Friday, January 18, 2013

Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Read Toltec Agreement 1: Be Impeccable with Your Word 

Read Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

I'd like to tell you a story.

My family and I went on a 5-day cruise to the Bahamas last year. A dream vacation I'll never forget, the excursion was a tremendous experience, from picturesque Miami and the spectacular Florida Keys to the pristine waterscapes of the Bahamian islands. The room on board was comfortable, the activities fantastic, the staff attentive, and the food options satisfied my vegetarian needs. On the fourth evening, as the liner's propellers ripped through the waters westward from Nassau -- heralding our return journey -- my family and I gathered in the Dining Hall for our last meal on board. With each sway of the wave crest, we excitedly sailed through our activities and experiences of the day. The waiter appeared and after exchanging pleasantries, we ordered our food and beverage choices. The waiter returned with our beverages and appetizers. Amid snorts and laughs, we took ravenous bites of the bread and large swallows of our drinks, as if we were breaking a fast. 

When dinner arrived, I plunged my fork into my plate and extracted a piece of food that looked like a cauliflower floret. Its chewy texture and unfamiliar taste, however, was an instant red alert. Chicken! My forehead creased up, my eyes widened, and my mouth fell open. I could feel horror rising in me. Lowering my head, I rose slightly and pushed back my chair. I suppose this was the opportune moment for me to have yelled out in anger, flung a few undesirable words in the waiter's direction, perhaps even engaged in dramatic behavior to express my outrage, such as splashing a glass of water on the waiter's face. It's the generalized, conditioned reaction one would expect to see. Instead, I grabbed myself and made a mad dash to the bathroom to rinse off my mouth. 

With my heart rate dampening and adrenaline normalizing, I re-joined my bewildered family, quickly appraised them of the situation, and then signaled the waiter. I proceeded, as calmly as I could, to describe to him what had happened and requested a replacement meal. He apologized profusely, then ran back in and returned in an instant with the correct entree and his manager. This marked the beginning of a better evening. Very somberly, he explained how he had mistakenly picked up the bowl of chicken curry instead of the paneer curry, which, incidentally, is set in an adjacent tray on the same counter. His explanation sounded plausible and he appeared to be genuinely sorry for the oversight. My shock began to wear off. His manager apologized and assured me that the waiters are well-trained and this was a legitimate slip, which occurs rather infrequently. I guzzled down an entire 8oz. of water and took several deep breaths. The manager's manager stepped out and apologized. Nearly everyone, but the captain, came forward and expressed regret. I have to admit that I appreciated their candor and truly welcomed their customer-oriented service. 

As for my own lack of what generally would be perceived as a "normal reaction" following the discovery of chicken on my vegetarian tongue, I had a choice: I could have taken it personally and made it all about me, or I could have exercised restraint, taken command of the situation and then responded in an appropriate, responsible and mature manner, regardless of my emotional state -- which is what I chose. There's no question that I was feeling violated and betrayed beyond words. To a lifelong vegetarian, experiencing meat can be rather traumatic. To me, being vegetarian is a discipline; I have nothing against my meat-eating brethren. Generally speaking, I prepare my own meals as it affords greater control over what goes on my plate. When we eat out, I talk to the waiter and/or chef and weigh them down with questions until my culinary doubts are satisfied. Thus, in this instance, had I chosen to act out my feelings, I still would have been justified -- in a manner of speaking -- given that I didn't have control over plating my food.

I knew there had to be an explanation for the way in which things had unfolded that evening. It's a well-known fact that cruise ship employees work under rigorous physical, mental and emotional strain. Most of the staff stays on board for 9-10 months at a time, away from family and friends, and works nonstop from daybreak to late night, everyday. When someone works under extreme circumstances, like cruise ship employees do, you can't help but empathize with their situation. Sure, the waiter served me meat, but he didn't do it to spite me or diss me. It was a valid gaffe and he took responsibility for it. At the end of it all, I had to realize that he is a human being, as I am, and embodies deficiencies and imperfections, as I do. With the humanity in me willing to let go of the trauma of the incident, I was able to power forward with pleasant memories of the cruise rather than have recurring nightmares of the incident.

