The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary 2012: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Our Spiritual Life Part V: Martin Buber's Great Gift to Us


For my continuing experiment with writing about spirituality and HSPs, I am offering you a bit of Martin Buber. I want to be clear, however, that whatever I write, here or elsewhere, I hope I do not seem to advocate a particular path. If I do so unconsciously, obviously you should ignore me and think for yourself!

This is long, but dividing it into two parts doesn't work. There are section heads so you can always scroll to what interests you. Also, long as this may be, it is a limited discussion of Buber; if you find yourself disagreeing with him on some points, you might want to read him yourself, as the problem could be only how I have expressed them.

Most of this is taken from his landmark book, I-Thou (translated by Walter Kaufman; all page numbers refer to the Touchstone paperback unless otherwise noted). The rest comes from the first piece, "Dialogue," in Between Man and Man (translated by Maurice Friedman), a collection of pieces for the purpose of "filling out and applying" (p. ix) I-Thou.

Two Grumps and a Yogi

Ironically, the three men who have thus far most influenced my spirituality--Jung, Buber, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi--were in open dispute (Jung and Buber) or would have dismissed each other's ideas (both Jung and Buber would have disapproved of Maharishi and he would have politely said their ideas are "fulfilled" by his own). More immediately, Buber would have highly disapproved of my last issue's discussion of ally work, partially based on Jung's methods. Buber saw the immersion in inner experiences as leading away from all that is most spiritual.

Yet these three have so much in common. Like many, they were affected by the evil of the World Wars and the failure of organized religion (and God) to prevent it. But they could not give up on spirituality. All three devoted their lives to finding another, more direct experience of what most of us hunger for. All three paths have their validity, to me. Indeed, I do not think it is a matter of choosing. To me, all three are essential (and perhaps for you, others instead).

Buber the Obscure, Buber the Clear--It May All Be About Temperament

Buber wanted us to be conscious of the portals to the sacred all around us, and that, in my opinion, may be especially available to HSPs. These occur during those moments when we enter a certain state of mind with another, not by ourselves alone. These moments are the essence of our humanness and, equally, of the divine. Indeed he thought even an atheist would know God through enough I-Thou experiences. Without these moments we are simply spiritually dead. Not really human. That is what Buber made clear. But he is much richer than that.

Most people know something about Martin Buber's famous book, I-Thou, to the point that just bringing it up can feel trite. When I was in college, everyone read I-Thou, along with Herman Hesse, Jung, and Eastern psychology. He was cool. He seemed to say that human relationships were a sacred source of ecstasy (even without the drug). I think that when people found this almost impossible to achieve or took his ideas too simply or in a sixties-extreme way, they put Buber aside. On the other hand, he has been taken up and assimilated by Protestant clergy (even though Buber was Jewish), academic theologians (even though he disdained theology), and non-cognitive-behavioral psychotherapists (even though he thought I-Thou could not occur in psychotherapy).

The truth is that Buber is no romantic--he wants us thoroughly in the world. True, I-Thou is so obscurely written that it seems almost mystical, and the "Thou" in the title adds to the impression that this is about transcendence. According to the translator Walter Kauffman, however, plain old I-You is what he really meant. Buber used the German word Du, the familiar form of second person that one uses with intimates. We do not have the formal versus familiar distinction in English. When we teach any language that does, we make the familiar "thou," also used in the King James Translation of the Bible. So at the outset, a strict translation of thou for Du implies something formal and distant, not at all what he meant. It is particularly important to bear this in mind when he speaks of the I-You relationship with God.

Kauffman found the translation difficult because the text can be obscure. Buber himself said near the end of his life that, rereading I-Thou, even he wasn't always sure what he had meant. He knew, however, that he had been very sure of what he meant when he wrote it. Thus he feared that changing it to make it clearer might obscure the truth that he had felt so sure of at that time.

I think most HSPs will not find Buber obscure, because HSPs generally long for the deep connection Buber describes and have found it at least for moments. Having had the experience allows our intuition to grasp his meaning when our thinking does not. Further, Kauffman makes the important point that you want to read this book in a Buber-esque way, experiencing the man behind the words who is entreating us. Those who heard him speak found him to be a dreadful lecturer who read head down from long manuscripts.

