The self begins as a blank slate; an unblemished entity with unlimited capacity for love, harmony, and self-expression. A blank slate that’s ready to explore it’s new environment with explosive passion and unmatched enthusiasm.
Then the self meets the world, and the world has a different agenda.
The world chisels a comfort zone around the blank slate by building up multiple layers of social conditioning and utilises a sticky compound of fear and self-doubt to hold them together. Occasionally the world applies a generous measure of self-loathing to the inside wall of the comfort zone, within which a predictable, mostly harmless, and wholly unremarkable human drone can be built.
Once the comfort zone is in place, the self settles into an agreeable posture, safely contained within the padded zone as defined by the world. The self feels safe within the comfort zone; beyond those cushioned walls lies danger, likely failure, and all-but-guaranteed emotional pain.
What the self doesn’t know is that the architects of its comfort zone have their own comfort zones. They too are limited by fear; held back by their own zones. Like the self they live in an arbitrarily limited world; limited by the walls of their own comfort zones. The real self is unlimited. The real self has no fear. The real self is what the blank slate, the unblemished entity, was meant to be; what the real self already is beneath the layers of conditioning. The real self longs to break free from it’s limitations, but the real self is buried within layers of fear and self-doubt.
But the real self doesn’t know that.
The real self is usually oblivious to the fact that it perceives an arbitrarily restricted reality. The world outside the comfort zone is something for the rest of them. The world beyond has immigration controls like you wouldn’t believe; the self is barely able to take short holidays there before quickly returning to the safety of their comfortable reality.
This frightened self reacts to that which lies outside its zone. Nearly every step it takes, nearly every move it makes, is a reaction to something from that world. It lives from one moment to the next not because it relishes the moment, but because it fears what the next moment may bring. Paralysed by fear it reacts to survive; blindly following the rules it’s been given, passively accepting their validity and permanently setting up camp in the centre of its comfort zone, rarely, if ever, daring to venture out.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
Absolutely nothing; there’s nothing wrong with this picture. To live like that is a valid choice, but it is a choice, and it was a choice I’ve been unconsciously making for most of my life. But other options exist; other options always exist, it simply takes courage to explore them.
The option I’m exploring right now is the view that events and situations are emotionless, and that our perception of them is a reflection of myself.
Everything I experience passes through a number of filters based upon the foundations I described above. These filters may completely block aspects of an experience, or it may transform them to varying degrees, including augmenting them to fill in any perceived gaps. I then apply another set of filters to interpret the experience, which ultimately defines how I perceive it and what it means to me. This blocking, transforming, and interpreting alters the objective experience such that it becomes a subjective experience. Perception really is everything.
I’ve been doing this most of my life without even realising it. Since I didn’t know any better I simply accepted my perception as reality. And it was reality, but it was my personal reality. It had been sliced, diced, and mashed up prior to any conscious thought process getting a look in.
These filters can come from any number of places, but those that are deeply ingrained generally come from very early childhood when the blank slate is especially ductile and quick to set.
Since I started paying attention to how my mind works I’ve discovered that I have the full set of fear, self-doubt, and self-loathing, but what’s most interesting is seeing how those attitudes exert control over my life. More specifically it’s fascinating how they shape my experiences, and this is what I mean by my perception being a reflection of myself.
As an illustration of what I mean here’s something that happened the other day that helpfully highlighted this process to me.
I was working away in the office when a colleague told me they had found a potential problem with our software. We had the usual exchange where I asked questions to build a picture of what was going on and they answered them, but we got into a bit of a loop. I was giving the same answer repeatedly because it explained what was going on, and each time I was trying to explain it better so they would understand why the problem had occurred.
I could see they were getting annoyed/frustrated with it, but I didn’t seem able to explain it in a way that would make sense to them. After a few rounds they said something like “forget about it, it doesn’t matter”.
I got annoyed at that point. A few months ago I would have blamed that person for annoying me, and would probably have been annoyed for the rest of the day. I would probably have had a bad attitude with everyone else, and that’s nothing more than pointlessly destructive behaviour. Instead, and due to the general principal I’m describing here, I took a time out to decipher why I was feeling annoyed and where it was coming from.
