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. 

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