However, once he began answering questions, the room became electric. He embodied his words. He encountered every inquirer with his full self. Imagine that as you read and he will not seem obscure. Buber was not talking about some distant spiritual ecstasy, but something grounded in our interactions with actual people. This actuality, however, is a pure form of the most basic law of life, which is relationship. Connection. If you like, love.

The First Law of the Universe is Connection

Buber does not say the following explicitly, but I think it fits. If you adhere to the usual theory of life's origins, it began with the Big Bang, as matter exploded out and then fell back into itself, creating huge further supernova explosions. Inside of these, basic particles and elements fused to make more complex elements. When conditions were right, clouds of these molecules came together to become stars and the planets connected to them.

On our planet, and probably others, the conditions were right for even more complex molecules to come together and have the particular chemical reactions characteristic of life. These took on different characteristics inside a membrane, making them one-celled organisms, some of which cooperated together within larger organisms. Some organisms, such as some fish, birds, and insects, and all mammals, live together in social groups. "Fused," "came together," "cooperated," "lived together"--it's all about connection. As Buber puts it, "We live in the current of universal reciprocity" (p. 67).

A Longing for Connection

For mammals, the big step was the mother staying around to rear her young--the mother-child relationship. According to Buber, that is the big step for all of us. Our first experience with I-You is in our mother's womb. When we are born, we begin our truly reciprocal relationship with her and with all the objects around us. The important point to Buber, verified by psychology's latest understanding of infants: We are born ready to relate, which gives rise not just to knowledge of social relationships, but all knowledge, all thinking, all speech--everything--builds on the initial "scaffolding of give and take" between mother and child. If everything is going reasonably well, mother and child are over and over immersed in a pure I-You relationship.

Throughout our lives we yearn to have this again. Buber says this is no regressive, Freudian desire "to return to the womb," but the unfolding of our human nature, as it grows towards the full I-You experience, which ultimately is the true You of God. But this is not your ordinary God, as will become clear.

What is this "I-You"?

Buber begins with what it is not. I-You moments are those in which you cease to be in an I-It relationship with the other. You cease observing the other as an object, analyzing him or her, or using him or her. Neither do you merge with the other in I-You. Rather, a relationship dawns that is neither you nor the other, but a third that arises from it. If you are receptive. In this you must be both passive and active. You must be alert for when someone has "something to say" to you, in the sense of this person bringing some part of your destiny to you. You must be open. But important for HSPs, Buber does not mean that you have to be open all the time or to everyone. I-You is not a duty or responsibility to do something for anyone who crosses your path. As an HSP, I have developed an image of a zipper on my heart--I open my heart when I am ready to relate deeply.

Again, this is entirely about a reciprocal relationship with another, not an experience inside of you only. This is true, even if you cannot speak to the other. Indeed, speech tends to dissolve such moments, because by its nature, speech tends to break things down into bits that fit words. Still, I-You can always return.

I-You is a moment of pure exclusivity. Your You is nothing but that. There are no parts. Your You "fills the firmament, not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light" P. 59. Your You is not in any "Sometime and Somewhere." You can place this person somewhere over and over, and must at times, but this changes I-You to I-It.

He emphasizes that I-You is not a feeling. Feelings are always shifting and discreet. It is not a metaphor in the sense that he doesn't really quite mean all of what he is saying. It is close to "love," but not the sort of love when something or someone is the object of love. Nor is it a love of all humankind. All of that is I-It. Rather it is entering a state of love with a particular other. This is not romantic necessarily (often romance interferes), but has been co-created with the person you have turned to and who has turned to you (although Kauffman thinks it can happen in writing as well--I'm less sure of that).

Again, this love is clearer when Buber speaks of its opposite, hate. He says that hatred is blind, in that we never hate the whole person, but only a part. If we knew the whole person, we could not hate that person. "Whoever sees a whole being and must reject it, is no longer in the dominion of hatred but in the human limitation of the capacity to say You" (p. 68). Still, whoever hates directly is closer to I-You than those who are without either love or hate.

