posttitle = The Parable of the Canoe 🛶 titleClass =short len =29

The Parable of the Canoe 🛶

Suppose you and I are out having a canoe trip. We’re spending the day out, and won’t be back for hours. Suppose there’s a surprise wave or gust of wind and… you drop your sandwich in the water. Now we only have one sandwich between us, and no other food.

If we were in this situation, I’d want you to have half of my sandwich.

an AI-generated painting depicting the scene just described

That wouldn’t be a favour to you, or an obligation, or a compromise. I’d be happy to give you half my sandwich. It would be what I want. It would be what I want, under the circumstances. Neither of us wanted the circumstances of you having dropped your sandwich, but given that that happened, we’d want you to have half of mine.

Yes—this is more accurate: we would want you to have half of my sandwich.

However, this requires us having a We that’s capable of wanting things.

To explore this, let’s flip the roles—suppose it’s me who dropped my sandwich. I’m assuming that you feel the sense in which of course you’d want me to have some of yours. If you need to tweak the story in order to make that true, go for it. Eg maybe you wouldn’t if “I” dropped my sandwich but you would if say an animal ran off with it—not a version though where you lost my sandwich and you’re trying to make it up to me! That’s a very different thing.

So suppose my sandwich has been lost and your initial response is like “of course I’d want you to have half of mine”.

However… suppose that in response to this event, I’m kind of aggressive & entitled about the whole thing and I’m demanding some of your sandwich (or all of it, for that matter). My guess is that this would dramatically reduce the sense in which you would want to give some to me. You might anyway, from fear or obligation or conflict-avoidance or “wanting to be a good friend” or whatever, but it would no longer directly feel like “oh yeah of course I’d want that.” Part of why, is the breakdown of the sense of We that is implied by my demand—my demand enacts a world where what you want and what I want are at odds, which didn’t seem to be the case back when you felt that sharing the sandwich would be what you wanted. I seem to only care about my needs, not yours, thus I’m not caring about our needs, so it seems like you might get exploited or overdrawn if you try to open yourself towards my needs. (And by “seems”, I don’t at all mean to imply that this isn’t what’s happening—maybe it is! “If you give them an inch they’ll take a mile” is a real interpersonal pattern.)

On the contrary, suppose I get kind of… small, passive-aggressive. Suppose I’m acting like I absolutely am not worthy of any of your sandwich, or that I’d be in debt to you if I took any, or whatever. Now it seems like I’m only tracking your needs, not mine, which sort of puts you in a weird spot of being supposed to somehow figure out what’s best for us while I’m obscuring my actual needs. And this also disrupts the sense of We. But even though it seems generous, it’s (usually? always?) a different kind of manipulation—instead of trying to ensure I get some sandwich, I’m trying to ensure I don’t lose connection with you (even at the cost of sacrificing what I want). And again, it enacts a world where our needs are at odds. So again it makes it feel harder to access the clear sense of “of course I/we would want you to have half the sandwich”.

I use the canoe & sandwich parable because it seems like the simplest one in which the default stance of a lot of people would already be of a sense of “We”:

  • the situation is simple and clearly constrained… the sandwich-loser can’t just fend for themselves because there’s no other food around
  • it implies a minimum amount of camaraderie & goodwill such that we’re on a canoe trip together, but doesn’t imply any more committed relationship (which often comes both with expectations that we should feel a sense of We, resistance to doing so, and frustrations at typical patterns we’re sick of feeling stuck in)
  • there’s a shared purpose, and a shared fate (we can’t easily split up)
  • it’s an accident that could happen to anyone
  • it’s sort of costly but not in a permanent sense—we’ll both have plenty to eat when we get back

In particular, this situation seems to me like one where the sandwich-keeper is likely to feel a sense of We and desire to share before their friend even has to ask, so it doesn’t hinge too much on how they ask—which we’ve just seen has a huge self-fulfilling effect!

What does it look & feel like to ask in a We-oriented way though? It’s not really about the words that are used, but about the overall vibe of things. There’s no right way to do this—something that might sound spacious and inviting to one person might sound passive-aggressive to another or rude to a third. But there’s a real stance here, that works consistently when we can both/all trust the other(s) to be holding it.

So, by contrast with the entitled and anti-entitled stances I depicted above, here’s what I see going on with the We-oriented stance, under the hood (consciously or unconsciously). This is descriptive, not a thing I’m saying anyone should do.

As the person who lost my sandwich, I have a stance of a kind of openness and surrender. I orient to the We or the prospect of a We (not necessarily with those words) and reveal into the middle that (a) I’ve lost my sandwich and (b) I would still like to eat. I do this resting easefully in my trust that we will get me as much food as it makes sense for us to get me, in the context of caring for you as well. And that we will be able to make that decision together in a way that feels good for both of us. Then you feel that I’m also orienting to what you need/want and to the collective sense of things, and that makes it way easier for you to relax and open to me, and thereby way easier for us to actually get in sync on what we actually want. It gives us the best shot of creating that “We that’s capable of wanting things”.

