Every experience tells a story. Every experience has something to teach you.
I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind lately, and in the past day or two it’s become even more important to me.
An example I like to use is when my wife and a good friend were having a conversation and I suddenly felt left out and ignored. I waited, but they continued to ignore me, both in the conversation and in terms of their body language.
I ended up feeling put out by this, and later I brought it up with my wife and my friend separately.
My friend said “if you felt left out, why didn’t you join in?”
and my wife said “actually I was waiting for you to join in the conversation but you didn’t for some reason.”
So why hadn’t I just joined in?
The truth (though I had to search for it) was that I was too afraid to jump into the conversation in case they didn’t want me to be a part of it. I had read distance in their body language, and that made me anticipate a risk of failure if I came close and tried to take part.
But the irony is that I was already standing back from them from the moment the three of us met. My own body language was retreating from the engagement, leaving a vacuum that they filled with their own conversation.
The weren’t distancing themselves from me, they were responding to my own distance, which I had failed to acknowledge in myself.
How many times do we create the circumstances we fear?
Time and time again I’ve noticed in hindsight that I had produced, or imagined, the challenges and obstacles that shape my life for the worst. I have unwittingly created the very incidents and experiences that reinforce my pessimism, my hostility, my self-pity, and most of the time I haven’t even stopped to question the beliefs and assumptions behind those experiences.
In all aspects of life, my experiences are a reflection of my own beliefs about reality and about the way the world works.
My sense of what is possible and what is impossible. My sense of what is proper and improper. My attempts to ‘read’ other people’s attitudes to me….The truth is that we don’t know what is possible and impossible, and from that point every other assumption is thrown into doubt as well.
Every experience I have is reflecting something about my beliefs and my expectations within that context.
For instance, right now I’m brewing a beer. Brewing takes about four hours, and though it’s very much a worthwhile process, for me the experience feels like work. It’s a chore, and I fully expect to be tired and worn out by the end of it.
If I examine it more closely, there’s no reason I can’t relax and take it easy while still brewing. It’s not physically or mentally demanding, so long as you’re organised.
If you set a timer, you can forget about it until the timer reminds you. You don’t have to keep watching the clock.
You can worry about whether you’re doing the process correctly, but if you’ve already researched it then further worry is just a choice.
What is this experience telling me? It’s telling me that I view work as something burdensome and incompatible with a happy and relaxed frame of mind. Work is not enjoyable. Work is hard, monotonous, dull, and stressful.
There are aspects of brewing beer that are intrinsic to the process, but countless components of my personal brewing experience are entirely dependent on my choices, which are in turn dependent on my beliefs about life and reality.
Every instance, every experience is like this. I can’t fault or blame the experience or reality for being the way that it is. Or if I do, I am once again creating a situation that reflects my beliefs and expectations. If I want to feel helpless, then I need only believe that I am.
If I want to feel that life is difficult and challenging and ultimately disappointing, if I want to believe that all good things must fail, then I need only act accordingly.
You’d be amazed at how efficiently and unfailingly an individual can sabotage their own life so as to feel the disappointment and suffering they expect to find.
But what’s the alternative?
Well, I firmly believe (and so increasingly experience) that if we become aware of our own stake in these conflicts, our own role in creating them, we will gradually cease to create them this way.
When something good in your life looks like it’s coming to an end, must it really be so? Isn’t it reflecting back to you your own deepest expectations and beliefs about life?
I guarantee that if you look at it this way, if you ask yourself why you haven’t done things differently, why you accept the limitations, or why you feel powerless to change, you will arrive not at absolute obstacles but at your own self-imposed limits. You’ll discover that you’ve ruled out any alternative answers already, and so you’re not willing to try anything different.
Ignorance blinds us.
I didn’t know that I had distanced myself from my wife and my friend long before I felt excluded. Once I knew that I had done that, I could choose not to do it.
Maybe your mind works differently, but for me this is always the case.
I didn’t realise I had already decided that brewing must be onerous and time-consuming and must monopolise my attention for four hours. It doesn’t have to. There are steps where I have to pay attention, but there are also periods where I can ignore it. Likewise, if the time commitment really bothers me, I could buy equipment that would make heating and cooling much faster, or automate parts of the process. But that would touch on a whole slew of complicated beliefs about money!
The moral of the story is that our experiences are shaped far more than we realise by our own beliefs and expectations. Accordingly, our experiences can teach us a great deal about those beliefs and expectations.
We worry about external things, but our understanding of those external things – even our experience of them – is profoundly mediated by our beliefs and expectations.
We think we know how people will act and react to us. And so long as we act and react in the same old ways, we’re probably right. But the moment we change, everything changes.