Recently I had someone angrily tell me that I had my head up my ass. In the wake of that assessment no compelling need arose to find a mirror and go looking for my head. The comment really wasn’t about me, my head or my ass.
It was about the frustration the person was feeling in my refusal to agree with their perspective about something important to us both (significant changes being implemented at the graduate school we’re both affiliated with). It was essentially about their brain’s temporary, neurological disorganization. Emotional upsets that result in personal attack are often a clue that something from the past, or present-day stress connected to something from the past, is driving and distorting the immediate moment; that some neural real estate is yearning to come into greater integration, a more interconnected whole.
That said, I have basic guidelines for relationships in my life. They’re based on the Buddhist notion of Right Speech. Assessments delivered by me to others about their character and behavior need to follow several guidelines: First of all, is what I’m offering accurate and truthful? Second, is it necessary to be said? Additionally, is the nature of our relationship such that this information has a high probability of being wanted and welcome? And finally, the intention behind my message must, at bottom, be kind. So truths I offer others about their behavior ideally follow this template. If they don’t, I need to reexamine my motives. When I do, I often discover that A. my assessments are most likely not true; B. they probably have much more to do with me than whom I’m delivering my “wisdom” to, i.e. they’re simply my negative projections, needing to be reclaimed; C. they fail to take into account that we are all complex, growing, ever-changing beings; rarely are any one of us simple, single fixed entities for very long; and D. my assessments are almost always about nothing current in the moment. In other words, my brain has very likely failed to move on from whatever the person was doing that upset me. At best, I’m addressing recent ancient history.
It’s for this and other reasons that I have this wisdom offering from the Talmud in my Gmail signature line: “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” It’s the very nature of our perpetual, neurologically-filtered reality. It’s also a great indication of who has the work to do, of whose brain is needing (and yearning?) to grow and change. This shift in awareness – from realizing that my internal organization is a powerful lens that I have the most potential to change and grow – points up the real folly in trying to get other people to change so that my neurology can be less reactive and disorganized. That’s what I call the Inner Fascist Perspective. Trying to force other people to change so that I can be less anxious and emotionally reactive has been tried unsuccessfully for eons and all it does is generate Big Suffering the world over. Look to the Middle East or in your own neighborhood or workplace for current examples.
This and other aspects of Right Speech turn out to be great neurobiological imperatives. In fact, many spiritual wisdom directives, gained through centuries of trial and error experimentation and observation, turn out to be neural network optimizers. Our brains constantly filter the world through the unfathomably complex energy and information processing networks between our ears. Those networks notice everything, more than 99% of which we’re never aware. But just because we’re not consciously aware doesn’t mean our brains and bodies aren’t observing and recording essential happenings nonetheless. With this brain-based realization, it becomes easy to see where meaningful creations like an ever-watchful Santa Claus and an all-knowing God might have originated. Those, and creations like them, are the natural extension of our ever-vigilant brain which observes our every action in the world, good and bad, 24-7. So, none of us gets away with anything, ever. The Shadow knows.
Sometimes Negative Projections Are Accurate
In recent months, in addition to my friend pointing out their perception of the relationship between my head and my ass, several other people have let me know that I have been acting with the clueless perspective of a plank. My cultural anthropologist colleague, Angie Arrien once advised me that if something compelling shows up once in my life, it’s often interesting. If it shows up twice, it might be worth paying attention to. If it shows up three times, the Universe is definitely trying to get my attention (Mark, you’re not practicing very effective listening skills. Why’d you write all those books?). In such instances, I’d be well-served to take concerted, life-altering action.
Which is great guidance in theory; often a little more challenging in practice. Best to keep a big forceps at the ready.