One thing that I have learned in life is lashing out in anger wastes time for sure, but it also holds us back from transitioning into the loving, balanced beings that we truly are under the cloak of our ego. Reacting with anger, denial or defensiveness only serves to fortify the cloak's protection, making it impossible to favor values such as compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and equanimity. Try channeling anger into action, and watch as your obscured, true self begins to reveal itself. With continued efforts, egoic wants such as resistance, judgment, and the habitual negative thinking slowly begin to diminish, while pressing needs such as love, sensitivity and empathy gradually begin to amplify. 

Of course, merely nodding in agreement to and applauding the beauty of philosophical concepts cannot bring about true and lasting change. To actualize change, you must give yourself permission to change, and hold the intent. You must experience the reality of existence in the raw and in the now. Meditation is a tool that allows you to make that conscious contact with your inner self and regain the power of intention. When you get busy rearranging your brain cells, you will have no time left to engage in negative behaviors, make needless assumptions or take anything personally!  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

Read Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Assumptions have their place in the universe, especially in math and science. For instance, when confronted with a math word problem, a few assumptions in the calculations are in order. Else, the question might be too complex to solve. Without standard assumptions, there'd be no mathematical functions, mapping and operations. Mathematical assumptions allow us to identify patterns that help us better understand our world. For example, the cyclical nature of warm ocean currents, the monthly phases of the moon, the waxing and waning of wildlife populations, the rise and fall of groundwater levels, the bear- and bull-market trading on Wall Street, the real estate bubble. Basic scientific assumptions have put humans on the moon, launched satellites, allowed the proliferation of global communication networks, enriched medical science and human health, enhanced exploration of the deep oceans, and helped develop weather and climate sciences. 

When it comes to life and living, however, assumptions take on a whole different meaning. Think of the many assumptions we make in relationships -- about ourselves, about family, peers, subordinates and higher-ups -- as well as those we make about perspectives and life situations. Why do we make assumptions? Because it is the nature of the mind to internalize and personalize the sensory input it receives through the five portals of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It's a way for the mind to evaluate an experience, validate its significance, and stash it into the appropriate memory pile. 

Constructive assumptions such as love, patience, trust and mutual respect must preface our efforts to innovate and communicate, establish norms and boundaries, manage and resolve conflict, clarify and understand issues, and negotiate solutions. On a more practical plane, assumptions are necessary to get through the day. Imagine wanting to know the meaning of and the intent behind every single word that comes hurtling towards us. We'd lose our minds, for sure, and we'd never get anything done! 

Most times, however, the assumptions we make don't necessarily reflect reality. Remember when you were young and made assumptions about life, people or situations, and realized their hollowness only as you got older? When I was 8 or 9 and growing up in India, I remember looking at a picture postcard of downtown New York City and being mesmerized by its skyline. This inspired a juvenile assumption that the entire US looked like New York. The assumption hung in my consciousness like a sacred object until years later, I actually traveled to the US, and as the plane began its descent at Los Angeles airport, I lurched forward toward the window, fully expecting the New York-like landscape to flare into existence. To say that I was disappointed is a libelous understatement! (LA, you're all right, but you're no New York. Sorry!) 

Assumptions set expectations, and expectations set up an individual for disappointment, failure, even loss. It's one thing to show up for an exam with the assumption it'll be easy. If it isn't, well, you could take it again. How about when there's a burglary in the neighborhood, a shooting in the mall, your relative's house burns down, your child's friend is abducted, or you know a super storm is about to roll in and you ignore the evacuation orders? Other examples include identity theft, credit card fraud, addictions, stock market losses, and job loss. The common assumption here is, "It'll never happen to me." Seriously? Think again. Life-altering situations highlight the wisdom of safety, security, planning and preparation, providing us with opportunities to step out of the shadow of deep-seated denial patterns. The freedom to choose their way of life, however, rests with the individual.

