A few weeks ago someone gave me some feedback about me from their perspective. In what I believe was a sincere attempt to support me, they said that they perceived me as someone who considers myself more enlightened than others and who pushes my agenda on everyone else. That’s not everything that they said, but those were two of the most triggering points for me. Upon hearing his negative perception, I was initially shocked (How could you think this about me!), and then saddened (Could I really be doing that?) Over these last few weeks as I have sat with everything that was stirred up in me, I have begun to appreciate the way that this person “shined the light” on parts of me that may be operating out of my conscious awareness.
I remember another time when I felt a similar sense of shock, sadness, and then appreciation for a critique. When I was in graduate school at Howard Divinity I was usually the only white identified person in my classes. In my Womanist Theory class, which looked at the perspectives and experiences of women of color, I listened to a classmate share her experience. When she was finished, I raised my hand and made a comment about how I could understand what she was saying because of a similar situation that I had experienced. The instructor interrupted me and very bluntly told me that I did notunderstand this woman’s experience, and that I needed to break my habit of trying to co-opt other people’s experiences by likening them to my own. This calling out, like the one earlier this month, rocked my inner sense of who I was and how I was living in the world.
In my tradition of mindfulness, there is a practice called Shining the Light. In Buddhist monasteries it is a formal ceremony in which each monk or nun asks his/her sisters and brothers to share the places they believe need more practice. If the information is shared compassionately, it can really help our practice of self-awareness, because other people can often see things in us that we are not able to see.
Listen carefully to what the people say who shine light on your practice. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with them; pay attention to everything exactly as they say it. It takes time to look deeply into what they have said. Perhaps those people have seen something you haven’t been able to see about yourself. If you think that maybe your brother has a wrong perception of you, you can go to him and say, “Please tell me, why do you think this about me?” Each person you ask will have some wrong perceptions, that is true. But the guidance that you receive will make your understanding of yourself more correct, and the fruit of your practice will be greater. –Thich Nhat Hanh
Because only other people can help us see our blind spots, we cannot grow without a sangha, or community of practice. When we sit in a community circle, sharing our own experiences from our hearts, we can’t help but shine the light on each other’s blind spots. Of course there will be times when we aren’t able to see or hear our blind spot, even when someone else tells us about it. Often it’s because we aren’t ready to hear it. Timing is everything in shining the light. When we ask for help, directly or indirectly, in shining the light on our practice, we are much more likely to be able to hear it. It is more difficult to take in when someone offers criticism to us unexpectedly. Hearing something inconsistent with our view of ourselves when we aren’t ready for it may cause our nervous systems to over-react, making it difficult for our brains to process what we are hearing. When we are open and ready to hear it, we are more likely to be able to use that information to help us grow.
Even if we are ready to hear about our blind spots, if the information is shared with us in a negative, abusive, or dismissive way, we can also become triggered and unable to process what we are hearing. It is almost always more effective if information is given in a caring, compassionate way so that the receiver can truly hear the intended message. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen so nicely.
In our daily lives we can practice being open to random acts of shining the light from others — friends, teachers, children — even if it feels shocking or painful at first. If the information comes in a jarring way, we can settle ourselves down by caring for our strong feelings with a lot of self compassion and care. If we heard something that doesn’t jive with our own beliefs about ourselves, we can turn inward and see whether there is any truth to what we have heard. In my case, I asked myself: Is there any way in which I believe I am more enlightened or push my agenda on others? Do I really try to neutralize other’s experiences by co-oping them into my own? And yes, I can see where I have behaved in all these ways at different times.
When we hear difficult things about ourselves, we can ask the person shining the light to offer specific examples of our behavior. Examples will help us learn how our conditioning creates actions that may not be aligned with our intentions. If, after much reflection, we still don’t see any truth in what we heard, then we simply let it go. Even if we don’t see that this is something we do, we might at least recognize that this one person had this perception of us, and we might learn something about the other person or our relationship with them as a result.
One of the most important parts of this practice is to see that all of those parts of us — in my case the part that acts more-enlightened than-thou, the part that pushes my agenda on others, and the part that co-opts others’ experiences — are all important and worthwhile. They are each there to help me meet a universal need, although I may not always be skilled in knowing the best actions to get my needs met. For example, the part of me that tried to connect my classmates’ experiences to my own was trying to fit in and belong in a group where I felt like an outsider much of the time. Once I could see that, I realized that particular strategy actually wasn’t the best way to get my need for belonging met, so I could try to meet that need another way.
This is the gift of shining the light — it directs us closer and closer to living in ways that reduce suffering in ourselves and in others. And we clearly need each other to help us do that.