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Lions Roar : November 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2008 25 A FRIEND ONCE TOLD ME about repeated fights he had with his wife early on in their marriage. Much of their conflict centered on how to have dinner. He liked to eat hurriedly, standing up in the kitchen, get- ting it over with as quickly as possible. She liked to set the table elegantly, sit down, and eat leisurely, togeth- er. Many nights they fought instead of eating. Finally they sought the help of a marriage counselor. As they examined the layers of meaning hidden in the simple and familiar word “dinner,” they each discovered how many associations, and how many people, they were actually bringing to that table. He talked about his father, a brutal man who was often only at home at dinnertime, which became a night- marish experience to be escaped from as quickly as possible. She spoke of her fractured family and her mentally ill brother who consumed her mother with worry. It was mainly at dinner that her family made an effort to talk to her, to find out about her day—where she felt she indeed belonged to a family. For each of them dinner was rarely just dinner, and their part- ner was often not the person standing in front of them, but an “other” made of an amalgam of past hurts and long-held dreams and tentative new yearnings. Can we ever actually see another person? If we create an “other” out of our projections and associations and ready interpretations, we have made an object of a person; we have taken away their humanity. We have stripped from our consciousness their own sensitivity to pain, their likely wish to feel at home in their bodies and minds, their complexity and intricacy and mutability. If we have lost any recognition of the truth of change in some- one, and have fixed them in our minds as “good” or “bad” or “in- different,” we’ve lost touch with the living essence of that person. We are dwelling in a world of stylized prototypes and distant caricatures, reified images, and, often, very great loneliness. Meditation practice is like a skills-training in stepping back, in getting a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of what’s happening. Mindfulness, one of the tools at the core of meditation, helps us not be lost in habitual biases that distort how we interpret our feelings. Without mindfulness, our percep- tion is easily shaped by barely conscious thoughts, such as, “I’m shaking and my stomach is roiling with what seems to be fear, but I can never allow myself to admit that. I’ll pretend it never came up.” If we do that, it is a great struggle to be kind. There is no ready access to kindness without awareness. Mindfulness also helps us to see through our prejudices about another person. For example, a person might think, “All older women are fuzzy thinkers, so she can’t possibly be as sharp as she is pretending to be.” Mindfulness helps us to see by showing us that a conclusion such as that one is simply a thought in our own mind. Mindfulness enables us to cultivate a different qual- ity of attention, one where we relate to what we see before us not just as an echo of the past or a foreshadowing of the future, but Don’t I Know You? When we overlook the strangers among us, says SHARON SALZBERG, we miss the chance to connect to people as they are, free of the usual ways we judge them. PHOTOBYDAVEELFVING NOV 18-39.indd 25 NOV 18-39.indd 25 9/1/08 12:18:15 PM 9/1/08 12:18:15 PM