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Physician, Philosopher, Heal Thyself

The risk of snap judgment

Photo credit: Kripalu Center
Photo credit: Kripalu Center

Every so often, life’s mundane particulars yield a more universal insight. I had that experience not long ago – sitting in my doctor’s office, waiting for minor surgery.

Waiting for my procedure, I was glued to my phone, muttering aloud as I watched the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. Filled with despair -- what was happening in our country? -- I worried for my daughter and granddaughters, who are growing up in this powerfully complicated world.

When the doctor entered the room, she asked me what I was watching. I said, “Oh my God – I can’t believe the crazy world we’re living in right now. It’s so upsetting.” She said, “Yes, I know.” In that moment, I felt that relief we all feel when we connect in a way where we feel seen and understood. Oh good, I thought, someone who shares my despair. That sense was immediately challenged when, filled with emotion, she finished her thought: “Yes, we really have to be worrying about our sons. They will be guilty until proven innocent.”

I was speechless and a little bit panicked. The noise inside my head got very loud as I tried to manage a trio of competing impulses: a very reactive, self-righteous voice that wanted to teach her how to best think about these things; sadness about my daughter and granddaughters; and sorrow over the chasm that was opening up between us. While my response only took seconds, it felt like time stopped as I navigated my internal space. Most profound for me was the sadness of disconnection, accompanied by the self-righteous noise of wanting to straighten her out -- feeling a responsibility to address what I believed was her misguided conclusion. As I struggled for words to reconcile the distance between us, I sat in the sadness, and then, found myself speaking -- acknowledging to her that I recognized that we were on opposite sides of the political divide. She looked at me, seemingly trying to make sense of what I was saying, and then shared her anger that a long-term career could be destroyed by unsupported allegations. “This could happen to any of our sons,” she said. As soon as she spoke, I felt the chasm between us widen. The noise of my convictions felt threatening. Yet I found myself saying that despite our political differences I hoped we could connect nonetheless, “from a place of being mothers, worrying about our children.” As I said that, I felt like I had landed inside my very self-compassionate center, and was able to reach out to her from that place. I felt seen, and I could see her, beyond the boundaries that in that moment defined us. She felt it, too. There was silence in which I think we both breathed, followed by her lighter response. “Oh, I always enjoy our conversations.” 

Since that visit, I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to default to black-and-white boundaries and absolutes, and how the limitations of perception bely (and can undermine) deeper connections. Integral theory pioneer Ken Wilbur, describing the trajectory of human development, points out that the very first boundary we create is between self and other. All boundaries are points of differentiation that can become potential battlegrounds.

Western psychology has described human development as a journey of discovery of ‘who I am’ based in differentiation and separation. Wisdom traditions and consciousness studies expand our view of the self into new dimensions, beyond the physical boundaries of “self.”

The alternative to seeking connection through similarities is to recognize, and respect, difference. It is a process of intentional differentiation. Consciousness studies – the whole body of literature on the development of consciousness – focus on the kinds of practices that help us to transcend perceived boundaries. Wilbur’s example places us at the shoreline, where we see the line as that which separates the ocean from the sand, rather than a point of connection. So it is with human interactions: What connects can also divide. Without our consent (and often, without our awareness), our mind discriminates. The work of compassion is to hold both of those things – the similar and the different – at the same time in order to be able, ultimately, to see self in other, and other in self. To do this, we must create the necessary space in which to bring ourselves fully present to all that is in the moment. 

All well and good, in theory, but in practice, our reflexes kick in, as mine did in the surgeon’s waiting room. Relearning our responses – retraining our reflexes to become more flexible and less judgmental – takes commitment and daily discipline, which I’ve found through RISE, Kripalu’s yoga-based practice focused on personal empowerment, resilience and stress management. RISE teaches me to breathe before responding – to “ride the wave” of a stressful moment or unanticipated challenge and simply wait a beat and breathe, before reacting. Something that seems so simple turns out to be a powerful technique to create the space necessary to connect with ourselves and others – and discern and respect difference.

The whole path of development is one of differentiation: I am not my parents. And then the seeking of, who am I?

Western psychology maps a path of development that celebrates the individual sense of self as the pinnacle of psychological health. Wisdom traditions opens our perspective, permitting a more complete psychological path, which then lays out the developmental steps that lead to transcendence of separation so that we may experience unity. But we cannot transcend something that does not exist. Very often, in our hunger and our seeking to feel part of something larger, we bypass the essential work of strengthening the self-structure, in order to embrace a sense of belonging to something greater. I believe that the work must be done in tandem. It’s the journey of a lifetime to live this continuum and to be able to move between these worlds. It’s the privilege of being human.

So, back to my visit with my surgeon. What does this awareness mean for our daily human interactions with those that we perceive as “other”? How do we navigate the breach? It makes sense to examine the assumptions that are built into our perceptions and the divide that often exists between us and those that we perceive as “other.”

It’s axiomatic that we feel most comfortable with those who are like us – those who mirror ourselves back to us. More difficult is inviting those who represent the unfamiliar into connection, in a way where we can both be fully cognizant of that which defines (and separates) us. Here is where compassion and empathy become a bridge to recognizing difference without judgment. By seeing the universal, we see the individual person.

The intentional practice of being able to hold contradictory truths – to maintain the boundaries around my own identity, even as I transcend those boundaries to see that which connects all of us or the larger unity of which we are all a part, is the work of yoga and mindfulness.

The mission of Kripalu, the organization I lead, speaks to empowering individuals and communities to reach their full potential through the wisdom and practice of yoga. Full potential from the vantage point of the evolution of consciousness, or the development of the soul, transcends self-actualization to self-realization, including the realization that we are a part of a much larger whole. This daily awareness can be a welcome and a powerful antidote to the divisions and pain that fill too much of our shared world. It helps us connect across difference, in moments private and public, building human bridges of understanding and respect.

In time, the Supreme Court hearings concluded, my surgical procedure went well and I returned to see my doctor post-op. As she entered the room, I looked up from my phone – this time, immersed in the Saudi accounts of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She said hello and asked, “How are you feeling, Barbara?” In the brief moment before I responded, I was aware that we had preserved a most important human connection — the foundation for any future negotiation of our differences. We chatted about our lives – kids, work – and no longer defensive of her sons’ professional survival, she shared an anecdote about their dubious fashion choices. In the small space between us – in that beat, that breath – grew the grain of mutual trust and the seed of a collegial friendship, despite our differences. I left that visit feeling hopeful: If we can get along with others, one person at a time, we can change the culture – and the world.

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