“The biggest problem for humanity, not only on a global level, but even for individuals, is misunderstanding.” ~Rinpoche
Someone cuts you off in traffic.
What a jerk!
A date stands you up.
She obviously doesn’t like you.
Your colleague gives you a dirty look across the room.
Your last email must have really pissed him off!
In so many places in our lives, we see a behavior and automatically make a meaning out of it. Everything from a glance to an email gets snappily run through our minds and attached to a reaction or feeling.
Part of this is biological. As animals, we’re built to rapidly process information so that we can react quickly, if need be. It’s how survival instincts work.
However, most things we’re reacting to aren’t life-or-death level situations.
Here’s how I work with my own brain to stop getting so upset by all these little situations. I call it “Alternate Stories.”
Every time something happens that starts to get me feeling negative, judgmental, sad, or angry, I tell myself an alternate story about what might’ve been going on for the other person.
For example, say a person cuts me off in traffic.
My first response is to think, “Hey, look out, jerk!” And then I could proceed to get mad, feel my adrenaline rise, and start tailgating that car, just to show him he can’t treat me like that.
But before I take any action or speak, I think to myself, “Is there any other possible reason that guy could have made that lane change right in front of me?”
- Maybe he’s on the phone hearing news that someone in his family just had to go to the hospital and is totally not paying attention.
- Maybe he’s trying to get to the hospital because he’s having chest pains.
- Maybe he’s had a horrible day and his wife left him and he’s totally disconnected from anything besides his own pain.
- Maybe he’s just had a bug fly into his eye.
- Maybe he really looked in his mirror and thought he saw no one there.
- Maybe he’s really nervous on the freeway and just made a mistake.
- Or maybe he really is a jerk.
Maybe, but I just can’t know. As you can see from my list of maybes, there’s no way for me to know what’s going on with anybody else as they do whatever it is they’re doing.
(Sure, I may have really good guesses sometimes, but the point of this is this: none of us can ever know for sure what’s going on with anyone else. Unless we ask them, and sometimes even then we can’t be sure.)
Going through some alternate stories whenever I feel reactionary helps me to remember that I can’t know what’s up with that other person. And that sometimes my behavior could look just as annoying to someone else, even if I didn’t mean it that way at all.
The power of the Alternate Story technique is that it reconnects me to my compassion, my sense of “Oh, yeah, sometimes I do that, too.”
If I don’t know for sure that he meant to run me off the road, it’s easier for me to allow space in my heart for him.
And at the same time, it helps me to detach from my belief that I know anything. In this place of unattachment, rather than having to soothe my hurts or calm my anger, I realize that I am free.
Photo by Bindaas Madhavi.