“We begin in dreams. Then we wake up. The world shrinks to the size of our own little selves. We become egotistic. The isolated, skin-bound, brain-bound, self-feeling being that has been growing within us since we recognized ourselves and proclaimed “Me!” takes over…. Gradually the paradigm changes, the call is muffled, the world becomes other.” (From The Best American Spiritual Writing, ed. Philip Zaleski, ‘The Gift of the Call’ from Parabola, p. 3, c. 2005, Houghton Mifflin company, Boston, New York)
When I lose sight of the fact that I perceive the world through the lens of my ego and that that view is of my own creation and not inherently real, I am in effect making the world shrink to encompass only one very tiny perspective. The world becomes only what “I” see, and what “I” perceive. And what if I take that view for truth? Does it really matter? The following incident that happened to me might help to provide an answer:
It is late one afternoon and everyone in our department is busy working. The atmosphere is peaceful and upbeat. Suddenly Jane, from another department, storms into the room, glares at us all and curtly demands, “Who’s working tonight?”
“Maureen and I,” says Danielle.
“Well, you had better get your breaks done fast,” Jane says angrily. “ I don’t want to stay one minute later than I have to. I still have to give breaks in my department so you had better not be even one minute late.”
All of us are stunned into silence. There is no need to raise her voice, or to be angry. Danielle and I would be happy to comply.
“We will do as you ask,” I say, narrowing my gaze to meet hers. I hear the curtness in my tone. She’s got a lot of bloody nerve, I think. I pause. I mean, who does she think she is and where does she get off treating us like that? With great effort, I drop my gaze and though feeling hurt and angry, manage not to say anything mean minded back.
“You’d better,” Jane says, before storming out of the room.
Later, when she comes, I smile and make an effort to be friendly. She gives us our breaks, says little, and leaves. The next day, Fiona, from our department, tells me that she spoke to Jane much later after the angry outburst and asked her what was the matter, was something wrong? Jane had burst into tears. Her cat had suddenly died that morning, mere hours before she had stormed into our department.
Our perceptions, if we take them for truth, narrow the world down to one tiny view. And the world is so much more than that. There can also be so much potential for harm in a narrow worldview that comes from one way of seeing. Consider the dangers inherent within the narrow parameters of fundamentalism for example.
There are so many worldviews out there. If you think about it, there are as many worldviews as there are sentient beings. Sometimes, when I become aware through the media of some group or other trying to impose their view and way of doing things on others and all the while demonstrating total intolerance for even the possibility that another view could possibly exist, I start to think. How could just one worldview, one religion, or one philosophy possibly even begin to cover and account for the incredible diversity that exists within humanity? And yet, within this incredible diversity, there is a common thread. We are all human. We all want to be happy and without pain. We all want and need to be loved. We all need food to eat and clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads. And we all have the capacity for compassion.
When we open ourselves up to the idea that we, each and every one of us, are not the centre of the universe, and that our, or “my” view of how things are and how things should be, is just that, “my” view, we free ourselves up to see what is really out there. We free ourselves up to experience real compassion for the Janes of this world. When I could only see that “I” was hurt and how dare “she” talk to me in that way, I set up a wall that prevented me from seeing the reality of Jane. My ego had not only responded from anger to Jane’s outburst, but it couldn’t disassociate Jane’s anger from Jane. Jane wasn’t her anger. She is just another human being who can be happy or angry, just like the rest of us. As it turned out, Jane had been acting out of her hurt; losing a beloved pet is a terribly painful experience, and my responding to her anger with anger did nothing to help her. If I had responded from equanimity, rather than from my ego’s false sense of wounded pride, it wouldn’t have mattered what was behind her anger; I would have been far more likely to have responded from a place of kindness and compassion.
The Dalai Lama says that “For people to focus on ‘my life,’ ‘my life,’ ‘my life’ destroys the capacity for compassion. From that perspective, a small problem appears to be a gigantic problem and only brings more unhappiness, frustration, insecurity, and fear.”