Last year I began a sort of series in these blogs entitled ‘A shift in perspective’. These were inspired by my musings around the course of the same name I have been developing over the last year (update on this below below).
But the more I think about this theme the more I feel it has something to offer to so many aspects of life.
The basic premise goes like this: many of our difficulties and struggles in life cannot and will not be sorted by thinking even harder about them with our current mindset but rather what is needed is a change in mindset and approach – a shift in perspective.
It’s a bit like standing in a forest and trying to see the beautiful oak tree that someone a few feet away has just remarked on. ‘It’s not an oak – it’s an ash’ you say. But your companion insists with the kind of authority in their voice that makes you look again – and harder. But to no avail – you know what an oak looks like and that is not one. And so a familiar kind of conversation without any prospect of a resolution ensues. Until … just as you are starting to doubt all you thought you knew about trees, a penny drops and your companion says to you, ‘ah, I think you need to move a few feet to your left’. And then, of course, all is revealed – there is the oak. The intractable has been resolved. But not through argument. Not through trying harder. Not through staring more keenly. But by moving.
The biggest difficulty here though is that very often we do not even see our own mindset or perspective as a thing that exists. The way I am seeing things just appears to me to be the way things are. And if the difficulty is not resolving itself then the only explanation is that someone or something must be at fault – and depending on what mood I am in or what day it is, it is either my fault – or yours. And that’s it! And so I sway from one to the another, really getting nowhere until …
Well, until what, exactly?
I’m often not sure what makes the difference – what wakes me up – where the shaft of light comes from. But I do sense that the more I bring awareness to this process and practice with it in meditation (which is all about this shift) then the more (and sooner) such shifts seem to happen.
So, what I feel drawn to do in this next series of blogs, is simply to depict instances of such shifts happening in practice and see if this resonates with people.
The self-compassion shift.
But, to start with a general steer, one of the things which I have noticed is most effective in helping me to make this shift – to see a situation differently – is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Nor is it self-pity. But it is simply allowing an awareness of my own vulnerability and suffering into the picture. This will never, of course, be the whole picture – others in the frame are also suffering, some of whom may have been hurt by me. But to try to pretend that my suffering is completely irrelevant – as some more ascetic strands of spirituality may suggest – is to miss a key part of the picture. And without that part the situation cannot move forward.
In fact my sense is that until my own suffering has at least been acknowledged I find myself unable to let go of my mindset of blame (of myself or the other). But when I do acknowledge it, suddenly the whole picture changes. I not only allow myself to be a vulnerable person in this situation but also I start to recognise that the same is true for everyone else here too – that we are all vulnerable, reacting out of our defensiveness which makes it so difficult for us let go of our strongly held opinions and mindsets. And it is when we finally notice this, that something can shift.
So, here is a thought – a practice – for when you feel yourself in one of those intractable conversations or email exchanges. Simply ask the question: ‘Where is the suffering here?’ You might want to place a hand over your own heart or belly in a supportive and compassionate gesture as if to start with yourself. When I have done this and finally admitted to myself, ‘ah, I am anxious’ or ‘I feel hurt, excluded, not listened to, ….’ (but without then rushing to blame someone for this), then something changes. Compassion is now present. I can even feel my body relax. And there is a new openness to myself and others – and a new mindset with which I can approach this intractable situation.