A few years ago I was with someone who is familiar with what I do. We ran into a mutual acquaintance who was in an extremely emotional state. She had recently ended a long term relationship. The woman spoke to us rapidly, and with a lot of disproportionate emotion.
I had noticed that the person with me found the experience very uncomfortable. When the woman was gone, he asked me why I hadn’t applied my skills to help the woman when she was clearly upset? I wondered why he had assumed that I hadn’t helped her?
“You barely said a thing,” he said.
“I got the sense that my job was to listen,” I told him. “That rapid, high-pitched speech; that over-the-top word choice when describing things? That’s someone who has been over-thinking. She was having a biochemical rush. What she needed was absorption.”
Not that he’s not a very nice person, but the person with me didn’t really want the lady to calm down for her sake. He wanted her to calm down for his sake. His thoughts about her thoughts were uncomfortable, so he wanted her to to stop having her experience.
I explained that trying to calm her down for my sake would be like me trying to get her to perform some calm character for me, without really considering her reality.
Alternatively, I can live in a state of mind where I believe I am always ultimately okay. Then I don’t need anything from her. Then I can truly see her. If my mind’s not filled with wants, that frees me up to notice what she might need.
Had he been more present, I’m sure he would have noticed that she obviously needed a mental hug. She needed someone to take on some of those thoughts for her. So she spilled them toward us. The other man, already full of his own thoughts, dodged hers.
Both fear and kindness can lead us to want to ‘fix’ things. But many times what’s really needed is patience and space, not intervention. They are experiencing some ugly biochemistry and then need to share it with us so that we can help to dilute its impact.
Think of their problem like a big rock landing in a pond. It’s too disruptive to their pond, so they come to us asking us to join our body of water to theirs –soul to soul.
By doing so, we increase the size of the pond. And that allows the waves more space to dissipate their energy and calm down. That way they don’t hit the shores of our lives so hard.
This is why people gather at funerals. They want to surround the family with their water and help them absorb the pain from that massive impact.
Big events like funerals trigger that healthy reaction in us because our culture trains us that way. We know that there are no words that can really do much, so at that point we understand that it’s our presence that carries the value.
We should also look to apply this principle with smaller emotional moments in people’s lives as well. People shouldn’t need to have someone die to get us to slow down and share with them.
If only death can trigger the verb form of our compassion then our radar is way off target. We don’t need to heed every little up and down others have. But when dealing with others, it is wise for us to remain as aware as possible of other people’s state of biochemistry.
That awareness is what allows our natural compassionate response mechanisms to kick in. But that requires us to be more interested in the other person’s state of mind than in our own.
Without a conscious approach by at least one person, in many cases people’s emotional waves can innocently meet other people’s waves and things just get stormier. But by staying conscious, we can create opportunities to help others by applying our stillness to their troubled waters.
Those opportunities are worth taking for one simple reason: it feels really great to be able to help someone through a tough time. Plus, if we’re thinking about them we’re not using our thoughts to create an ego. And that’s a good thing.
It’s a nice way to a good life. I’d recommend trying it.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.