We are all living on one planet, in one physical reality. But there is one common mistake many of us make – we think we are living in the same world.
Allow me to explain. How is that a mistake? We all see the world differently, through the filters of our individual past experiences, biases, and beliefs. One man can look at a car and simply see a way of getting around. Another man can look at the same car and see a status symbol. One physical reality, two perceptions.
Even though we live in the same physical planet, our world is different. We walk into a room, and we are treated according to our looks, our bearing, and what we are wearing. One woman is treated like royalty, another is treated coldly in the same room. One physical reality, two experiences.
Or would it be more accurate to say that one physical reality, 6 billion worlds?
A One-Person Culture
I had a female friend visit me from overseas recently, and we went out for dinner with some of my local friends. At the end of the night, when we were saying our goodbyes, the guys leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She told me afterwards that she was quite uncomfortable with such physical contact from someone she didn’t really know. Were they taking advantage of her? I assured her it was quite normal in Australia, and she nodded in relief.
With that one simple understanding – the guys were doing what was natural to them – she brushed off her discomfort immediately.
What if, instead of having one culture per country, we see things in a slightly different way? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say there is one culture per person? Every single person – even siblings from the same household – lives in their unique world, has their own unique upbringing, their one-person culture.
Our Hold on the Truth
In The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner puts into words what most of us refuse to: we secretly like to think that we have a hold on the Truth.
“This is the way the world should be.”
“This is the way she should be.”
“He shouldn’t be like that.”
“My way is the only way.”
“The world would be better if they were all like me!”
The height of narcissism, you might think. And you’re right. We’re all at the greatest peaks of our own little mountains!
The next time you think of someone you dislike or an argument you might have, see if these statements are underneath the more superficial thoughts. For example, if I think of someone who owes me money and refuses to return it, I might judge him as a man of low character. It sounds like a normal and reasonable thought to have. But underneath that thought is something else – if he was like me he would be a better man!
What if we don’t have a hold on the Truth? What if there are as many truths as there are people? What if, in his one-man culture, he has good reasons for not returning the money? He might have done me some favour and thought that was the debt repaid. He might have been raised to think that such behaviour meant he was smart with money. He might think that is simply the way of the world – rip him off before he rips me off.
Now this can be tricky and prone to misunderstandings – I hesitated to write this post many times. Please remember that I am talking strictly about our internal experience. This is not to say we don’t take right and ethical action, or that we don’t protect ourselves. This is not about that. Neither is this about criminal acts such as assault or rape – I have no experience with that. For this article I mostly have in mind disagreements between family, workmates, lovers, and so on.
I am not saying anything about right or wrong, either. I am not saying it is right (or wrong) to steal, or yell, or whatever. I don’t know about that. All I do know, however, is that belief hurts me.
And the more I hurt inside, the more likely I am to hurt others.
A Freeing Practice
Note:This practice is best used in conjunction with your favourite emotional or spiritual tool. It will likely bring up many uncomfortable feelings that need to be processed, but the end result is tremendously freeing. My favourites are simply welcoming the emotion, or letting go of it.
The first reaction one might have to this is – isn’t this so basic? Isn’t this in every child’s storybook? We’ve all heard of the saying, walk a mile in his shoes. But how many of us actually practice it? It wasn’t until recently that I even saw this as feasible and practical, instead of just a fancy ideal unsuitable in the real world. I’ve put together a practical application from my own recent explorations. It builds on my favourite techniques, taking them to new places for more freedom.
We can start out with someone we don’t really know, someone who disturbs your peace slightly – perhaps a rude stranger or someone you see on the evening news. First, judge them as you normally do – they are weak, pathetic, angry, or whatever – and see how you feel. Can you see that you are the one you are hurting?
Next, just look at her again, this time without the judgement. Pretend you can’t think that judgemental thought, and look at them without it. This can give you an entirely different perspective. Someone you thought was cold and stand-offish might actually just be shy.
2. Their Individual Culture
If you have trouble with it, if your negative judgement is too strong, try to see how they are just doing the best they can with what they knew and what they had. They are just doing the best they can to survive. Someone who was loud and rude might be, in his one-man culture, trying to be a man. Someone who doesn’t listen to you when you need a shoulder to cry on might have been raised to be strong and handle their own pain, and might think they are doing you a favour by toughening you up.
