There is no self according to Martin Buber

A friend of mine often says she is lazy. She puts no judgement in it, no shame nor proud, it’s just a statement made by somebody who knows herself and is honest.

Yes, she is lazy. She can sit still half a day doing nothing, not even pretending she is meditating. She can talk on the phone for hours without any other purpose than to share everyday experiences. She can just be.

I’ve found that capacity irritating. But recently my body started giving very clear signals that efficiency is a double-edged sword. As I read on LinkedIn the other day: ”If you don’t make time for your wellness you will be forced to make time for your illness.” Resting is no longer a choice. Every day there are situations when I just have to put aside everything I’m doing. No writing, no watching videos, no reading, no knitting, no walking, no phone calls, no yoga.

Just being quiet, without even thinking of concrete targets.

During many years of meditating I’ve learned techniques for going into stillness. But these forced moments of letting go have a new dimension. In order to not get over-excited and stressed I turn my mind to reflecting on philosophical questions.

For example how Martin Buber (1878-1965) described communication between living beings.

Years ago Buber’s thesis that there is no self felt rather radical. Buber was an Austrian and Israeli philosopher who is most known for his philosophy of dialogue. It’s a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between two types of relationships: I-Thou (Ich-Du) and I-It (Ich-Es). His point was that everyone exists only in relationships, not as independent beings.

In the economy of sharing that’s not a radical idea anymore. We share, therefore we are. Also when I sit still and think about Buber’s philosophy (trying to avoid doing things) I’m in a relationship, sharing thoughts with him. Not thinking is impossible (until one reaches enlightenment, some would add).

In the book I and Thou (originally written 1923 in Deutsch: Ich und Du) Buber develops his thinking around the premise of existence as encounter and categorizes the relationships in two forms of word pairs:

The most common is the I-It relationship. This is how we usually treat each other; as objects to be used and experienced. We focus on how other people (and animals and nature and all other objects) can serve our interests as an individuals. These relationships keep us sane and make the world go around.

But imagine life as only a series of meetings like this? According to Buber they are not actually meetings, they are merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind. This relationship is a monologue, more of a relationship with oneself.

In the I-Thou relationship the mode of being is a dialogue that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. The two beings meet each other authentically, without objectification of each other. Buber stressed that this encounter lacks composition, it communicates no content or information – but it is real and perceivable. He gave examples: lovers that meet, an observer and a cat, two strangers on a train.

When working with communication in leadership, I often use Buber’s model. We need to create clear I-It relationships for the transition of information and calls for action, for superficial understanding. But the real leader knows that durable motivation is born in the I-Thou relationship with its dialogue, mutuality and exchange.

So how do you as a leader create those relationships?

According to Buber, you can’t. They come to you as gifts, given out of grace.

When pondering on this question I think Buber is right when it comes to the fact that you can not control or order somebody else to go into a I-Thou meeting with you – it would be a complete contradiction to the nature of the relationship.

But I think you can do a lot to create circumstances where the both of you can’t resist the challenge of opening up to each other. Where you can share, for example, a vision for your work together – that requires a true I-Thou situation.

The tools you need to reach your targets are then discussed and decided on in the I-It relationship.

So how do you create those circumstances?

Start with trying not to actively direct the situation when you meet somebody. Listen. Ask. Think. See what happens.

Do the same with yourself. Laziness might be a gracious gift if it means being present.


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