Here’s an updated parable from the ancient Taoist teacher, Chuang-Tzu: Imagine that you are floating in a canoe on a slow-moving river, having a Sunday picnic with a friend. Suddenly there is a loud thump on the side of the canoe, and it rolls over. You come up sputtering, and what do you see? Somebody has snuck up on your canoe, flipped it over for a joke, and is laughing at you. How do you feel?
OK. Now imagine the exact same situation again: the picnic in a canoe, loud thump, dumped into the river, coming up sputtering, and what do you see? A large submerged log has drifted downstream and bumped into your canoe. This time, how do you feel?
The facts are the same in each case: cold and wet, picnic ruined. But when you feel personally picked on, everything feels worse. The thing is, most of what bumps into us in life – including emotional reactions from others, traffic jams, illness, or mistreatment at work – is like an impersonal log put in motion by 10,000 causes upstream.
Say a friend is surprisingly critical toward you. It hurts, for sure, and you need to address the situation, from talking about it directly to disengaging from the relationship.
But also consider what may have caused that person to bump into you, such as: interpretations and misinterpretations of your actions; personal health problems, pain, worries or anger about other things, temperament, personality, childhood experiences; causes from the larger context, like our economy and culture, or world events; and causes back upstream in time, like how his or her parents were raised.
Recognize the humbling yet also wonderful truth: most of the time, we are bit players in other people’s dramas.
When you do this, you naturally get calmer, put the situation in context, and don’t get so caught up in me-myself-and-I. Then you feel better, plus more clear-headed about what to do.
Really enjoy taking things less personally!
To begin with, have compassion for yourself. Getting smacked by a log is a drag. Also take appropriate action. Keep an eye out for logs heading your way, try to reduce their impact, and repair your “boat” – relationship, health, finances, career – as best you can. And maybe think about finding a new river!
• Notice when you start to take something personally. Be mindful of what that feels like – and also what it feels like to relax the sense of being personally targeted.
• Be careful about making assumptions about the intentions of others. Maybe they didn’t do it “on purpose.” Or maybe there was one not-so-good purpose aimed at you all mixed up with a dozen other purposes.
• Reflect on some of the 10,000 causes upstream. Ask yourself: what else could be in play here? What’s going on inside the other person’s mind and life? What’s the bigger picture?
• Beware getting caught up in your “case” about other people: the inner prosecutor that keeps pounding on all the ways they’re wrong, spoke badly, acted unfairly, picked on you, really really harmed you, made you suffer, etc. etc. It’s good to see others clearly, and there’s a place for moral judgment – but case-making is a kind of obsessing that makes you feel worse, plus more likely to over-react and create an even bigger problem.
• Try to have compassion for the other people. They’re probably not all that happy, either. Your compassion for them will not weaken you or let them off the moral hook; actually, it will make you feel better.
And – really soak in the growing sense of ease, strength, and peacefulness that comes from taking life less personally.
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Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter – Just One Thing – that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.