Saturday, July 9, 2011

I and Thou

The way in which humans relate to one another and to the world around them has always been of prime importance in spiritual tradition. The early 20th century philosopher Martin Buber ventured deeply into this issue in his theological classic, I and Thou.

According to Buber, human nature allows for two basic approaches to the world: I~Thou and I~It. In these terms, our relational nature is highlighted as subject and object merge to form a greater whole.

“There is no I taken in itself,” Buber writes, “but only the I of the primary word I~Thou and the I of the primary word I~It.” The I in each case is substantively different, as is the relationship that results.

When we approach life from an I~It mentality, we step into a world consisting of separate parts, each isolated from the others and from us. Setting aside a deeper connection, we travel over the surface of life, reducing the dazzling totality to a mechanism for fulfilling our own needs and desires.

However, when we begin from I~Thou, we stand on entirely different ground. “The relation to (a) Thou is direct,” Buber writes. “No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I and Thou.”

As an example, he suggests we look at a tree. I might classify it as a species, notice its structure, recognize the biological laws that govern its growth. All these are concepts that relegate the tree to an object separate from me.

I can, though, enter into relationship with the tree. Without losing or ignoring any of the attributes listed above, I can perceive this tree directly and wholly. In so doing, I am no longer looking at something outside myself. The tree has become Thou, and my I has been changed in the process.

The same, of course, occurs with our fellow humans. We can remain in the world of I~It, weaving a storyline from our previous contacts with them, or others like them, in which they have pleased or displeased us, met or not met our needs. Or we can approach our companions as Thou, and watch as something profound changes. When we enact I~Thou, time stops. We step out of our customary way of being and perceive what is, without bias or judgment. True relationship is achieved.

And something else occurs as well. “Every particular Thou,” Buber continues, “is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou…the Thou that by its nature cannot become It.” According to Buber, all efforts to define or explain the essential nature of God, as well as techniques to achieve particular spiritual states, arise from the realm of I~It. For a direct experience of God, it’s I~Thou we want.

“The world, lit by eternity, becomes fully present to him who approaches the Face,” Buber writes, “and to the Being of beings he can in a single response say Thou.”

When we live in I~Thou, we move toward what comes our way, openly and without preconception. We experience it wholly, within an authentic relationship.

So, I wake this morning with the intention to meet the day without bias. Despite my to~do lists and wishes, I will greet what comes my way as it is, with openness and welcome. And when I become distressed because life is not conforming to my expectations or I find myself grasping after an experience that pleases me, I will recognize that I have fallen once more into I~It thinking.

And with Thou on my lips, I will return to relationship with a world shot through with the light of eternity.

And to every one of you reading these words, I bow and utter a heart~felt "Thou".

Loanne Marie


monica wood said...

This is so beautiful. I have been inundated with company this week. What a reminder to slow down, not worry about the sheets being ironed, and just I-thou the hell out of the people who are entering my life. Thanks, Loanne. So timely, as always. xo

Loanne Marie said...

I~Thou the hell out of 'em? I LOVE it!

And I just gotta ask~~you WERE kidding about ironing those sheets, weren't you?

Thanks for writing~~and for reading.

Anonymous said...

I tried the I-Thou at tea today - it seemed to make the other person - a person. Does that make sense?

Loanne Marie said...

Oh, absolutely!!! You allowed your companion to be as she/he was, rather than some bit character in your own play. And in the process, you were changed, too, weren't you? Drinking tea with a Thou brought out your own Thou~ness, didn't it?

Not bad for a day's work. Congratulations! And thanks so much for writing.

Marilyn Cardone said...

Your essay made me think of this: Sometimes I disapprove of a friend or family member's choices; I judge their choices and get angry at them--for not conforming to what I think they should do/what I think is best. This causes me anger and frustration, and sometimes I convey my frustration to them. An I-Thou stance would respect the other person's right to make their own choices, including possible mistakes, and would assume a more humble position, i.e. that I don't know what is best for the other. Thanks, Loanne!

Loanne Marie said...

Oh, yeah! This stuff is so much easier in theory, isn't it?

I agree. When we react as you describe in the first instance, we have made that person into an "It" in our minds. We have ceased to see them as a person in their own right, but have made it all about us again. In the second instance, though, we recognize "Thou~ness." And tho I never thought of the word humility in this regard, it does seem to be a key. Thanks! Also awe. To see that person and their actions as the culmination of a multitude of influences that have spanned a lifetime~~or even the time of life on Earth~~now THERE'S something to inspire awe!

And besides, life is much more enjoyable this way. One of Buber's intentions in coining the two new compound words "I~Thou" and "I~It" was to stress that our "I" is much different, FEELS much different in each instance. And the "I" of "I~Thou" is infinitely more pleasing! More holy even.

Thanks so much for writing!

Loanne Marie said...

Me, again! I wanted to share a comment a friend made the other day about this issue. He distinguished between approaching someone with the THOUGHT of "Thou" versus truly FEELING and recognizing "Thou" on a heart level. I've been thinking about this ever since.

I think, on some days, holding the thought of "Thou" is about all we can do. And yet, we hope to more and more often be able to truly feel it is so. That is one way to look at the aim of all spiritual practice~~not just to act as we know we 'should', but to transform our way of being in the world. To allow our beliefs to move out of our head to be enacted spontaneously, from a deep sense of connection to our inner Selves and to the world around us. When we live in those moments, we are truly able to stand in awe of it all.

Thanks for this tidbit, my friend!

monica wood said...

Yes, I was definitely kidding about ironing the sheets. I was glad to come back here today, realizing how easy it is to forget our worthy intentions. I-Thou, I-Thou, I-Thou. I'd like to tattoo it on my hand.

Loanne Marie said...

Now there's a tattoo I could appreciate! And I'm quite glad about the sheet thing!!!

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Leia Marie