At Arm’s Length

I haven’t seen him in a while, but I think of him often when my car rolls up to the intersection. His response to my arriving had been a gentle reminder to pay attention, to turn attention inward to illuminate the self.

The unfolding was predictable. I would arrive at the corner in my car at 5:50 a.m., just as he would walk in front of me in the cross walk. He would raise his arm, palm open in the universal signal that means stop. Presumably, it was an attempt to protect himself from harm—make sure that I see him and that I don’t drive into him. Even though the pattern was set, every once in a while I would feel offended. What a surprise! Sensations and ideas would arise based on the attachment to a “self.” Ideas such as, “Doesn’t he trust me yet? Doesn’t he recognize my car and know that I am a careful driver? Can’t he see I’m already stopped?”

This is defending identity—living at arm’s length.

In sports, when a team plays offense the opposing team plays defense. Likewise, in our ordinary understanding of a day’s events, we often interpret the actions of “other” as directed toward us. The feeling we know as taking offense transforms into self defense—a need to defend our identity.

This is how we live when we assume we are someone in particular. When we engage the game of duality, we see life as a series of events taking place in relation to me and opposed to me. Each encounter, each instance is evaluated relative to our preference, pleasure, or entitlement. We live with an unrecognized comment, “Stop assuming something about me that does not match who I am!”

This is living life at arm’s length.

But who am I exactly? Believing that we are independent, persistent beings living within a life of externals, we have removed ourselves from wholeness—the full, undifferentiated expression of reality that is ever tumbling out of itself. The belief in persistence is bolstered, sustained by a narrative which has been stored and recomposed as necessary in order to make ourselves comfortable in this world of “externals.” We carry on believing our narrative to be ultimately true including the characterizations of “self” and each instance of “other.” To protect the narrative, we react to life’s arising by guarding against it. We turn away from life as it calls to us, because we are afraid of being wrong. We don’t want to be wrong about how we’ve put ourselves and the world together. What we think is comfort is really pain.

We risk losing our reputation, so we act to defend it. We risk losing our life, so our actions are to defend it. We risk losing control, so we build an identity and defend it. In all this defending, we block what really matters. We miss our one chance to live this life NOW. We miss the opportunity to know another as ourselves, to see that everything we meet is us. We miss the opportunity to be present and available when our children or our parents want our attention, when the task at hand wants our attention. All because we don’t want to get hurt.

But real pain is that which occurs when we separate ourselves from the full, undifferentiated expression of reality. We attempt to alleviate the pain by accumulating some perfect combination of “things.” Will satisfaction come with the perfect relationship, the most fulfilling job, a family, an environmentally friendly car, a vibrant personality, the ideal body weight? All these are only temporary. These conditioned states are impermanent. They cannot satisfy because the world is always changing, and the actions that bloom out of this self-protection radiate and perpetuate pain. The ripples cannot reverse course.

The practice of awareness is to see that we’ve gathered sensations occurring NOW and interpreted and identified the gathering as me. This fabrication can vanish—be forgotten—simply by seeing through … finding nothing substantial in the activity of interpreting. Freedom is found in this way of knowing. There’s nothing to defend and the full expression of life is no longer hindered by interpretation.

A man in a cross walk raises his arm to feel safe. Living at arm’s length, I do the same. Confused, I seek comfort by attempting to keep the world “in its place.” Self/other, offense/defense… this is dualistic understanding. See the fluidity and insubstantiality of definitions and characterizations, and the world is known and actualized as undifferentiated wholeness. Security is found. Whatever we “meet” is our own life met with tenderness.

© Bev Forsman and Letters from Emptiness, 2010–2013. If you share this material, please include direction to the original content. Thank you.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “At Arm’s Length

  1. Joe Duffey

    I really like the analogy of the crossing guard in how we not only protect our egos by creating a barrier “at arms length”, but how our own ego bristles to such gestures by others (how dare they do that…to me!). I can see this game playing out both ways in my own mind.

    When you say “to see that everything we meet is us”, would it be correct then to say, that if “everything” is “us”, there can be no other, and without an other, there can be no “us”?

    I really enjoy reading your blog, and appreciate the time you put in to it!

    Thanks!
    Joe Duffey

    • Thanks Joe,

      Your question and phrase may be “correct,” but if you are wondering … if you have to ask … then the question is based on the intellect. Any answer or phrase can become an idea to settle upon, perpetuating hindrance.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Love how you’ve tenderly “captured” a fleeting reaction and personal insight so that it’s narrow beam can illuminate the whole dharma Bev. Is it knowing you will let it go again that makes it so powerful? Oh, but his too is the teaching. Touched me to the core.