Imagine this scenario. You’re walking along the street, carrying an expensive vase that you’ve bought for your mother’s birthday. Suddenly someone walks straight into you, you drop the vase and it smashes on the ground. Anger boils up.
Now imagine the same situation, except that this time as you look up from the smashed vase on the floor you see that the stranger who bumped into you is blind. You don’t feel anger. You don’t blame them, you feel it was an unfortunate accident. You have compassion for their situation.
So it’s not people bumping into you that makes you feel angry. It’s you blaming the other person that makes you feel angry. It’s your judgement that they shouldn’t have done what they did. But you’ve made that judgement without know anything about how that person came to bump into you. They might have been overwhelmed with work stress, heartbroken, running from an attacker – and you’ve just made them feel worse by getting angry with them!
When we look at a tree we don’t think “I wish it had more branches” or “this should be an oak and not a sycamore”. We appreciate it for what it is: a wonderously complex, beautiful organism with unique gifts to offer the other organisms in its environment.
When we look at people, on the other hand, we find accepting them as they are much more difficult. We’re constantly judging them for not meeting our expectations of how they should behave.
Mindfulness is sometimes defined as paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. To be not judgemental is to realise that fundamentally, we’re all the same: we all want to be happy and we’re all making the best of the experiences that we’ve had in life.
When someone is angry or aggressive towards you, I think a powerful metaphor for understanding their behaviour is that of a dog with it’s leg in a bear trap. It’s snaps and snarls as you approach, not because it’s got anything against you personally, but because it’s in pain. Would you judge the dog for having its leg in trap?
Personally I catch myself judging people for being unfriendly. Not smiling at me when I greet them, not listening to what I have to say and not communicating what’s going on with them. But I try to remind myself that it’s not a reflection on me and it’s not their fault. They’re probably just struggling at that particular point in their life and the best thing I can do is to empathise with them, not judge them.
So next time you find yourself cursing someone’s rudeness, insensitivity or selfishness, try to pause, and think to yourself: “if I’d have had all the same experiences they’d had, would I have reacted any differently?”