3. Walking In Their Shoes
If this is still too hard, try this: put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A few weeks ago I was having a very long and stressful day, and that evening when I was driving home, I realised I had forgotten to do something minor. But that was enough for me to let loose a long stream of loud and colourful expletives. And all I had was a bad day. The next time I saw on TV a report of a murderer, I thought to myself – how would I have behaved if I had his life? Perhaps he had been abused every day of his life as a child. What if that was me? Wouldn’t my anger – and the way I exploded – be a thousand times worse?
However, even this can be hard, because some of our internal beliefs have been there for so long that they’ve become our laws – it can take a lot of work to shake the thought “A business partner should always be fair and honest”, “my family should always be my shoulder to cry on”, or whatever it is you have been brought up to believe.
Again, I am not saying it is okay to do something hurtful. Remember that this is an internal experience; it does not mean you don’t protect yourself if you have to, or abandon right action.
From the Head to the Heart
The next important step here is to let it sink in. Whatever emotions arise, use your favourite tools – perhaps sitting with it for a while, or releasing it. For instance, not judging someone as arrogant might feel surprisingly good, so let it drop from your head to your heart. This is even more important when it is uncomfortable, however. Keeping it at an intellectual level doesn’t change anything.
Repeat this process until you are more or less empty of negative judgements. Check in to see how you feel inside periodically. You will find your judgements becoming kinder, and your own pain has diminished.
Self-Forgiveness, the Greatest Gift
Again, this can take a while – but don’t give up. Why? If you are doing this on someone who screamed at you and called you names, for instance, you are also indirectly processing everyone who has done the same in the past. You are also taking steps to ensure that the next time it happens, you will still be in your power, unhurt. And most importantly, you are also forgiving yourself for the times you lost control and yelled at someone else.
This is important, for this self-blame is often hidden. We are not aware of it, have forgotten about it, or most likely, we have denied that we have even done it in the first place. This can be hard to swallow, so please read that last part again. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all been – to varying degrees – dishonest, spiteful, hurtful, and all the rest of it. And unless you are a sociopath, you will invariably carry guilt and shame, even if you are not aware of it!
When I saw it was their confusion, their own overwhelming pain, that caused them to behave the way they did – that they are human beings who made some unwise choices, I found it easier to see my own human frailties in the same way. This does not mean I suddenly found it OK to verbally abuse someone – in fact, with reduced amounts of inner pain, I was freer and more in control.
Self-forgiveness is one of the most freeing presents we can give ourselves.
Any Judgement Is Not Freedom
An even more powerful step, beyond this, is to repeat the process and remove the new judgement as well, even if it is positive and caring!
For example, if I removed an “arrogant” judgement, what arises might be – She is just trying in her own way to be cool. That feels kinder and might be good enough for many, but if you look closely, still carries a hint of condescension and pity.
This can take a tremendous amount of time, so you might want to stop once you reached a positive place. But trust me on this one – the most wonderful feeling you can have is not having any judgements at all. It can feel positively blissful.
Becoming Even Sadder
In some cases, especially with people who were more emotionally charged, this process can make you feel worse. In many arguments, we initially think we are all right and they are all wrong. However, things are not always so clearly defined. Sometimes we see that we are also at fault too, and that can be uncomfortable. Perhaps we see their innocence for the first time, and then fall into self-loathing for having been so petty or having been angry in the first place. Other times, we have been stuck in the victim story for so long that it has become a part of us, and losing it is threatening to our self-identity.
And yet – from the perspective of freedom – this is a good thing. Being able to admit we are wrong, and releasing our pain from that, being able to let go of the victim identity, and being able to see the innocence in others (not their actions), are some of the hardest things to do in finding peace.
There are many reasons we hurt. Not all incidents can be brushed off as easily as the culturally unexpected kiss on the cheek. This practice removes only one of the reasons for suffering – but in my experience, one of the deepest and most “hidden”.
As such, if you don’t feel ready to try this, or if you get no result from it, then emotions from other causes might still be overwhelming you. If that is the case, please take care of yourself, and process those before you try to feel understanding or compassion towards others. Otherwise, you might just be pushing your pain down.
Apologies for the long post – I tried to keep it short but I can’t cut it down any more without leaving out vital information. This post represents most of the stuff I have been working on in recent times – places that my normal methods don’t normally reach, and so I have to give a good level of detail.
I hope this process has helped someone!