The I-It relationship and the entire "It" world are essential. By necessity we are in it most of the time, analyzing, utilizing, describing parts, remembering, and so forth. The I-You breaks through now and then, but it can never stay. This is the melancholy fate of humans. Our You must go back to being an It. The You is an actuality for a few moments, but between times it is there as a latency. As we experience it over and over with someone, we come to have faith in the latent reality of I-You with that person. In attachment terms, we are secure. This can spread to other relationships, and eventually it is something we can have with any being. Not that we always have to.

Again, the I-It world is essential to human life, but if that is all we have, Buber says we are not really being a human. Many people think they are fine in their entirely I-It world. It provides the things we need plus stimulation, entertainment, and relationships of an I-It sort. But the person only living in the It world will wake in the night, terrified by his or her alienation. To Buber, the spiritual life these days is "scattered, weakened, degenerate" (p. 100) because it lacks I-You encounters.

The First of the Three Spheres of I-You

Buber says there are three worlds in which we experience I-You. One is with plants and animals, in which we must play the larger role. To Buber, no matter which creature you approach, you can always reach being--HSPs know this well about plants and animals. Perhaps your first I-You experience was with an animal. Buber's was. When he was 11, it occurred while immersed in grooming and petting his favorite horse. As he did this he felt the reciprocity between them--until one day when he "reflected" on it and felt the horse become an It for him. After that he felt the horse lost interest in him.

He speaks eloquently of the potential for an I-You experience with a tree, once we stop naming it, comparing it, admiring it, using it, or analyzing parts of it. We do not have to stop thinking in any of these ways so much as encounter the tree itself as well. We do not entirely cause the moment, however. The tree "must deal with me as I must deal with it--only differently" (p. 58). It has also entered the relationship. To the question, does this mean a tree has consciousness? Buber responds "must you again divide the indivisible?" (p. 59).

One day I sat for about an hour by a forest stream amidst many trees, thinking almost nothing. For a while my eyes were closed, somehow making me even more aware of my surroundings. When I opened my eyes, I sensed I had entered a new relationship with all of the nearby trees. It seemed that they had opened to me because I had stayed around long enough to sense their slow thoughts, which I had sensed in my mind as myself having almost no thoughts. I had to be aware, present, or receptive to have this I-You experience. It was just how I was that day, a choice that was more like a mood. I sensed that the trees also had a choice/mood about being receptive to me.

The Second Sphere, Humans

The second sphere of I-You is with humans, of course. Here we can engage in speech, what he says is a sometimes torturous yet invaluable trail to I-You. It begins when two people have truly turned towards each other and make the basic connection, of which I-You is the basic word, according to Buber.

In Between Man and Man he describes two men sharing a seat on a train. The first is receptive, present, just by nature. The second is usually barricaded away from others. But for some reason the second man feels the first man's receptivity and opens to him. In that rare moment for the one and more common moment for the other, the men are in an I-You relationship without ever speaking. "Unreservedly communication streams from him, and the silence bears it to his neighbor" ("Dialogue," p. 4). Even stranger, both do not have to know consciously what has happened, "for You is more than It knows" (p. 60). They are experiencing that basic word, "the cradle of actual life," meaning, I think, that this is parallel to what happens for infants or even mothers. They may not "know" when they are in the I-You relationship, but that does not change that it has happened.

Buber insists that even a wordless exchange is not something mystical, but fact. It is just how we are. It reminds me of the idea, common now, that the essential healing in psychotherapy has nothing to do with interpretations or suggestions, but occurs through right-brain to right-brain communication that requires presence but not always speech. He sees it as something unpretentious, which can occur between strangers as they pass each other on the street without stopping. These moments are not "charged with destiny" but simply "reveal to one another two dialogical natures" ("Dialogue," p. 6).

Still, in most of his examples speech is involved. In that speech, however, one has in mind the other, the person at that moment, not past or future. Speech can convey information, or speech can really be monologue, in which each takes turns reporting something about themselves without really hearing or responding to the other. Buber is describing another kind of speech. I'm sure HSPs sense what he means.

