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On Objectifying Ourselves, Others, and the World

Once, while being facilitated, I suddenly saw that there was space where I’d always assumed my mind to be. My immediate response was laughter. Afterwards, I was struck by the fact that I’d believed in the solid existence of this ‘mind’ object, as if it was separate from me: me and my mind.

This basic split – me versus not me – lies at the heart of our sense of who we are. I’m me – the subject in here – and everything else is an object in my purview. I objectify everything that surrounds me, and proceed to relate to it all as if I am entirely separate. Our subject/object relationships can be the source of both pleasure and suffering. There are objects that I want but haven’t got; objects that I have and want to keep; objects that I have but don’t want; objects that are doing something pleasurable, disturbing, or painful to me.

We objectify everything; inanimate and animate physical objects, including other individuals or groups of people, as well as concepts and abstractions. Thus we effectively create objects, posit them outside ourselves, and proceed to relate to them from our subjective perspective. We also objectify our selves, our bodies, and parts of ourselves. We objectify ourselves as a particular thing: I’m a loser, or I’m a victim, or I’m a Lesbian. We divide ourselves even further, experiencing the subject/object dynamic internally as well as externally: I hate myself. I’m ashamed of myself. I’m proud of myself.  Operating within this terrain leaves us – as the subject – with no option but to attempt to manage and control all the objects that surround us as best we can.

Assuming that we know what someone or something is allows us to act accordingly. If I believe that you are worthless and undeserving, I will treat you as such, and vice versa. We see the dire consequences of objectification all around us; misunderstandings, online and offline bullying, sexual violence and abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and disablism in all their forms stem from that same root. In the extreme, war, ethnic cleansing and holocausts result; whole tribes or nations utterly de-humanised and objectified by those who see them as scapegoats, vermin, or worse.

While the majority of us do not act towards others with such a lack of humanity, it is humbling and instructive to inquire into our own patterns of objectification. Given that none of us are immune to cultural mores and pressures, we internalise numerous messages about how we – as objects – are supposed to be, and then judge ourselves according to how we measure up. Likewise, we judge those around us, attempting to change them to conform more closely to how we believe they should be.

Inquiring gives us the opportunity to look more closely at both subject and object. We can simply look for the object itself, and we can look for anything that we can name, so the possibilities are almost infinite: mother, father, son, daughter, wife, husband, lover, boss, guru, friend, the Republicans, the liberals, the rich, refugees, fundamentalist Christians, terrorists, my body, my mind, my ego, and so on. As we begin to look, we discover that our chosen object is made up of the elements of our experience of it, both in the mind – words and images – and in the body – sensations, emotions, and other types of feeling or sensory experiencing. As we look at or feel each element, we ask the simple question: is this X? A bodily response – be it emotion, feeling, or some unnameable contraction or sensation – gives us a yes, indicating that there is more to unfold.

As the looking continues, we begin to see how our experience of the object in question is inseparable from the object itself. When we see that our experience of it is not the object itself, and that the object cannot possibly be separate from our experience of it, the subject/object divide begins to dissolve. We’re then less prone to what Scott calls ‘outward pointing’ – finding fault or making judgements or criticisms about others, as if we’re objectively correct.

This isn’t to say that we no longer have opinions, or that we begin to tolerate bad behaviour or abuse from others. We’re simply freed from the illusion that objects exist out there entirely independently from us, and that they intrinsically are as we see them. And the objects are freed from having to be what we see them as, and can instead be what they are. This shift in perspective can create profound changes in our relationships.

Inquiring into abstract ideas is also liberating. Concepts such as love, trust, peace, truth, evil, God, enlightenment, and awakening can all be investigated. We tend to reify such concepts (a phenomenon known as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness), believing them to be solid and attainable objects that we are in possession of (or not). We use capitals to denote their solidity, referring to Truth or Peace or Love. We then measure our progress – or lack thereof – accordingly. I once worked with a client looking for the self who couldn’t reach his full potential. Once we’d looked for ‘potential’ and the whole concept had fallen apart, the self who couldn’t reach it became moot.

These investigations unfold in a way that’s utterly unique in each session. We can’t possibly foretell what we’ll discover, or what associations will emerge. We often find ourselves beyond the parameters of our existing knowledge, way beyond our beliefs. What we do know is that, after looking, we’re able to relate to the object in question – be it an abstract notion, a dearest loved one, or a bête noire – with more lightness, in the knowledge that it is far more – and far less – than we’ve believed it to be.

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