It’s a fairly predictable human trait, the urge to attribute good things to oneself, and bad things to other people, or ‘the situation’. When a close friend lets us down (there’s a blaming phrase already!), we allow ourselves to be disappointed with them. But when we let a close friend down, we are likely to be full of reasons why we did so. ‘I was anxious,’ we might say. Or ‘I was depressed.’ ‘It was my illness.’ ‘It was just that events got in the way.’
There are many reasons for this bias. Among them are:
- Protection of self-esteem: it temporarily lightens the burden of personal guilt if we can switch the blame to others
- For evolutionary purposes, we needed to detect potential damage from other beings. So it’s not surprising that we’re sensitised towards assuming that others may have bad intentions and motivations
- Social positioning: in families and societies, we are culturally rewarded for staying out of trouble. We are thus incentivised to do a good PR job on promoting ourselves (and maybe demoting others!)
Unfortunately, spiritually and in terms of mental health, this blaming habit can damage us. The combative nature of blaming means that, in such social interactions, stress hormones are more likely to predominate. We all know what it is like to be with someone we trust to be supportive. We feel restful, and protected. But where there is mutual blaming, we start to feel anxious and on edge. The hormones associated with this more negative state are more likely to give us problems with our heart, our circulation, and our immune system.
Cognitively, too, there are disadvantages to the blaming habit. If we develop the habit of blaming others (which is a form of bias or distortion), then we warp our cognitive understanding of the world around us. We start to see life as ‘saintly me surrounded by horrible enemies’. Everything gets interpreted in a particular way. We spend all our intellectual energy reinforcing the illusion of ‘saintly me’, or the illusion of ‘horrible others’. It’s exhausting, and it’s not surprising that we can end up with anxiety or depression.
Several meditations are designed to counteract this distortion. In Buddhist thinking, for instance, the illusion of self-prioritising is regarded as one of the most damaging. Meditations that can reverse this illusory bias are highly valued. For example, meditation on emptiness is partly designed to break up our senseless belief in a ‘self’ that is somehow separate from ‘others’. The theory is that, when we really think about it, there is no ‘self’, and there is no ‘other’ – both are illusions. If we stop this mad belief in difference, then we can see the world more clearly, without needing to position ourselves as saint and others as sinners.
When we make it someone else’s fault, we are indulging in a pointless illusion which is likely to cause illness in us. Our mental health is likely to be poorer, as well as our physical health. Of course, if the habit is ingrained, then we will even blame that consequential illness on others, and so the cycle will continue. We get more and more angry and isolated in a descending spiral.
How much better it could be, if we attain a state of mind where we don’t need to blame anyone for anything. We can still hold people accountable when we need to. But, when we stop blaming, we free up mental space. We feel more free. Stress hormones lose their hold on us. Our relationships are likely to improve. We can enjoy the universe without the limiting need to be always positioning ourselves socially.
Just for today, perhaps let’s lose our idea of separateness, and allow ourselves to be immersed in the universe. When we think about it, there is no real difference between self and other, between the individual and the universe. One cannot exist without the other. All separation is illusion, and we are part of everything.