But it doesn’t guarantee that! There’s no guarantee that I’ll get fed, and (whether or not I get fed) there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to get in sync. The lack of guarantee is part of what I’m referring to when I say “surrender”. But it’s not surrendering to you, it’s surrendering to the We. Surrendering not to the other, but to a larger whole that contains me.

We dynamics and why you can’t “just trust”

To be clear, there’s not just one whole in question. Not only are there many configurations of people, but for any given group of people, there are many ways to conceive of its wholeness, and the one you find will make a difference to whether you’ll be inclined to surrender (and what will happen if you do). For instance, conceiving of a family as a collection of roles and obligations will create a very different sense of how you might relate to it, than if you conceive of it as a bunch of related mammals who want to . Neither of these is correct—there is no correct lens. But, in context, there are frames in context that feel good and “work out” for those involved, and those that feel bad and create awful traps, and everything in between, on many axes. And you probably don’t want to open or surrender much with someone you’ve just met, or a parent who has consistently been very demanding.

And the thing I’m calling We (it may not be the best name) is not just about collective identity—lots of dysfunctional families or totalitarian states have plenty of that. It’s about some actual sense of there being a larger whole here that if I open to it will care for me. Not perfectly, but enough that I like it.

(In IFS terms, you could imagine the ideal We as being like the Self. If you don’t know what that means just keep reading.)

So one reason you can’t “just trust” is that part of the whole process involves negotiating the shared sense of what it even is that you’d be trusting!

But also… surrendering to a We is, naturally, harder to do the less present the sense of We feels, which means that the less I trust that you’re in touch with our sense of We, the harder it’ll be for me to be in touch with the We.

For instance, if I think you’ll probably hoard your sandwich in a way that denies/ignores/negates my need, or that you’ll self-sacrificially offer it to me while feeling resentful, then I have to do a lot more work to maintain the sense of there being a We. And even if I do, I may not be able to actually get in sync with you such that an obvious natural “of course” move appears for both of us together.

In some cases there’s an obvious and stable sense of “let’s not do this”. In other cases an obvious and stable sense of “yes, we’re orienting together”. But in other cases, on various scales, there are multiple attractors. And since my ability to access a We stance with you is profoundly affected by my trust in your ability to access a We stance with me…. there’s a natural self-reinforcing feedback loop here, that takes you further in whatever direction you’re going: We begets We, and separation begets separation. Trust begets trust and distrust begets distrust.

This creates a temptation to encourage (implicitly or explicitly) oneself or others to “just trust”. And this temptation is reinforced because sometimes an initial “just trusting” (ie “naive trust”) does sort of work, for a bit. And sometimes the fact that it works for a bit is enough to bootstrap non-naive trust via people experiencing their needs getting received by the group and orienting as a We to what makes sense. And this can create an upward spiral of increased trust.

But then suppose that later down the line, there’s some distrust. This distrust is in some sense new information. Ignoring your present distrust because you trusted before is as foolish as ignoring today’s thirst because you drank enough yesterday.

Having said that, there is some sense in which having a certain kind of background abundance can make it easier to explore doing something that feels a little risky. Fasting intentionally when you ate plenty the past week feels very different from running out of food. Being very cold a few minutes’ walk from home isn’t disturbing the way it would be on a long hike.

Relatedly, one thing that makes surrendering to a We easier is if I trust that even if I don’t get fed I’ll still survive. This isn’t true of all needs, but in this case it seems like a pretty damn good bet. And in most cases, where we’re not stuck in the same canoe, you can try surrendering to a We-you-hope-is-possible while also holding a sense of ease in knowing that if that doesn’t work you’ll just go off on your own and take care of yourself.

A different thing that makes it hard to surrender is a sense that my matteringness hinges on whether this need is met. That if I don’t get any sandwich, it means my desire for a sandwich doesn’t matter, or that I don’t matter. Do I trust that I still matter even if after surrendering to a We, we fail to get in sync and separate-you decides not to give me any sandwich?

And I may not trust that, in the sense that maybe I will end up telling myself that my needs don’t matter to the universe, if I can’t get them met with others in the way that I’m currently attempting to do.

But it turns out… this is false. The proof is self-evident: my needs matter to the universe because they matter to me and I am part of the universe. This is perhaps an underappreciated implication of nonduality.

The We is responsible

One frame that I’ve found really helpful for creating continuity between I and We is this:

I am responsible for taking care of myself (my needs, desires, etc).
We are responsible for taking care of my needs, desires etc.
But you are not. You might want to help, you might be able to help… or not.
But the We always wants to take care of me, and is free to do so, because I want to take care of me and am free to do so, and I’m part of the We.

And I will naturally gravitate towards whatever We’s seem most capable of taking care of me and of being taken care of by me. Wherever the best win-wins are to be found. Although insofar as I love a We I’m part of, I will also try to help it become a better We for me to be in, so I can happily remain in it.

