There’s an expression we’ve all heard: “There are two sides to every story.” In a world of 7 billion people, that saying seems to be a gross understatement. The greater truth is probably that every story has many, many sides; and those sides have many, many angles; and those angles have many, many degrees — and on and on and on. We live in a diverse world full of diverse beings and each of us is blessed with our own unique perspective of the myriad of moments that fill our days.
Those perspectives are based on many factors. Spiritually we have an overreaching cosmic perspective to our existence. Genetically we inherit a family story that has traveled through our family DNA for generations. Societally we absorb the programming of the culture in which we live — its rules, values, marketing, etc. From our own life experiences we accumulate the individual lessons we’ve learned throughout this lifetime. All of those perspectives, and more, are influenced and impacted again and again by each other, creating what we call “reality.” The wildly unique nature of our perspectives is often the cause of our desperately crying out to other beings in disbelief during a disagreement, “Can’t you see?” The quite obvious and logical answer is no … because from their unique perspective, how could they ever see what we are seeing from ours?
I’ve been contemplating this idea as I had an experience recently with someone I love. A situation arose that we experienced together, but each in our own ways. To say it more directly, we had a disagreement. That disagreement was further compounded as we disagreed on the timing we had to address it. And then, when we did address it, we disagreed even more about how we each had handled it. The result was that this person I love told me I was neither loving nor kind.
That’s an interesting comment for me to hear. It might sound like a fairly innocuous statement, but I have a lot invested in being loving and kind. I left a powerful place in business, wrote a book, share weekly blogs and daily social media updates, travel the world studying with teachers, and counsel friends and strangers, with an overarching theme of love and kindness — toward ourselves and others. So we can share this experience together, take a moment to breathe and get in touch with one of your major objectives in life: perhaps it’s your company plan, or being a good parent, or a product you’re building, or a spiritual objective you are pursuing. Now take another breath and imagine for a moment that your boss, or children, or customers, or spiritual advisor tells you that you’ve failed — that your plan isn’t good, you’re not a good parent, your product isn’t helpful, or your spiritual path is invalid. Ouch … right? We’ve all been there at one time or another and it hurts.
This situation brought up some interesting feelings for me, which I think are common to us all and can be summarized into these two questions:
1) Who am I when someone I love disagrees with me?
2) Who are my loved ones to me when we disagree?
Who am I when someone I love disagrees with me? This first question is a deep one. We all have an image of ourselves — a picture of who we believe we are. In my case, kind and loving are two major pieces of that. I really want my life to be an expression of loving kindness. When I look around I can find a lot of agreement around that fact. “I’m loving and kind … damn it!” But what happens when I find disagreement? Can I still experience myself as loving when someone I care about says I’m not? Which brings up the core question — who is the judge of my love and the arbitrator of my kindness?
In such a crowded world this question becomes important to our understanding of our self-worth because no matter how loving or kind or brilliant or beautiful or strategic or compassionate or perfect we might be (or think we are), someone at some time is bound to disagree. Even if we hide out in a cave all by ourselves to meditate and send loving vibes to the universe there’s probably some animal that thinks we’re really selfish for stealing its home! As we develop more familiar relationships with people, in our homes, at work, and on the Internet we are bound to have moments of disagreement about how we appear to others … and what then? Do we have a foundation and inner self-image that can survive disagreement?
My teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls this Essence Love. My wife and Sharon Salzberg once described it in a conversation as Innate Dignity. I like both of those descriptions of an inner quality of well-being that’s strong enough to weather the storm of disagreement. It’s the sensation that I’m good just as I am … and confident enough to be okay when someone else feels differently. In my life this has come from many hours of therapy and self-reflection — getting in touch with who I am beyond the superficial and learning to love me, for me. When that sense of wellness gets shaken, meditation has given me a tool to find my way home to essence love and innate dignity.
Who are my loved ones to me when we disagree? The second question is equally provoking. It interlaces with our own self-worth in that another way to ask this question is, “Do I need to make someone else bad in order to feel good about myself?” Can you relate to this sensation? When we feel attacked, or lessened by someone’s disapproval of us, often our first act is to list the ways they’re wrong, bad, or unworthy themselves. I’ve found that spirituality can add another, sneaky angle to this. Instead of saying someone’s bad, which we believe to be unholy, we denigrate them in another way by saying, “They’re not bad, they just don’t really get it because they haven’t done the work I have.” If you’re like me, that one hits home and draws a knowing (and somewhat guilty) grin on your face.
But what if we don’t have to do this? If we have addressed question one honestly and have found a place of comfort and balance within ourselves, then we have an invitation to allow others to have the same opportunity. There’s no motivation to make them bad and we can allow for the fact that there isn’t a static right or wrong and, instead, be okay with two differing viewpoints from two similar beings seeking to feel good.
This is tough sometimes, because the disagreements we experience can be so personal. Like being told you’re unloving, or unkind, or undeserving of a raise or a hug. But until we’re okay with there being diverse opinions, including our own, we end up chasing approval around our entire lives the way my dog Juni chases her tail. It’s exciting and, at times, it seems we’re making progress, but ultimately it’s pointless as we realize we already have what we’re chasing. All we have to do is stop, breathe, and accept and love ourselves as we are … and then give that same gift to others.
As I’ve been exploring these questions in relation to my own situation, a final question came up for me: Is resolution necessary … or even helpful? That’s a challenge to most of the advice we normally get around disagreements. “Talk it out,” “Find a compromise,” and “Share your feelings,” can be good advice … at times. At others, though, these bits of advice are a mask for our true objective: to prove ourselves right and get the other person to agree with us. This is the result of not truly finding comfort within the two questions above. When we can answer the question “Who am I” and “Who is the other person” from a place of acceptance and equanimity, the need for an external resolution becomes less important … or perhaps not important at all and is, instead, replaced by an invitation to learn about ourselves, to practice and to grow. In my case this means that my loved one and I can experience a relationship in which it’s safe to share opinions and also safe to disagree — and one in which we explore the questions posed above as part of a practice of personal growth that forgoes the normal relationship blame game. In this way disagreements become invitations to practice and to grow.
This week I invite you to join me in my practice of loving kindness. Find a comfortable place to sit. Fully relax while maintaining balance and grounding. Begin by sharing this tender message with yourself — “May I be safe. May I be loved. May I be filled with peace … May I be safe. May I be loved. May I be filled with peace.” Continue this for a while and then, when that message has sunk in, move on to someone you love: “May she be safe. May she be loved. May she be filled with peace …” Then, when it feels right, move on to a person you are neutral about. Someone toward whom there is no charge (positive or negative). “May he be safe. May he be loved. May he be filled with peace …” Next, as you are moved to do so, turn the meditation toward someone with whom you are experiencing difficulties. This isn’t meant to forgive or justify or manipulate, just to send love. “May he be safe. May he be loved. May he be filled with peace …” I find spending extra time on the person I’m having a hard time with to be really healing. So take your time, dwell there a moment . “May he be safe. May he be loved. May he be filled with peace …” Then, when you’re ready, you can move on to all beings, everywhere — people, animals, plants, spirits — everyone and everything. “May they all be safe. May they all be loved. May they all be filled with peace …”
As we go through life together, experiencing ups and downs, good times and bad, triumphs and challenges, agreements and disagreements …
Big hugs of love,