“How did I fail to see it?” I asked a friend recently.
“We need to see things As They Are, not As We Want Them To be,” she replied.
Later that week, I was given one of those brainteasers where you have to join the dots using a limited number of lines. You’ve probably seen it. If you haven’t, it’s pretty simple: just join the dots using no more than FOUR straight lines, without lifting your pen from the page:
I had seen it before, but it was fun to see the other people given the brainteaser struggle with the field of dots in front of them. The field implies a shape, but the implied shape is not actually there. The brain imposes a familiar shape, and the familiar shape prevents you from seeing the other possibilities. (Out of interest, there is more than one feasible solution.)
Of course, the notion of a paradigm shift, of “thinking out of the box” is not unfamiliar to most of us. I’ve seen this exercise (and many like it), I thought. I’ve facilitated workshops of my own where I’ve given this very exercise to other people. It illustrates terribly nicely how our own pre-existing assumptions limit our ability to solve utterly soluble problems. Don’t impose judgements. See what is there, not what you think you see. Yeah yeah yeah. We’ve all heard it before. I already know this stuff, I thought. But then it occurred to me that all I was doing now was the same thing, dressed in a new guise. The revised value judgement? The familiar is of less value than the unfamiliar. I’d seen it before, therefore it had nothing to show me.
Is this so? What happens when we overlook the familiar simply because it is familiar?
The work of cultivating awareness is largely the work of listening carefully, paying careful attention. Labelling situations or events as positive or negative is, in a sense, a way of washing over the reality with value judgement. I like it – so I see it through the gleaming pretty wash of my own preference. I don’t like it – so I see it through the dark, distorting colours of my own dislike. Both positive and negative judgements are a distortion. The opposite of the voice of judgement is not the sweet voice of love and appreciation. The opposite of the voice of judgement is attentive, receptive silence. And writing off the familiar is simply another, insidious face of our tendency of not seeing what’s in front of us.
All too often, in the literature and encounters of self-development, we hear the injunction to “drop judgement”, to “listen unjudgementally.” But all too often, that becomes code for “be positive and appreciative”; applaud everyone. We particularly welcome and respond to the familiar. I identify with your story; you must be just like me; I have empathy for you. I do not identify at all with your story; you are so different from me; we have nothing in common; I cannot empathise at all. Identifying positively with others is not evidence of non-judgement at all. In fact, it is often the hallmark of yet more judgement – although it’s the kind of judgement that we find comforting and enjoyable to entertain.
But what is the point of dropping judgements if they are fun and enjoyable? Why not simply delight in positive identification when it coes up?
The point is that positive judgement is no less destructive than negative judgement, it’s just more insidious. We live in a society where we are trained from an early age to perform for approval. I see it with my little boy, who is constantly told how “good” he is. “Good” being code for quiet, well-behaved, convenient for others. Crying is “naughty”; quietness is “good”. This is where it starts. Later it will graduate towards enforcing being “nice”, being “polite”, doing what “you’re supposed to”… And how many of us have had to unlearn this coded, deeply internalised judgement in years and years of therapy? And how many more of us live lives fraught and unhappy, locked beneath a facade of doing what they think they should do, with people they should like, partners they should love, when underneath it they don’t? Living a little more authentically than that – that is the point of dropping the judgements.
It is constant work, this work of awareness. Wishing you all a week – or a day, or perhaps just a moment – of seeing things As They Are.