One of my dearest friends was a professor at the university where I was a student. We actually met when I became her teaching assistant. She was teaching a class on the psychology of groups and group dynamics. It was an experiential learning environment, where students are formed into groups, given a task and then asked to apply the group development theories they were learning to what was happening in their groups. Students loved her classes because they were not the usual and often boring lecture format. Through a lot of work, learning and laughter, we became steadfast, lifelong friends. I learned so many things from Mary, here are a couple:
When we would be together, marking papers, preparing a class, going out for a bite to eat after a class, we would chat about all kinds of things. Sometimes, I would tell her about personal challenges, ranting on about how my feelings were being ignored, or I was not getting my way. Mary would only listen for a brief time - then she would gently interrupt and say:
Mary: "Stories in your head."
Mary: Stories in your head.
Me: Yes, but now I'm telling you about it, so it is not just in my head anymore.
Mary: You are spinning a story in your head that has moved way beyond the actual event.
Mary: You are assuming based on what so-and-so did, that you know what he was thinking.
Mary: You don't know what he's thinking or what motivates him unless you ask. Did you ask?
Mary: Then it is just a story you are fabricating in your head.
Me. Alrightyyyy then. End of Story
With several conversations of this nature - "stories in your head again, Bonnie", I finally 'got it', and when I had a situation to discuss I stuck to what had actually happened and what had actually been said, and not weaving in MY story or spin about what it meant, or why they did it, or what their motivations were. This spared me a lot of angst and saved a lot of life energy.
This has become a phrase I use with myself, my children, and sometimes my clients: "Story in your head." It's a way to catch oneself before you spin some tale about what is happening in your life, that has little basis in reality. It is often these very stories that we spin that cause our suffering. Eliminate the story (not truly rooted in reality) and you will eliminate much of your mental and emotional pain.
In a way it reminds me of an TV show my mother used to watch years ago called, Dragnet. I think it was Sargeant Friday who would interrupt witnesses to a crime as they babbled on and say: "The facts, Ma'am - just the facts."
Another thing I learned from Mary was how to manage myself when I was having a strong reaction to something. If I was upset, ready to lash out, tell someone a thing or two, scream, - whatever - Mary said "Before you react, take a breath and just get curious." Huh? "Just be curious."
Ask yourself - what is going on here? Do I really have to take this personally? Do I understand the other person's situation, context, need, hurt? How will it help the situation for me to be reactive? What other choices do I have? Could I simply and quietly seek clarification with the person? Could I say, I felt hurt by the comment or action, and need some time out to regain my composure, and then we will need to talk about it?
By taking a step back and being curious, I was in effect stepping out of reactionary ego-mind, and approaching the situation from my more centered Observer Self. (We all have one, BTW.)
So Mary (and I have since learned buddhists, taoists, etc.) suggest that instead of reacting to a situation, step back, breathe and be curious. Observe your own tendancy to react. Be curious about where that reaction comes from. Be curious about whether giving in to your reaction will solidify your connections or break them.
Stephen Levine, a buddhist teacher, suggests something similar when he says: "Respond TO the reaction/feeling not FROM it. Take time to think about that. When you respond FROM a feeling such as anger or indignation, the feeling envelopes you and your words, actions, intent are all colored by the feeling.
If you respond TO your own feeling (not from it) it might go like this: Hmmm, I notice (the observer) anger rising up in me, what is that about? How am I feeling threatened? What am I afraid of losing (besides my temper)? Would reacting from the anger arising, be the loving or compassionate thing to do? Can I state my case, set limits, express my feelings in an assertive way without being aggressive? Is this more about me than the other person - and do I need to sort this out with myself before I respond to him/her?
When you respond TO instead of FROM you are acknowledging that the feeling is there, and then making a conscious choice as to whether it is appropriate or not to express it. You may very well choose to express it - and then it will not be a knee-jerk reaction, but a considered one.
So as Mary said to me one day: "When the sh** hits the fan, that is the time to be curious." You always still retain the option to react, if you choose.
This is also much like the Byron Katie four question approach, where when you notice a strong reaction or judgment you become curious or inquire of yourself "Is it true?". Usually it is not - and you can move into a place of equanimity rather than judgment or hurt.
So just as one feels curious when they see a gate or a meandering path - wondering what lies down that path or behind that gate. Perhaps you stop and consider what could happen if you open the gate and walk through: will it be a peaceful, rewarding walk, will you be attacked by guard dogs that you cannot see at the moment, are you entering foreign territory, is there another route to the same goal for you, will you be trespassing or intruding???
So too with our thinking. If we get curious - we will notice if we are entering through a gate that will slam shut behind us cutting off future options; we can question whether our thoughts and or reactions will lead us down the most productive path; we can determine whether our reactions would lead us on a path of compassion or a path of judgment and disconnection.
Be curious about your own reactions/feelings and about the stories you spin in your head.
Are they helping you get where you want - or do they make you weave all over the place, sap your energy, and dismantle the connections you have built?
Voila, a couple of the valuable lessons I learned from my friend and mentor, Mary. Thank you Mare.