Here’s how tiny moments are. Here’s a split second of life: one day I was walking in the mall and I thought I saw a friend of mine out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to say hello and as I did I suddenly realised that it was not my friend. It was just another similar-looking person in a similar-looking wheelchair.
In that moment my internal conversation went something like: Oh, there’s Dave! And because I have thoughts about liking Dave my brain was flushed with a chemical that made me happy and excited. Those chemicals immediately affected all of my cells and the ones in the muscles in my face reacted to that chemistry by creating a smile.
But only a split second later, as I turned my head and eyes closer to the person, I realised that it was not Dave but another person in a wheelchair very similar to Dave’s. Realising: Oh, that’s not Dave! my brain chemistry switched to a mild form of shocked surprise and my cells reacted by creating a facial expression that would have looked mildly like confusion or fear.
Just as I was creating that experience I saw the man have his own experience by recognising that I was looking at him. But he looked at me just as I was having my experience of social embarrassment and I saw him go cold when he saw my expression. He immediately clouded over into a frowning, frustrated pout and I realised in that moment that he had done what all egos do and he read my expression as a judgment of him rather than the internal experience I was actually having regarding my friend Dave.
Ideas and concepts are like hairballs in our heads. Tons of synaptic connections form to make up a concept. By seeing that wheelchair-bound stranger react like that I sent the electricity—the life in my brain—through a hairball that included an experience from long ago. A friend had taken a Tony Robbins course many years earlier and he was placed in a group with a really angry man in a wheelchair. My friend learned that the man thought everyone in the group was judging him for being in the wheelchair when in fact they were really all reacting to the fact that he was so angry.
In the split seconds of a moment I realised that—like the man from the story many years ago—this man had concluded that every negative reaction he saw must have something to do with him. Since his primary personal identifier was his wheelchair he did what every human does and he presumed every expression he noticed had something to do with that. So in my reality I thought I saw a friend and noted I was mistaken. In his reality someone looked at him fearfully and so he concluded that I was yet another person that didn’t approve of him and his wheelchair.
Remember this all happened in a split second. As I walked away I thought about the fact that everyone we meet has the same thing happen. They don’t have to be in a wheelchair. They’ll still have a primary personal identifier. They’ll still assume that the expression on our face is a result of our current thinking about them, when in reality our thinking is always egotistical. It is always about us. I’m neutral on people in wheelchairs but I was personally surprised not to see Dave when I looked.
So how do you do this? If a man lower his eyes to find or form a thought in his mind do you assume he’s looking at your large breasts? Do you close the sweater over your blouse as a result? (Because of course you’re wearing one for just such an occasion.) Or do you think you have a large nose so any time anyone looks at your face (just as they do anyone else’s), you assume that they’re judging your nose? Or did someone once tell you that you had bad breath and so ever since then any time you see a negative facial expression you always put your hand over your mouth? Or do you think they notice one eye is larger than the other? Or that you have a zit, or that you don’t have ear lobes, or a saggy neck, or crows-feet? Or that you don’t look as young as you used to?
You’ll know the answer if you just think of your own thoughts. Once you mature it’s very seldom you’re actually thinking about other people’s faces or bodies judgmentally. Instead you’re using their facial expressions etc. to cue judgments of your own face or body.
Thoughts thoughts thoughts. Can you see how everyone is wandering around in a separate realities made of their thinking? It’s like everyone is wearing a special thought-helmet that distorts anything it witnesses and converts the outside event into something about you. I wasn’t thinking anything negative about the guy in that wheelchair and yet he’ll use that experience with me to reinforce his thoughts that people are judging him because of the chair. It’s a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing reality.
Stop thinking that everything you see has something to do with you because nothing does. Nothing. Everything is simply what it is and it exists in a giant sea of inextricably interrelated personal thoughts. The jostling movement of that sea of thought is what creates the Buddhist sense of causality. Everything is linked even when it isn’t linked. So the guy in the wheelchair and I did react to each other but we had entirely separate experiences. There is no God-reconciliation. There is no one accounting for these little misunderstandings. They simply are aspects of all that Is.
People will continue to walk through life having separate thought experiences. Those thoughts aren’t correct or appropriate or meaningful. They’re simply the thoughts people create. They are just the realities that are temporarily assembled, only to be taken down moment by moment so new ones can be assembled in their place. All of life is merely a chain of experiences like that right up until the day we “die” and our personal thinking melts back into the great source of all thinking: creation.
So relax. Everything’s not about you. Spend less time thinking about other people’s reactions and more time consciously creating your own. Because reality has always been made out of thought, so it’s time you learned to weave yours in a way that creates something beautiful for yourself. It’s that easy. It really is.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.