I was walking in Vancouver the other day in a neighbourhood some might call, "not quite the best,” when I saw a young man approaching me. I gauged his age to be in his mid-to-late teens. He was wearing gangsta’ clothing from reversed baseball cap to low rise pants and he had that look that only boys of a certain age think looks tough. But being, shall we say, a woman of a certain age, I approached with caution. Then I thought to myself: "Jo-Ann, don’t judge a book by its cover. He’s probably a very nice boy. Smile.” So, as we drew nearer, I smiled. And lo and behold, he reciprocated with this beautiful shy smile that bespoke innocence, charm and gratitude. My heart broke. We passed and he spoke.
"You a looker?” he asked, quite pleasantly.
"A looker? What do you mean?”
"Coke. Are you looking for cocaine?”
Momentarily surprised, I finally laughed and told him to get a life. Hmmm, seems like sometimes you can judge a book….
I’ve been thinking about perceptions lately. Who people are doesn’t always match with who I perceive them to be and who I am doesn’t always find external agreement. We see ourselves and others through the kaleidoscope of our own histories, likes, dislikes and patterns. Through this lens it is sometimes easier to judge a person’s behaviour, thought, or emotion rather than accept the fact that we all have idiosyncrasies, some irritating; some not.
I recently read a memoir titled, "Reading Lolita in Tehran.” In it the author, Azar Nafisi, recalls words spoken in defence of a literary professor who chose to speak up for a man on trial for treason in 1980’s Iran. In the political climate of the time, both treason and this act of defence had potentially lethal consequences:
"Such an act [of defence] can only be accomplished by someone who is engrossed in literature, has learned that every individual has different dimensions to his personality … [because] if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them …”
After reading this passage I find myself thinking not of literature but my work as a bodywork therapist. Similar to someone "engrossed in literature,” a practitioner understands the concepts of different personality dimensions or parts, and seeks not to judge them but to facilitate an awareness of self that emphasizes acceptance, compassion and integration. In other words, we seek to help ourselves and others ‘return to consciousness,’ integrating the complex stew of parts into an integrated but multi-dimensional whole.
Returning to consciousness, however, is not a one-time deal, it’s a constant, like breathing. Life is meant to challenge us and as such we are continually being pulled away from centre: the car dies on the bridge – we curse the mechanic for being inept; the kids don’t clean up their room – we blame our spouse’s slovenly role modeling; your colleague calls in sick and you insinuate they have poor nutritional habits. When we are not centred, we not only lose some self-awareness but also compassion for the complexity and humanness of ourselves and others.
Let’s take the example of the car breaking down on the bridge. Is the mechanic really inept or is our reaction based on something else? Perhaps our anger has less to do with the mechanic and more to do with the part of us that is frustrated by owning an old car, combined with a fearful part that feels there is never enough money. Maybe there is a part that is scared about being fired if we are late for work and another part worried about the traffic backing up behind us. As we return to consciousness, we begin to see more of the story that lies behind the scene and become more aware of our own parts, our own complexities.
When we come back into consciousness, we can sit and witness the many parts of ourselves (and others) with objectivity and compassion. We don’t have to act on these parts but when we listen with discernment, we can do what serves us best in that moment. And the beauty of this is when we are in conscious awareness, doing what serves us best has a tendency to serve those around us in the best way possible.
Jo-Ann Svensson is a Certified ARC Health Practitioner with practices in both Nanaimo and West Vancouver.