A couple weeks ago, I was flying Southwest and the passenger beside me was a bit unhinged. He didn’t seem dangerous, but kept inserting delusional rants into a well-informed discussion of current events.
The rest of the plane was avoiding eye-contact but, with him on the aisle and me in the middle, I didn’t have anywhere to go!
I figured that I’d put my hospice training to work and see what happened…
Three Tenets: Not knowing; bearing witness; compassionate action
— Joan Halifax (@jhalifax) October 3, 2014
Six words that can profoundly change your interactions with the world, and through that, the reality that you experience with your day-to-day living.
When I think about my first response to stress, it’s the opposite of the tenets: I know you’re wrong, I want to flee you and I resist you.
My kids make my instincts obvious to me. If your kids are angels then you might have to look into other areas of your life:
- A dying parent, or patient
- A chatty stranger on the bus
- A fellow citizen on the opposite side of an emotional issue
- A kid yelling FART at my daughter’s birthday party
- An angry family member
I get a physical signal, a tightening in my chest, before my mind kicks into high gear. The physical sensation is my chance to save myself from falling into past patterns.
These situations leave me feeling scared and unsure what to do. On the Southwest flight, I had to remind myself that the passenger had to get through security so probably didn’t have a gun, or knife, on him. Yes, I was worried that he was going to kill me!
In turn, my fear leads me to close off, or engage by digging into my existing beliefs. Classic flight or fight.
However, if I’m aware of my fears then, I can pause and try to help the other person. When I do this, I’m helping myself because I escape my cycle of fear/closing and/or fear/engaging.
Bearing witness – one of our deepest needs is to be seen, to be acknowledged. Watching how the rest of the world treats the aged, a difficult child or the crazy guy on the Southwest flight… I see that I can do the entire world (or at least my fellow passengers) a favor by acknowledging my seat mate for a little while.
Not knowing – listening to other people speak, particularly odd-ball cranks, there is another voice in my head. The inner voice is constantly disagreeing, challenging, explaining why the other person is wrong.
When I’m quiet enough to hear the other voice, I see it’s not rational. It takes the opposite side to whatever it’s hearing. Much like the initial reaction of my three-year old son!
In a situation that doesn’t matter (like talking to a stranger), play a game where you “don’t know.” You’ll find that it is relaxing to give yourself permission to not-know. In turn, a habit of not-knowing prevents needless conflict with kids, at work and in your marriage.
The “not knowing” exercise is a neat one because, when you see the power of change in areas that don’t matter, you’ll unlock an insight into how the only thing that matters is the little things!
Compassionate action – in the case of my eccentric seat mate, it was easy to see the best thing for everyone was for me to listen, with a mind that didn’t know. In fact, I’ve been doing more and more listening.
If you think about it then I’ll bet you can come up with situations where you had NO IDEA about the right course of action:
- Friend with cancer
- Friend who had parent die
- Friend who had child die
- Divorcing couple
- Friend with child with developmental difficulties
- Depressed friend
- Friend with substance abuse issues
- Bankrupt friend
When you don’t know what to do, I hope you remember Joan’s advice.
As for my pal on Southwest, he thanked me for my kindness and scurried off the plane.
He left me with a warm feeling of a job well done.
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