Most conflicts and drama in relationships originate in assumptions. Especially for those deficient in self-worth, assumptions are their emotional crutch. Choosing to assume things about others' feelings and behaviors spawns stories in our heads, stories that have little to do with the truth and a whole lot to do with our EGO and our systems of evaluation and interpretation. Such assumptions often set the stage for blame, with the outcome spanning the gamut from disagreements and emotional outbursts to verbal/physical attacks, estrangement, even break-ups and divorce. Remaining present and paying greater attention to the facts strengthens the possibility of a calmer, more equitable outcome. The exercising of choice is thus a personal right that points to one of two things: a smooth arc of increasing self-awareness and organization, or a wiggly curve of increasing fogginess and disorder. 
Consider the assumptions we make about ourselves. Believing he is super talented, an individual shows up at a singing audition, only to realize that he has no talent at all. Convinced she has cancer, a person charges to her doctor's office, only to be told she's suffering from the common cold. Oh, those assumptions are so rooted in self-importance and cockiness!

Assumptions are very limiting and can incite irrational behaviors. A deterrent to growth, assumptions keep us from validating others' points of view. For example, when we like something, the natural assumption is that others will also like it. We inundate everyone with our sense of likes, dislikes and preferences. We swamp their phones with text messages and flood their Facebook page with photo images. Like that isn't enough, we incessantly talk about it at every opportunity, paying little attention to our overbearing behaviors that push people away. The wake-up call sounds when we suddenly find ourselves amid a shrinking pool of friends and well wishers, at which point some of us will likely accept responsibility for the behavior and pledge to be more mindful. For others, it could bring on pre-conditioned reactivity, namely judgment and criticism -- the upshot of unmet expectation brought on by assumptions. Colored by the experience, these individuals accessorize their minds with even more futile assumptions. This circular nature of assumptions holds people back from effective learning and stymies social interactions. Clearly, the choices we make will determine the consequences we will suffer.

Assumptions can engender erroneous mindsets by promoting bias. Racial remarks, sexual remarks and gender remarks are some of the biggest stereotypes today, and stem from ignorance and fear. Stereotypes such as Chinese are bad drivers, men are better at math than women, all smart people are geeks, all African American are good at sports, all Latin American women are sexual vixens, all Muslims are terrorists, all teenagers are rebels, and all politicians are corrupt are not only hurtful, they are fundamentally wrong. It's one of the primary factors that causes people to live in fear. Their concern about being boxed into a category that could potentially set them up for harassment and discrimination is legitimate. The sad truth is that we always choose to see others as different from us. Why not choose to focus on our similarities instead? With a new mindset, lofty ideals -- such as unity, harmony and world peace -- that have long eluded humanity, might be well within reach. 

Individuals who habitually assume, often, are intransigent, very unpersuasive to change. "It's his fault" or "It's her responsibility" is the assumed rhetoric. Throw inaction and passivity into the mix, and the result is a reflexive retardant that inhibits change altogether. Why does it always have to be someone or something else's fault or responsibility? How much longer are we going to continue to think the same old thoughts, which will lead to the same old disagreeable habits and behaviors, which in turn will lead to the same old undesirable results? How much longer are we going to duck behind the shield of our assumptions? Why not jam the brakes and reflect. Is it my fault? Am I to blame? How did I contribute to the problem? Perhaps, most importantly, How can I be part of the solution? Within the realm of our own existence, we each have an obligation to be fully present and participate in life's affairs, to examine and prioritize what works, what doesn't, what can stay, what needs to go, and then incorporate sustainable, affordable and common-sense fixes and upgrades that would work for us and those around us. The bottom line? Embracing the winds of change and being receptive to the waves of compromise are key to enhancing the quality of life and living.  

Awaken to the freedom of choice. You can bullet-proof your mind of assumptions by choosing your attitudes, thereby choosing your ways. You can reject the tyranny of assumptions by choosing to identify and terminate past patterns. You can aid the transition from inaction to participation by choosing to be present and mindful. Commit to cultivating awareness. With continued practice, awareness of the present moment inspires deeper levels of calm and clarity and a keener alertness of choice -- a gift that you get to keep, forever.