I once read about someone whose mother used to say, “Don’t be sorry, be different.” How many times have you wished you could go back and handle something differently or better?
Lately, I’ve been working on experiencing the world with curiosity rather than judgement by training myself to have a first reaction of, “Hmm, what’s going on here?” rather than, “Oh, I don’t like this.” Just seeing what is without deciding whether or not I like it. The test, of course, is when I’m out in the world with other people and challenging situations.
My daughter and I recently visited an out of town store where she needed to exchange some clothes. I wanted to leave as soon as I walked through the door. I did not want to be there. Later, when my husband met us there, I told him how unpleasant the experience had been for me. He asked why I hadn’t just walked a few steps out the side door to sit on a bench in the mall. My daughter could still have called me if she needed me.
Unfortunately, I got so caught up in the “I hate this” story in my head that I couldn’t see beyond it. All I could see were more things I didn’t like. We entered the store from the street and not only didn’t I see the bench, I didn’t even see there was a side door or a mall for that matter! In my imagined “do-over” I would stay open and curious, seeing all the possibilities around me, and maybe spend some quiet time relaxing on that bench.
I could simply write that store incident off and hope I will be different next time. It’s tempting. After all, it wasn’t my finest hour. However, chances are that if I don’t make some changes I will repeatedly “be sorry” rather than different.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and teacher, likens emotions to dormant seeds that we always carry deep within us until something brings them to the surface. What I experienced in that store brought my seed of intolerance to the surface and every subsequent negative thought I had “watered” that seed. Unfortunately, the next time it surfaces it will likely be stronger because of the good watering I gave it.
So how can I be different the next time that seed of intolerance arises? Hanh suggests that our negative seeds can be lessened by purposefully calling them to the surface and looking at them objectively. So before letting the incident go, I purposefully replayed it in my mind at a time when I was feeling calm and reflective. I didn’t replay it in order to beat myself up because I didn’t handle it well. Rather, I stepped back and reflected on the situation objectively – what happened, how did I handle it, what emotions did I experience. No judgment. No excuses. No good or bad. Just what happened. I didn’t try and push the ugly bits away. I just saw them, like watching a movie of myself. Hanh calls this watering the seed of mindfulness.
What we pay attention to grows. So not only do I want to pay attention to and water the seeds I want to grow, like tolerance and compassion, I also want to pay attention to the seeds I would like to shrink, like intolerance. Paying attention and reflecting strengthens my mindfulness seed. The stronger my mindfulness, the more I will be able to recognize any unwanted behaviours and change them before they lead to regret.
If I do this type of reflection each time I wish for a “do-over”, not only will my negative seeds continue to get smaller and weaker, my mindfulness seed will continue to grow. So hopefully the next time I find myself in a less than ideal situation I will be reminded of the time I couldn’t see the bench and instead of sinking into negative thoughts I will stay curious and wonder what I am missing this time. I will be different.