This view (which I see as sort of self-evidently true, although it’s not always the most relevant way to view things) holds even if the group is kinda disconnected, or utterly incompetent, or even hostile, although of course in these cases I’ll be much more inclined to take care of my needs on my own. But taking care of myself on my own can still be done with a feeling that I’m doing so on behalf of the We. Put on your own oxygen mask first.

This view doesn’t require every group member to have lots of autonomous agency—I see it as being appropriate for a kid or even a newborn as well. There are many differences—I’m not denying the asymmetry—but everything I said above applies. The newborn is responsible for taking care of themselves. So is their We (the family, generally). But the other individuals (the parents) aren’t directly responsible for caring for the infant. The We is responsible, and any sane and attentive parents who are effectively orienting We-wise with their infant will encounter the obvious reality that the infant can’t feed themselves or change their own diaper, and will therefore take care of that, but there’s a difference between doing that as one individual for another, vs as an individual enacting the will of the We to care for the part of itself whose current main strategy for getting needs met is to fuss and cry and trust the We to figure out what’s wrong and deal with it. My infant isn’t crying to get my attention and love, it’s crying to get Our attention and love. It’s actually doing a perfect job of taking the We stance: it’s expressing its needs as best it can and trusting the We to care for it. (Not unlike how your limbs express pain so that your whole body can reorganize!) And part of how people in civilization learn we need to distrust the We is the reciprocal distrust and separation that occurs when our parents weren’t able to We with us.

And part of why parents do this is because they’re already in a stance of some separation (which is a confusion relative to this frame!) and so they hear the infant as crying for them and they—correctly, in this model—reject the idea that they, as an individual, have to take care of the infant. The We has to take care of the infant, and the infant will keep crying until either the We succeeds at taking care of the infant or the We convinces the infant that the crying strategy isn’t going to work. This disrupts development, since the crying strategy is basically their last resort at that point! (An earlier draft had “their only strategy”, but I’ve since come to the impression that there are often earlier kinds of communication than crying, although many parents find these hard to notice. I’m still a few months out from being a parent, though I’m looking forward to developing firsthand experiences of this!) At any age, this is part of what creates the sense of separation that the infant will tend to experience for the rest of their life.

Infants in some sense start with a naive We stance. But in another sense… human DNA encodes some priors that somewhat accurately say it’s appropriate to trust your family We to take care of you, which is the counterpart to the DNA that encodes human parents having powerful love for their kids and therefore desire to take care of them. This is actually some amount of non-naive. We’re not starting from zero trust.

(I’ve heard encouraging reports from various anthropologists, such as Richard Sorenson, that certain pre-civilization cultures that disappeared not that long ago, were quite capable of inhabiting this nondual We mode on a very deep level, but in a way that was disrupted on contact with colonial conquest-based cultures.)

The Paradox of Ego

I want to talk about ego, as the opposite of surrendering to the We.

Thus “ego” here refers to a strategy of trying to meet your own needs either while disregarding others’ needs or by manipulating them via their needs. Importantly, “ego” does not refer to someone caring for their own needs self-directedly while holding a sense of openness and surrender towards We-ness. Someone who is caring for their own needs while feeling the sense that by doing so they’re taking care of the larger We, isn’t exhibiting a personal “ego” in the sense I’m talking about it here.

If surrendering is so great, why don’t we do it all the time?

It seems to me that egos emerge in order to take care of our needs in contexts where we don’t trust the strategy of surrendering to the We. The paradox is that the presence of ego is often one of the main things in the way of the We being able to take care of our needs.

Some people conclude that each person simply needs to do their internal work to learn how to not operate from ego, whether that’s framed as awakening or trauma-healing or sovereignty or whatever. This is definitely one aspect that needs to happen, but what do we do in the meantime? How do we relate?

One meantime strategy is to try to actively deny collaboration with people who are using ego-based strategies, with the intention of creating learning pressure towards releasing the grip of the ego. This may get framed as “I don’t want to reinforce the strategy”.

To be clear, this is somewhat different from the natural inclination to coordinate with people you can coordinate well with! Obviously you want to do that, on every meta-level (eg it may include coordinating with people where you find coordination difficult but you can tell it’s a useful learning environment that you want.)

But if you’re actively trying to coordinate less with egoic structures, then what you’re reinforcing the discontinuity between the Self and the We, which IS reinforcing the ego, because the ego IS the discontinuity between the Self and the We.

Oops.


I wrote this post back in February 2023, and then it got lost in a giant mess of editing. And then I had some insights that gave me a new sense of the meaning of “ego”, which are written up in The superegos have gone crazy. I’m not sure if the meaning used in this post is compatible with that one. I think that when I published the superegos post, I would have said no, but my thinking has evolved even further since then and now I think it kinda does? 🙃

Also if you resonate with my writing as a vision for the quality of connection you want in your family, you might be interested in my Mating Dance course, which explores how to do non-naive trust-dancing throughout your courtship process, to lay a robust foundation for a sane We.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.



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