The most important thing to note is that it’s not coming from them. How do I know this? Maybe a couple of examples will help.
- Let’s say someone at work tells you that you have to do a presentation to the board in ten minutes time on a subject you know very little about. How do you feel about that? Nervous? Apprehensive? Scared? Now imagine that two minutes later your boss walks past your desk so you appeal for more time to prepare. Your boss looks confused and asks you what you’re talking about; she says she knows nothing about a presentation. It turns out that the presentation is to be delivered by someone else, and the person who told you about it simply got your name mixed up with theirs. How do you feel about it now?
Now consider it from the other end of the event…
- You’ve just finished giving a presentation to the board and all you can see is blank looks all around. You get dismissed without a single word of praise or congratulations, just a courteous thanks. How do you feel as you walk back to your desk? Deflated? Do you feel that you’ve failed? Do you decide you didn’t have enough time to prepare, or that you should have listened to your initial reaction and made excuses so that you didn’t have to do the presentation at all? Now imagine that a couple of hours later you get copied in on an email containing the minutes of that meeting, and it turns out that the board had a lively discussion about your presentation after you had left the room, and they all thought it was informative and thought-provoking. How do you feel about it now?
The basic point here is that we choose how to feel at any given moment about any given situation. In order to give meaning to an event or situation we use expectations based primarily on assumptions. The expectations and assumptions are reflections of aspects of our sense of self.
Both scenarios are probably reflecting a lack of confidence in our own abilities; a fear of failure. The fact that reality turns out to differ from our perception demonstrates that we choose how we feel. In scenario 1 we could have chosen to just get on with it without feeling nervous, apprehensive or scared, and we could have avoided what turned out to be pointless stress and pressure. The same applies to scenario 2.
What’s the common thread? A negative attitude causes negative feelings.
In scenario 1 I could have been brimming with confidence in my ability to do the best I could in the limited time I’d been given, and that I’ll be able to handle anything the board can throw at me. In scenario 2 I could have been secure in the knowledge that I did do the best I could and that I was open to all forms of criticism if that’s what should come. The only way I could fail is if I don’t learn from my mistakes.
So, back to my interaction with my colleague. They had cut me off while I was trying to explain something, and I was feeling annoyed. So why was I annoyed?
I like explaining things. I enjoy being able to help people understand something no matter how familiar they are with the subject matter. I love metaphors and one of the main reasons for that is that they’re a key tool in bridging the gaps between skill sets. In this instance I felt like I failed because I felt like my colleague gave up before I had determined the best way to explain what was happening.
I don’t like feeling like I’ve failed. However, as implied earlier, failure comes under this same principal. There is no such thing as objective failure, only I can decide that I’ve failed so there’s no reason I should ever feel that way. If other people say I’ve failed, it still up to me whether I agree with them. Simply accepting what they say as the truth is just the same as deciding I’ve failed; I’ve simply tried to pass responsibility for that feeling on to them.
It turns out that my colleague was feeling ill that day and the effort the conversation was taking probably wasn’t worth reaching the point of understanding – it wasn’t vital that they understood it so they cut me off which is more than reasonable. If I’d been more aware and had noticed how they were feeling before this event I would probably have handled the exchange somewhat differently.
That’s what I mean by reflections. The upshot of this point of view is that nothing inherently means anything; I assign meaning to everything. Before something hits my filters it just is. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
This has been a tricky concept for me to apply. Logically I see great sense in it, and practically I’ve now experienced several examples where I’ve been able to change how I feel about various events both during and after them, but it wasn’t until recently that a penny dropped in my head and I very suddenly understood. A friend of mine calls it the difference between knowing something and knowing it, and I finally fully understand what that means.
I stated above that I’m currently exploring this point of view. While that’s true I’m seeing such a wealth of evidence to support it that I’m likely to continue to explore it for some time to come.
Everything is a reflection.
Nothing outside my self means anything.
Everything beyond my self just is.
People. Events. Situations. Happenings.
They’re neither good nor bad; not uplifting or depressing.
Everything beyond my self just is.
Meaning is assigned from within.
Now… choose wisely!