A note to introverts. Buber does not emphasize quantity but quality. To be kind is a duty, but I-You is due only to friends, family, and intimates. Or, the I-You can be with someone you naturally encounter and who "says" something to you or means something to you, but more is not required. Buber speaks highly of solitude, that it can be "the place of purification" before entering "the holy of holies" (p. 152). It can be a sanctuary where we return after our unavoidable failures, before we try again. Solitude is necessary to individuate, as there can be no I-You without a real I. He warns, however, that solitude can become an escape from true life when we only use it to have inner experiences that replace actual ones, such as finding God within us. Buber maintains that this is not really spirituality. Here Jung and Maharishi would greatly disagree with him, but that is another story.

Sphere Three: Buber on God

The third sphere in which I-You occurs, according to Buber, is with the ultimate You. "Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You" (p. 123). Every living You is a glimpse of that greater You who makes I-You possible. Buber says that we naturally try to make God an object, an I-It in order to own God and make God the constant presence that we think we need. But once we have made God a possession, we have ceased to experience the essence of the unnameable and must have faith, which then substitutes for acts of I-You, sometimes replacing them altogether and leaving spirituality empty.

Although theologians have loved Buber, he is anything but kind about organized religion and its dogmas. He says no one can define God or even speak about God, only do God. All the rest gets in the way of the true I-You experience of God's presence. He calls this the return, the turning again to be present in this relationship. Nothing at all can stand, or should try to stand, between a person and that return.

This return, however, is not necessarily in the form of a prayer dialogue. It is essentially wordless. But whenever we try to address God, to turn towards God, the true You does appear whether we know it or not. This you "cannot be restricted by any other" and "stands in a relationship that includes all others" (p. 124). However--and this is important--an atheist who hates the name of God and never address God, but "addresses with his whole devoted being the You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other, he addresses God" (p. 124). With enough I-You experiences, that person cannot help but come to know God.

To Buber, spirit is a response, a kind of language. "It is solely by virtue of his power to relate that man is able to live in the spirit" (p. 89). In a similar way to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, Buber insists that spirituality occurs in the present moment, but the similarity stops there. There is no spirit in a moment that is immersed in one's own experience or even the It of pure experience. Buber is clearly, ardently a dualist. Not the dualist of body versus spirit or down below and up above. He believes all spirituality happens right here, in the body-mind-spirit, but always between two beings.

Buber analyzes carefully the alternative, the experience of unity, of feeling that one has expanded to include everything or that one is really nothing but a part of everything. He calls this a gigantic illusion. So much for Buddhism and most other mystical traditions. (I don't agree with him here--I think there is a way to reconcile them, but another time.) When he writes about Buddha, he actually agrees with a great deal, until it comes to the desire to escape suffering by escaping the cycle of reincarnation. If reincarnation exists, Buber says, we ought not to seek to escape it. We should desire "the chance to speak in every existence, in its appropriate manner and language, the eternal I of the destructible and the eternal You of the indestructible" (p. 139).

Buber's Life

There is nothing more annoying to me than reducing a person's ideas to nothing but the result of certain childhood experiences. This is truly I-It. On the other hand, when these experiences have directed a person towards a path that he or she has followed with great personal integrity, choosing to pursue it for the sake of all of us, then I think the emotional history behind that can be worth talking about, if only to hearten others with similar experiences.

I have to say that I felt vindicated regarding what I said in an earlier issue (Spirituality Part III) about attachment as a lens for spiritual experience. Buber was abandoned by his mother and father, who separated when he was three. He learned later from a playmate that his mother had left him for a life in the theater (to him that would be a purely I-It life). At age 33, he met her one more time, on a balcony, and it was definitely not an I-You experience. He confessed later that gazing into her beautiful blue eyes "I suspect that all that I have learned about genuine meeting in the course of my life has its origin in that hour on the balcony," when the most essential I-You, of mother and child, once again failed to take place.

