Deep down I knew better, but I couldn’t stop myself.
An opinionated Twitter acquaintance of mine had tweeted a snarky comment that dismissed all forms of self-improvement as new age feel-good fluff. It was such a sweeping, cynical remark that I felt I had to set him straight.
So I hammered out a sharp rebuttal, and felt a little better, but there was still uneasiness. He would surely come up with a counter-attack on what I said, and it would go back and forth until one of us let the other have the last word.
After a few minutes, I got the lesson he was trying to teach me: to let go of my need to be right all the time. I deleted the tweet and he never saw it.
A few years ago I learned an ingenious method for dealing with other people when they’re doing things you wish they wouldn’t do. It’s adapted from a technique by the late author Richard Carlson. It’s easy and works exceedingly well.
You go about your day as normal, but you imagine one difference:
Everyone is enlightened but you.
- The impatient, tailgating driver behind you
- The intern at work who drinks all the coffee and never puts on a new pot
- The friend who knows he owes you ten bucks but is waiting until you ask him for it
- The guy who keeps clicking his pen during the meeting
- The “greeter” at Wal-Mart who tapes your bag shut every time even though you’re a loyal customer who’s never stolen anything in your life
- Whoever tagged your garage door last night
- Your kind old Aunt Sally, who keeps on talking after you’ve said you really need to get going
Imagine all the people in your world are completely enlightened and aware of what they’re doing to you, and they’re doing it only to teach you something valuable. Your task is to figure out what.
A true master won’t simply tell you what he thinks you should know. He’s too wise to say, “Always be patient,” and expect that it will make you a patient person. Instead, he’ll create a lesson that challenges you. He will push a button of yours, and see if you know what to do.
If you knew you were being tested on purpose, what would you do?
When your friend was supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago and is nowhere to be seen, what is he trying to teach you? To be patient? To avoid assumptions? Unconditional love, maybe.
This is a very empowering way to field whatever life tosses at you. It works so well because your mentality changes from that of the know-it-all, the teacher of proper behavior, to that of the student.
If you insist that you already know the sole cause of your frustration to be that other person and their bad driving or selfish attitude, then a) you’ll continue to be frustrated at the whim of others, and b) it won’t turn out any better for you next time. To habitually regard yourself, like many do, as the knower — the wiser one — in each of these run-ins is to cling to an unenforceable rule that states, “Other people must always behave in ways that make sense to me and are sympathetic to my needs.”
By responding to the behavior of others with the mindset of a student instead of a teacher, you develop a habit of self-inquiry that gradually replaces the habit of condemning others for being less considerate or less refined or less aware than you. You’ll learn to look for the smart move instead of the first one comes to you, and you’ll be building a mental toolkit that can handle just about anything.
The Most Powerful Skills of All
When my enlightened Twitter-mate made his apparently cynical comment, he was presenting me with a precious lesson. I immediately felt a powerful urge to set him straight — a really strong need to make him understand me. At first I took the bait, but after a few minutes I did grasp what he was trying to teach me: Let others be “right.” Cease to cherish opinions.
If you’re somewhat familiar with any spiritual teachings — from the Bible to the Tao Te Ching to The Four Agreements — your new lesson may trigger your memory of a quote or passage that illustrates it, and that passage will then take on a deeper meaning for you. Cease to cherish opinions. Let the baby have his bottle. Love your enemies. You might already “know” them all, but perhaps you’ve never consciously experienced each of them as a lesson in action. Well now you can, and you have brilliant teachers everywhere you look.
The skills your enlightened masters teach are the most powerful and widely-applicable skills you can learn: patience, self-questioning, open-mindedness, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, letting go, and love. If you make a habit of seeing everyone else as enlightened, you will be strengthening each of these potent skills every single day.
Honing these skills will boost your quality of life more quickly than anything else you can possibly do. They’ll create better outcomes at every juncture. Each improvement compounds all the others, for the rest of your life. If you can learn to deal painlessly with critical colleagues after just a few pointed lessons, you are saving yourself untold frustration over the next five, ten or fifty years. The return on investment is astronomical.
Once you figure out what the current lesson is, it’s hard to stay annoyed at its teacher, because you’ll know that only you can drop the ball, by rejecting the lesson. Only you can make you frustrated. And how could you stay angry at one of your enlightened masters for administering such a brilliant lesson?
Only when you convince yourself that you know more than your teacher can you fail to learn.
You’re Headed There Anyway
After a while, you’ll notice that the lessons you encounter will cater to your weak areas with such uncanny perfection, you may begin to suspect that your pathetic co-worker and the perfume-soaked lady on the train really are enlightened. Each lesson will offer you exactly what you need to overcome the trouble it causes you, but only if you are looking for it.
This hints at a powerful idea, which has been suggested by Eckhart Tolle, don Miguel Ruiz, and other spiritual teachers: no matter who you are, the universe is conspiring to enlighten you.
Just as the stones in every fast moving stream will eventually become smooth, rounded discs from years of friction and tiny collisions, it seems we human beings are destined to outgrow our suffering simply because we are constantly running afoul of it. Over time, we can’t help but learn to get better at dealing with what ails us. So each time we butt heads with life — whether it’s in the form of a belligerent customer or a dishonest mechanic — we get a chance to learn something of immeasurable importance.
For many people, this learning takes place only by accident. Over many years, life’s inevitable bumps and bruises gradually clue them in on what works and what doesn’t. It can take most of a lifetime to make a noticeable difference in quality of life, because they don’t see themselves as students. They just want to school everyone else. And that’s an order much too tall for any lifetime.
If you graciously accept the role of student and open yourself up to the wisdom of the enlightened individuals all around you, you’ll be miles ahead of the curve, and your wisdom will be no accident.