Field Notes

Hell is Other People

September 29, 2018 - 4 Comments

This statement comes from No Exit, a play by the French existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. The meaning of this line is in reference to the loss of subjectivity based from the loss of freedom that occurs in relationship with others that involves being subjected to their approval/disapproval. Of course, this is not merely a philosophical proposition. Everyone has had such experience in their relationships, from the earliest moment of child-parent bonding to adult pair bonding, as well as in school, at work, and multiple other environments. Building on Sartre’s line, I would like to comment on the internal dimension of unfreedom: hell is also the part within you and I that has experienced loss of freedom and has become marginalized, oppressed, depressed, and/or suppressed. When this happens, a dynamic of internal conflict is set up.
I suggest that developing what I call ‘psychological mindedness’ has great potential to be very helpful in understanding the above mentioned conditions of unfreedom. In particular, this understanding will help in seeing how a person from the earliest days of encounter with disempowerment is necessarily shaped into a personality configuration that favours survival and that is the best possibility to support coping, however unskillfully and often very understandably limited ways, with the ‘hell-is-other-people’ experience. What do I mean by this? It is not uncommon for people to see some behaviour, hear some comments from another person, and in general observe human beings doing what they do, and then name such behaviour or comments. In this process of naming, whatever is named very often becomes an essential and solid part of reality in consciousness, mine, yours, others, or any person so named. These ‘namings’ are the equivalent of diagnosis that is essentially a petrification. Some may call such naming, a judgment. What can happen next, insidiously, is perhaps the most terrifying part. The person is no longer a person in all his or her complexity, mystery, and unknownness. Rather, they have become a brief descriptor. Consequently, their humanity is diminished, and they become an object, not infrequently, an object of scorn, shame, and, even disgust.
Every one of us has a multiplicity of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. The configuration of these is an outcome of early and protracted experiences that cause contractions and expansions in the inner and behavioral worlds. To the extent early experiences are characterized by a lack of love, attunement, and attention, to that extent the small human beings – us and others as infants and children – instinctively go into survival and self-protection. Self-protection in the service of what? Kirk Schneider, in his book, Rediscovery of Awe (2004, Paragon House), names what is protected as the “soft core of being.”
Our survival requires belonging and love from those who are our caregivers and from the surrounding community, and when this is not available sufficiently, or is conditional, for a whole variety of reasons, small beings do their best to bend and squeeze themselves into a shape that will ‘work.’ Within a context of survival threats, the protective layer, otherwise know as personality or egoic structures harden and becomes aggressive and/or retreats, and the soft core slides ever so quietly into the Shadows; that is into the unconscious, outside of awareness, and this soft core suffers bruising and damage. The egoic structures in their way are now working hard to obtain whatever love and belonging is available. This is the price and outcome of the inevitable unfreedom that develops.
What I described above takes place over time insidiously in the consciousness of the developing human being. Eventually you and I grow up with the personality and the multiple sub-personalities that every one of us has that is the outgrowth of these earliest experiences. These sub-personalities can be uncovered by noticing the manifestation and configuration of behaviors, thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and the manifestation of life energy.
An example: a person is self-critical. He or she has thoughts such as, “that was stupid,” “you’re an idiot,” and so on, all directed at themselves. A close look reveals that there are two sub-identities in action here. One identity is the critic. The other is the recipient of the criticism. These inner selves have a troubled, even tortuous, and repetitive relationship.
It is possible to identify yourself with each part (begin to own the disowned part) and ‘hydrate’ the identity and discover what it is like to be that ‘sub-person;’ and to discover what is the intent, the experience of being this identity in an expanded and multi-dimensional way, and the contributing personal history. Eventually, a dialogue can be developed between the sub-identities. It is possible for them to develop a better connection, to understand each other, and to work together. The uncovering of the personal history that led to their emergence and development can be recovered from the Shadows. Subsequent liberation of a little more life energy is a welcome outcome. What I am offering here is just a very brief summary of a complex, and likely lengthy, process of inner work.
The Hell that is ‘us’ can be redeemed, and have profound benefit in dealing with the Hell that is other people, and most likely will increase the likelihood of reducing our own potential for being this Hell for others.
No matter what the art, the most important thing is to establish who you really are. That is, move from the ego-centered self to the absolute self.
-Awa Kenzo from Stevens, J., (2007). Zen bow, zen arrow: The life and teachings of Awa Kenzo, the archery master from Zen in the art of Archery. Boston MA: Shambhala.
Ego-centered here, doubtless, does not refer to the usual use of this term; rather is referencing the egoic structures that are formed in the service of survival of the soft core. The absolute self refers to the soft core, and its manifestation as life force energy, and its most authentic and truest creative and fully alive expression through fluid, flexible, ego-structures that are natural and responsive outcomes to inner urgings and contextual atmosphere and context, and are characterized by consciousness, presence, and a felt sense of aliveness.


  • julia October 1, 2018 at 11:17 am

    Thank you Avraham, a helpful and interesting perspective. The awareness and “knowing” of the selves starts a process leading to greater comfort, relationship and balance with “our-selves” and others.

    • Avraham Cohen October 1, 2018 at 7:44 pm

      Thanks for your comment Julia, and I certainly agree with you. In my view inner world relationships are reflective of outer world relationships, and of course the converse also holds. the development of cohesive and alive inner relationships is initiatory of similar relationships with the outer world, and particularly with those who are most significant for us.

      • Avraham Cohen October 2, 2018 at 6:19 pm

        Hi Ryan, thank you for your comment, which certainly captures the essence of the Field Note. Of course, each of us doing our own inner work with all our sub-self identities, and integrating the alienated parts of ourselves is central to development of cohesive, ethical, caring, and connected relationships with ourselves and with all the ‘others.’

  • Ryan leiderman October 2, 2018 at 2:17 am

    Thank you for sharing, Avraham.

    Why do some trigger a hellish experience for person A and not person B? Moreover, why does that same person A relive this hellish experience with so many people they come in contact with (nobody values me, everyone is an idiot). Certainly there is a lot of stupidity and lack of respect in the world, but person A, in particular, can’t bear it or perhaps remain in relationships where it occurs “excessively”.

    A child takes on sub-identities from caregivers, which then battle between themselves in perpetuity, and their owner becomes uniquely sensitive to those battles/insults in the external world. Practitioners can hold awareness of this internal war as a way to soften the blow of external hell, and even find gratitude in external combatants by reframing them as reminders to be more gentle to their sub-identities.