We live in at least two worlds. One world is our outward experience: conversations with friends, work, chores, the movement of history, all of which connects us to life outside. Another world is the inner experience: feelings, thoughts, fantasies, secret grudges, dreams. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us develop working models to navigate both worlds with a moderate level of success. When these models fail to meet the challenges of life do we experience significant distress, interpersonal conflict, withdrawal, toxic anger, or any of the things that we term in this culture “mental illness.”
One truth is that few of us have truly robust, accurate models of either the inner or outer worlds. This is wonderful! We can spend our lives continuing to learn and grow with curiosity and wonder at the complex lives we inhabit. What seems the most troubling is when we stake so much identity in this belief of knowing everything, having it all sorted out, knowing exactly what something means and being unwilling to entertain any doubts or questions.
We benefit by a willingness to listen to what is happening inside or outside of ourselves. Each of us inhabits a subjective world that is contained within this larger world, and through our individual experiences we touch some underling truth. Often my experience feels in conflict with another’s, particularly when the experience moves into touchy, vulnerable territory. I could be going about my day thinking all is fine, only to be given some challenging feedback about the impact of my behavior, and then an opportunity arises. I could shut down and deny the feedback, clinging to my idea of who I am. I could totally throw aside my sense of self and accept the feedback uncritically. I could avoid the entire conversation through jokes, charm, and willful ignorance.
I could also allow the space to hear the feedback and attempt to understand the other person’s subjective experience. This is a difficult balance to hold, allowing the person to speak while honoring what is happening for myself. Allowing another person to feel angry and attempt to make themselves understood while I feel afraid and want to run away, or vice versa. I can listen to both experiences with curiosity — what is this fear saying to me? Does it feel appropriate for the circumstances, does it feel exaggerated, does it feel almost absent? What is this person’s anger saying to me? What does this outside feedback tell me about the congruence between who I think I am and what others see?
Providing space and empathy my own experience can help us to be more comfortable when those around are struggling or need to say something difficult. Roshi Joan Halifax speaks of how empathy for our own feelings increases empathy for others, while learning to distinguish between what is mine and what is yours increases true compassion. Compassion is the ability to “feel with” what another is experiencing without taking it into myself. I know your pain is your pain, and I can feel and honor your experience of pain, but I am not driven to fix or justify away your pain so I can feel better in the moment. As I can listen to and honor my own experience, I can allow you to have yours.
This is not about minimizing real danger and denying my self-protective instincts, as these may be guiding me to the best action. Listening to what is happening does invite a moment of reflection and curiosity, a willingness to accept that more may be happening inside or outside of myself that does not match my beliefs about either world. These uncomfortable or painful moments can break into deeper insights into self and the world, greater freedom with one’s own challenges and greater connection to those around us. If we can be present, we are also helping our friends, enemies, and family to have their own opportunity for growth and expansion. I notice that when a person is allowed to truly be heard and understood, then they are more willing to hear and understand my perspective. We can have an honest, real conversation that’s not about blaming each other but about truly taking responsibility for our own experiences.