Recently I got an email from a young woman interested in working with me. She left a phone number, but as I prefer to arrange set times for conversation, I emailed her back and gave her a number of times I might be available, asking her to call me and to let me know if there was a time other than those that might be better.
When I didn’t hear back from her over the next couple of days, I became curious first, then concerned. I reread my email and immediately began questioning myself. Was my tone too formal? (I didn’t think so.) Was I too “businesslike” in giving her windows of time we might speak? (Again, it didn’t feel that way.) Should I be more casual, less structured, should I have offered to call her? Perhaps I needed to rethink my whole approach to doing business…
This went on in my mind for some time. I’ve always struggled with a sense of perfectionism (ironic, because I’m SO not perfect!) and beaten myself up considerably for making “mistakes.” In this case, I decided I would not beat myself up, I’d just take it as a lesson learned and perhaps think differently about how I responded to someone in the future. A few days later, however, I followed up and said, “Just wanted to make sure you got my email — let me know if you still want to connect.” She responded, saying no, she hadn’t, and yes, she did.
My lesson here is that despite initially feeling fine about my response, and having absolutely no information about how it was received, I created a story about all of it and clung to it. It’s a lesson I learn over and over, as I continually create stories where I’m responsible for (read: in control of) the way things have or haven’t happened, and make myself crazy until I (hopefully) find out the truth.
As a mindfulness practitioner, it amuses me (in a sort of painful, chagrined way) to watch this endless repetition loop. In mindfulness we’re taught to “drop the story” in order to recognize the truth in any given moment. That goes not only for the stories we create around various events, but, ultimately, the stories that shape our identities. It requires knowing our narratives, recognizing our attachment to them, and being willing to see people and events through a clearer lens. If you’ve ever tried this, you might have found that it’s one of the hardest things to do, but I think it also might be the most revolutionary.
For example, prior to the Women’s March, I read a lot of opinion pieces from women who didn’t want to participate. Many were women of color and non-cisgender women who were fed up. They felt the march was self-serving, not inclusive, that it was for white women, especially those who’d previously been too comfortable to care about the many issues affecting women all over the world, and that it was too little too late.
I felt sad to see these women disconnect from an opportunity to be part of something that turned out to be so much more, and something that I think may actually serve as a gateway to the kind of communication and change they seek. Indeed, there were many other women who felt the same but who used the event as an entry point into that part of the conversation.
Disappointment notwithstanding, I understand (I believe) the concerns of those who felt disconnected. How can we ask people to drop their story when their story hasn’t been fully heard? And in order to actually hear someone’s story, we have to be willing to drop our own, at least for long enough to really be open to someone else’s experience, with all of its pain, suffering and joy. It is in this opening, with its potential for empathy and shared authentic experience, that our consciousness about who we are, and, subsequently, how we relate to the world, can shift.
Whether we are survivors of interpersonal trauma or of systemic oppression, people of privilege or anything else in the human spectrum of experience, we have a story, or several, and an identity that defines us, creating a potential boundary between us and the world. A dedicated mindfulness practice ultimately brings us to the place where we must look honestly at our beliefs, our prejudices, and the stories that shape our lives. Having stories and a sense of identity isn’t bad — very often, they give our lives great meaning. Sometimes, though, they outlive their usefulness. When we realize this, we have a choice: we can continue to live out our old narratives, or we might find it time to create new ones, perhaps with less rigid boundaries, that leave us with some space. Space for growth. Space for evolution. Space for real feeling. Space for that which is real. Space for love.
One of my favorite aphorisms is, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” That’s obvious enough when we look at the events in our world today and the intense reactions they cause. A truly mindful approach helps us pause long enough to notice. It gives us the opportunity to drop the stories, and really see and feel the truth of each “other.” It requires great courage, and maybe even a leap of faith — but it might just be the thing to move us forward and beyond.