He seemed to be driven to have no one around him to receive from him a similar experience of non-meeting. His I-You to I-It moment with the horse may have reflected his assumption, typical of children, that it was his fault with his mother, too--that one misstep can lead to abandonment. This is certainly the type of childhood one might expect of someone who makes the intimate dyad not only the greatest beauty of human life, but sees the divine there as well.

Buber was raised by his grandparents, who were apparently not very warm to him. At 14, he began living with his father but was depressed. He found solace in reading philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant. Apparently he also found a spiritual path that led him to be immersed in private "religious" experiences, during which, he reports, his daily reality was pierced and he unexpectedly entered something mysterious, which eventually led to something still greater, a light that pierced the mystery. Time and sense of self were gone. He was immersed in what we could call "pure awareness." Buber was having experiences of what Maharishi and most Eastern traditions would call higher states of consciousness.

Buber's Conversion

Then came his "conversion," as he described in "Dialogue." He already met daily with people who sought him out for advice, but one day a young man he had never met before came to him. Buber "conversed attentively and openly with him" (p. 16, Dialogue), but failed to guess the other's despair and the questions brought to him and not asked, about why one should go on living. The young man died soon after (not by suicide, but by returning to the war front).

Buber was stunned by his failure to offer a "presence" that would convey that there is indeed meaning in life. After that day he gave up anything that distracted him from the present moment of responsibility to "know who speaks and demands a response" (p. 16, Dialogue). He was converted to the view that it is wrong to interfere with the "temporality" of life by seeking what lies beyond that. To Buber, we are living in time and moving towards death, and we should seek the "religious" only in daily life with one another.

Again perhaps we are seeing the shadow of his mother's abandonment and his determination never to do that to another by being preoccupied with the private glory of a role in some otherworldly theater of the eternal.

Maharishi, however, speaking from the eastern traditions, would have said that Buber's inner experiences were essential, in that they had readied him for the task he had taken up, and that Buber had passed into a still higher state, one involving a consciousness of the divine in everything.

This resonates with the very next section after his story of conversion, in which he takes up the question of "Who Speaks?" He answers that in the constant signs of our lives we are addressed by God, but we can use that term only if we have had a "decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of God...and were plunged into the night... When we rise out of it into the new life and there begin to receive the signs" we can only know who gives them to us from these experiences. We have from time to time the signs, the indicator of who has given them. "If we name the giver of these signs God, then it is always the God of a moment, a moment God" (p. 17 of Dialogue). He likens this path to God through signs to reading a person's poetry until eventually, by that means and no other, we know the poet.

Buber and HSPs

I will not offer some bottom line about what HSPs can learn from Martin Buber. He will speak to each of you in different ways or not at all. But it is worth imagining him in front of you, telling you all of this, or perhaps him saying nothing and you sensing its truth simply from his presence. He is offering a spiritual path that is available to us every day, although perhaps requiring more inner development than he realized, having come by that before his conversion. I-You may not be the whole story, but it seems to be a grace-filled way to make our daily interactions more sacred, less careless and unconscious.

What I receive from Buber is that we humans are capable of a depth of encounter that we rarely achieve with each other. During this period when humans and our planet are going through the obvious transformations that now are speeding up, the pressure is on us as never before to evolve (not genetically but culturally) new ways of being human. At the same time we need to find hope and sanctuary in one another.

To be such a sanctuary, we need to be able to sense when someone has come to us needing a response from our deepest selves, perhaps merely our presence. To find such a sanctuary when we need it, we need to sense when someone else is ready to receive us (and when someone is not ready). HSPs are especially capable of this receptivity. With Buber as your mentor, your capacity for I-You encounters could be one of your most significant gifts to the world as well as to yourself.


February 2012 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: HSPs and Pain
HSPs and Parenting: Dear Highly Sensitive Parents (and Grandparents): A Request
Our Spiritual Life: Martin Buber's Great Gift to Us


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

February 2012 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Coping Corner: HSPs and Pain

HSPs and Parenting: Dear Highly Sensitive Parents (and Grandparents): A Request for Help

Our Spiritual Life: Martin Buber's Great Gift to Us



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