Tuesday, December 16, 2008

P is for Perspective

I've been reading about Buddhism lately, and it has been quite, well, enlightening. One of the primary tenets of this philosophy focuses on perception, on how you as a person perceive the world and the people and events in it. It got me thinking in a very expansive way.

I thought about how I am now becoming rather good friends with one of the preschool mommies I thought hated me last year. Absolutely nothing about this woman has changed; what has changed is my perception of her. I realized after spending some awkward moments with her (because our daughters adore each other) that she is simply a very socially awkward person who doesn't know what to say. So she either says nothing (so standoffish!) or says something off-beat in her nervousness (she's so cutting! Why would she say that to me?). I was thinking this past weekend after having fun with her, "Wow, I would have missed this fun and would have just suffered through these events if I hadn't had an attitude adjustment." It was a pretty big epiphany. NOTHING about this mommy has changed. NOTHING. But now I want to be her friend because I finally took myself and my perceptions out of the equation and just saw HER, rather than what feelings she engendered in ME about ME. It was pretty liberating, to say the least.

It then got me wondering about the potential other areas of my life that are "stuck" perhaps because I can't get past myself and my perceptions to see what is really there. I have been walking/jogging the track at the JCC, where they always have Judaically-themed posters called "Walk and Talk." One said, "What role does prayer play in your life?" I laughed when I read it, because my immediate thought was not, "It forms the foundation of my Jewish identity" or somesuch other anticipated answer. It was, "It's that thing I do when the shit has hit the fan, all else has failed, and my last option is to gamble on the chance that a deity a) exists, b) is listening, c) gives a hoot and d) doesn't mind that I ignore him the other 23/6."

But where does this come from? As I thought about it, I concluded that it comes from the mistaken notion that I have any control over the events that happen to me in my life. I think I can cure my aplastic anemia by following Andrew Weil. I think I can cure my despair over my health by eating/not eating/dieting/exercising/focusing on anything but my health. I think I can cure the unhappy effects of traveling nonstop for work by becoming a drinking buddy for a coworker. I think I can cure the people around me of their "faults" by urging more, admonishing more, getting involved in their business more. Do you see the pattern? In all these scenarios, I was the prime actor, the person in control, the person on whom the fate of all these things depended. And damn if it wasn't crushing my soul. Then, in the end, you are told you will die without a transplant and you realize immediately that your control over such events is--and has always been--precisely zero. Which means you've wasted a lot of time being self-involved (and pretty arrogant if you think about it), trying to make people and events conform to your needs and wants, rather than simply seeing things for what they are--or more importantly, rather than simply realizing that the only control comes in HOW we deal with the things and people life brings to us.

As a minor example, I was trapped in line at the grocery store, where the scanner didn't work, the cashier was all chatty with me while I'm feeling like, "just shut up with the niceties and get me checked out!," and nothing in this line seems to be functioning properly. I was feeling the rising irritation when I decided to practice my new perception-shifting. So I decided to refocus away from the "fact" that this store and this incompetent a-hole were conspiring to ruin my perfectly timed day, and focus on the fact that the cashier reminded me of Bette Midler, which made me feel a wee bit friendly toward her, which made me act a little friendly toward her, "Oh, no worries, it must just be that kind of day, huh?!" Which created a no-less slow but far more enjoyable experience than I'd have otherwise had. In addition, it had the added benefit of not sowing incivility or unkindness into this cashier's day, a woman who may have needed some friendliness on this day of all days. Who knows? Either way, shifting my perception made the experience far nicer, even if it didn't change the circumstances.

Same with the traffic on the way back from the store. I was stuck in slow traffic. My plans were not all going to be achieved as a result. So I decided to just accept that this was the case (after all, it's not like I was delivering organs for a transplant, right? I was just going to miss the post office; not a tragedy even if it did mess with my beautifully-crafted plans). I decided to listen to our Learn Chinese CD while waiting and view it as a chance to learn something rather than to sit and seethe. Again, it worked. My stamps were still unpurchased, and I was bummed that I'd have to tackle it again tomorrow, but at least I wasn't stressed out as well.

So that's where I'm at these days. I'm out of the business of trying to fix other people because that's not my job, assuming they are even the ones needing the fixing. I'm out of the business of deluding myself that somehow I can control what happens to me. Obviously, I recognize that actions have consequences, that you have to make goals and try to achieve them, that there is a measure of self-determination in our lives, that we are absolutely responsible for everything we do and say. But I can't "make sure" I don't get cancer. I can't "make sure" my kids get into a good college. I can't "make sure" that a family member does what he's supposed to do. None of those things are within my purview. What I can do is monitor my perception of events (ie, perhaps this is not about me), and thereby control my attitude toward them. It's a concept so freakishly simple and yet so mind-bogglingly life-changing that I would say more about it if I was still in the business of changing people. ;)

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