Three tips to objectively address, and compassionately ignore, the little voice in your head.
A weird thing happened last week. It was early – and dark – and a group of yoga students and teachers were talking outside of the studio before class. A man, a black man, approached saying something like “sorry to bother you but – ” – except he didn’t get to finish, because one of the men in the group had seen him approach and immediately asked him to move on; he refused to hear more of what the man was saying, “please, there are ladies here, just leave us alone”.
It started to escalate. Voices raised. When I eventually heard the man’s question I stepped in, gave the him what he wanted, he said thank you, and left.
We all have primal instincts which help us determine when we might be in danger – it’s an integral part of our evolution. Unfortunately the physical and emotional response that was once reserved for sabre-tooth tigers and the like now because of history, stereotypes, media, and others can be set off by someone who looks a certain way. When we go into situations completely guided by our little voices, they often escalate instead of resolve. I believe that with a little awareness and compassion this confrontation, and others – whether with strangers, friends, or loved ones – could go very differently. Here’s three tips to objectively address, and compassionately ignore, the little voice in your head:
1. Separate yourself and your little voice
A simple and effective trick I learned a few years ago to begin to consider the voice in your head objectively is to separate “it” from your sense of “I”. Using the word “it” relieves us of the sense of blame and judgement around our instincts – it’s not you, it’s “it”; and a lot of evolution, influences, and conditioning are driving what “it” has to say. Practice phrasing your reactions and biases as if they were coming from “it”. If this sounds silly to you, you could say “my little voice says”, or “my instinct says” – but acknowledge that it’s not you, and you don’t have to listen.
2. Listen to what “it” has to say
Wait, what? Contrary to my title, we can’t and shouldn’t totally ignore the little voice in our heads, but we do need to consider what other factors might be shaping it. Now that we’ve separated out “it”, listen to what “it” is saying – take a deep breath, and think about what biases or conditioning could be in play (what, not if, because they are always there) compared to the reality of the situation in front of you. What assumptions is “it” making?
Understand that whatever “it” is saying – your little voice is only acting to protect you, it’s a crazy little creature and has the best intentions. After considering the influences on “it” you can decide based on the facts of the situation at hand to agree or compassionately ignore.
3. Stop thinking, start feeling
Once you tune out the voice, you can tune into what you’re feeling. When something really is wrong, it’s not just our heads talking – it’s our bodies too. For me this is also about having the compassion to see the other side; just like you addressed your “it”, take a few seconds to feel where the other person might be coming from. Guess what, we all have our “its”, and giving someone the benefit of the doubt can shift the whole energy of a confrontation, sometimes, there’s not much to lose by assuming the best:
The yogi: He sees the man approach. He knows this can be a rough area. He’s one of the oldest in the group, and one of the only men – it’s his job to protect; he’s been taught that his whole life. He’s confident he can diffuse the situation quickly if he asks the stranger to move on. It doesn’t quite work that way; the man is persistent. He eventually gets his question out and it is a simple request – but it’s too late now, to back down would be embarrassing – a sign of weakness. When the girl steps in to help he feels defeated, deflated – a failure.
The stranger: He looks around, he needs a little help. There are a group of people standing outside a yoga studio. He takes a breath before approaching – he’s been through this time and time again – he knows what they’ll think. He approaches directly, smiling, asks his question quickly, but he’s shut down. He gets frustrated, why does it always have to be like this? He tries to get his question out again – eventually he does. All he wants is a pen and a piece of paper to write an address down, he works across the street. When the woman steps out of the crowd and gives it to him he thanks her, and goes on his way. He’s not surprised by the reaction but it still hurts, some things never change.
Sometimes we act on “it”, sometimes we don’t, what’s important is to listen to what it says, consider why its saying it, tune in to how you feel, and open up to the possibility that people are fundamentally good.
At first these three steps might be something that you do in retrospect, after you’ve already reacted; it can take a very long time to create enough space between our triggers and reactions to observe “it”. Yoga and (especially) meditation have been huge for me in finding that space. If you’re new to yoga, check out my other posts for some introductions to poses, and stay tuned for some free meditations available to subscribers in the next few days.