is that non-attachment derives from the experiential realization that we are a constantly evolving process. Attachment is fixation on a particular condition or state. It is therefore an illusion, since no condition or state lasts. Fixation also causes unnecessary suffering, since it interferes with the naturally evolving process that we are. Non-attachment, therefore, is not non-involvement with the world but facilitates self-actualization precisely by experiencing oneself as a constantly evolving process.


Opposing non-attachment and self-actualization is a Platonic view, if you will, where spiritual concerns are opposed to material ones. The view I'm proposing is Aristotelian, where spiritual concerns shape and enliven material ones. In the Buddhist tradition, the Hinayana parallels the Platonic, the Mahayana the Aristotelian. Relative to the Aristotelian view, the Platonic is at best an earlier stage of development and at worst a pathological reaction formation. Think of Maslow's dictum that to dichotomize is to pathologize.


In contrast to the Platonic dichotomy between non-attachment and self-actualization is the Aristotelian (or Incarnational or Mahayana) challenge to be involved in the world but not attached to any particular. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, told his followers to be in the world but not of it. See also my quote from the Bhagavad Gita in the original essay about acting but not being attached to results. I believe it was Xenephon who said that Socrates exemplified this ideal in being the rare individual who could know that he didn't know and yet be decisive in action. Augustine expressed this same state of mind when he recommended that we pray to God as if everything depended on God and act as if everything depended on us. Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer also comes to mind: “God, grant me / The serenity to accept the things I cannot change; / The courage to change the things I can; / The wisdom to know the difference.”




There is every reason for the unfortunate women you mention to do what they can to change their circumstances. Non-attachment does not tell them to accept their condition, but actually facilitates change by helping them see that their past is not necessarily prologue, since they are constantly evolving. Acceptance of unfortunate circumstances becomes appropriate only after they are certain that change is impossible.


The account that I have just given is too abstract for most people, particularly if they are under stress. But there are many homey bits of advice that intuitively convey the non-attachment that I'm talking about. Telling someone she can change if she just takes it one step at a time conveys the double truth that happiness is available to her now in realizing that her circumstances are not unalterable and in identifying what is currently under her control.


Finally, non-attachment is a matter of degree. Whether anyone has ever existed who is wholly non-attached, never fixating on anything, is for practical purposes irrelevant. The question for the women you mention (as it is for any of us) is whether they can find any resource within themselves that can change both themselves and their circumstances. The smallest possible first step is what we need to identify and encourage.