In my last post, I discussed the connection between suffering and our perception of outward or temporal circumstance. In my next few posts, I’ll discuss the connection between suffering and our perception of other people. Why should we suffer needlessly due to our thought processes rooted in distorted perceptions? The scriptures tell us repeatedly that a bitter root brings forth bitter fruit. When we apply this metaphor to our individual perceptions toward one another, we’re able to see truths about ourselves (and thus, others) with more clarity. Too often, we assume our perception is unconditional truth when it is not. Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth says we can empower ourselves through conscious suffering. In other words, we choose our suffering by becoming less emotionally reactive:
You can only be in a state of non-reaction if you can recognize someone’s behavior as coming from the ego [their ego and your own], as being an expression of the collective human dysfunction. When you realize it’s not personal, there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were. By not reacting to the ego, you will often be able to bring out the sanity in others, which is the unconditional consciousness as opposed to the conditioned. At times, you may have to take practical steps to protect yourself from deeply unconscious people. This you can do without making them into enemies. Your greatest protection, however, is being conscious. Somebody becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Non-reaction is not weakness but strength. Another word for non-reaction is forgiveness (p. 62).
When I refuse to “own” the emotions of a family member, friend, colleague, student, acquaintance, or stranger, I feel emancipated. We can refuse (non-react) the emotional toxicity of another person—we don’t reject the person, just the toxicity. By the same token, I don’t hold others responsible for my own feelings or emotions. One way I “check” before feeling angry or hurt is to ask myself the following questions: Could it be that the mistakes of others are not really mistakes, but simply my own perception? Is it possible that the mistakes I make are not really mistakes, but simply my own distorted perception? Truly, we are the captains of our individual emotional ships—no one else. By consciously commanding what emotions I allow on my ship and which ones are thrown overboard, I become accountable. And accountability reduces suffering. Like any other skill set, perceptional change requires practice and discipline.
Let me delve a little deeper into the waters of accountability. By refusing to be accountable, we can justify any and every emotion we feel. This thought process leads us to justify any action. Think about it: even murderers justify their actions. Again, I refer to Eckhart Tolle:
A person in the grip of ego does not recognize suffering as suffering, but will look upon it as the only appropriate response in any given situation. The ego in its blindness is incapable of seeing the suffering it inflicts on itself [meaning self-inflicted suffering] and on others. Unhappiness is an ego-created mental-emotional disease that has reached epidemic proportions. It is the inner equivalent of the environmental pollution of our planet. Negative states such as anger, anxiety, hatred, resentment, discontent, envy, jealousy, and so on, are not recognized as negative but as totally justified and are further misperceived not as self-created but as caused by someone else or some external factor. ‘I am holding you responsible for my pain.’ If, in the midst of negativity, you are able to realize, “At this moment I am creating suffering for myself’….it will open up infinite possibilities which come to you when there is awareness— other vastly more intelligent ways of dealing with any situation. You will be free to let go of your unhappiness the moment you recognize it as unintelligent. Negativity is not intelligent. Shakespeare said, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ (p. 110-112).
It took me a l-o-o-o-n-g time to finally get that! Mr. Tolle also lists “the most common unconscious thoughts that feed the feeling of discontent or background resentment” in our day-to-day living: “Whenever there is unhappiness in the background or foreground of your life, you can see which one of these thoughts applies and to your personal situation:
- There is something that needs to happen in my life before I can be at peace (happy, fulfilled, etc.). And I resent that it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe my resentment will finally make it happen.
- Something happened in the past that should not have happened, and I resent that. If that hadn’t happened, I would be at peace now.
- Something is happening now that should not be happening, and it is preventing me from being at peace now.
Often the unconscious beliefs are directed toward a person and so “happening” becomes “doing”:
- You should do this or that so that I can be at peace. And I resent that you haven’t done it yet. Maybe my resentment will make you do it.
- Something you (or I) did, said, or failed to do in the past is preventing me from being at peace now.
- What you are doing or failing to do now is preventing me from being at peace.
Mr. Tolle explains that “all of the above are assumptions, unexamined thoughts that are confused with reality. They are stories the [our] ego creates to convince you that you cannot be at peace now or fully yourself now” (p. 112-114). I made the conscious effort to be accountable for my own feelings, and thus take full responsibility for my subsequent actions. True, it’s easier to blame others for our emotions; we’re relieved of responsibility (and thus suffering) in the short run. Yet, as with any life principle, productive, constructive hard work (whether physical or emotional) pays off…. our muscles might hurt, but that kind of hurt feels good!