If you've been following along since last week's blog posting, you'll know that I'm blogging throughout the Jewish month of Elul on daily themes created by my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. If you use Twitter, you'll be able to see many posts by many bloggers on the daily theme by following #BlogElul.
Today's theme is Intentions.
Yesterday's post was about inventories. As I reflected on taking stock of our own character trait inventories, I used judgment as an example. I'm aware that this is a character trait that I've worked on over a period of years. While I am always going to be 'a work in progress', I know that I've been able to adjust how this particular trait plays out in my own life. Today's theme - Intentions - has a lot to do with how I've been able to make some progress in this area.
In any given day, we experience effects caused by the words and actions of many other people. If we are able to be truly mindful about what is happening, we might be able to clearly identify the act. We might also be able to clearly identify how we are feeling. But, for most of us, we rarely possess such clarity. Rather, somebody does or says something, it invokes a feeling in us, and we then construct a whole story about it. And this is what gets us into trouble.
Let me provide an example. Someone ignores you when you are waiting for attention in a store. Or cuts in front of you in a line or on the highway. Our judgmental voice - the one that rings out with a righteous sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, steps in. Our ego is bruised. 'Why do they think they are more important than me that they need to go first and ignore my needs?' 'What a selfish person to think that they don't need to wait patiently like the rest of us.' 'Doesn't that driver realize the enormous harm they could cause if I hadn't noticed them and put my foot on the brake - how reckless and irresponsible!'
But the truth is, while we may have been unfortunate enough to interact with an individual who thinks and behaves in these ways, there are many other possible stories we could tell. 'That shop attendant needs me to gently turn their attention my way; they are lost in thought because they are worried about their ailing mother in the hospital.' 'That driver just received a call that their kid got hit by the ball in lacrosse and was taken to the emergency room - they are getting there as quickly as they can.'
Notice how these completely different stories transform your emotional response to the very same set of circumstances. In mindfulness practice, being aware of what is real and what is the story we tell ourselves about our experience of that reality is one of the gifts we can receive from meditation. In Buddhist meditation, 'Suffering' is understood as a psycho-spiritual condition we often inflict upon ourselves by remaining attached to stories that may or may not be accurate, and serve no useful purpose as we try to live our best lives.
So learning that I cannot assume the intentions of the other can release me from a lot of the hurt that I might be feeling. If I have a difficult interaction with someone, finding a way to enquire about their intentions can be the opening to a conversation. Perhaps I will just listen and gain a new insight into the essence of another. Or perhaps I will feel a need to explain to them that, while they may have intended one thing, I experienced it in another way. It may be important that they gain some awareness of my responses to certain things. We come to better know each other and, perhaps, to act with more consciousness and sensitivity to each other's needs. And, as I come to realize that the intentions of the 'other' may not be what I first assumed to be so, I may gain greater awareness of the ways in which my own intentions can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. Learning this about ourselves and about others can help us to lessen the voice of judgment and strengthen the voice of compassion within us.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz