As we truly begin to become aware of how often we make assumptions – about everything from why someone cut us off in traffic, to why our spouse may have left without kissing us goodbye this morning, or how we correlate someone’s physical appearance to their level of trustworthiness (or level of intellect) – it seems a little inconceivable that we could ever stop doing so. Assumptions are deeply rooted in not only our interpersonal communications but also our subconscious. We have repeated this practice so often that making assumptions is generally an automated response to our constant flow of inner thoughts.
A little over a year ago, I set an intention to change my agreements with myself and others, to stop making assumptions. The only concern (aka resistance) I had about this was that I believe there are times when I am not judging someone; rather, I sometimes feel that interacting with a particular person will cause me harm. Simply put, there are people I just don’t “vibe” with. I am sure we have all had these experiences….say you are walking down the street. For whatever reason, the person coming from the other direction makes you feel uncomfortable, or say you meet someone at a party and can’t seem to get the conversation off the ground. Still, you might meet someone else at the same party, and you just can’t stop talking to them for the rest of the evening. How do we know if what we are picking up on is really our intuition (that innate sense of security or trouble)? What if it is just our judgments that get in the way of seeing a situation (or person) for what it really is?
The more often I pay attention, the more often I am surprised by my assumptions.
On a recent flight to Denver, I was sitting behind a woman chatting incessantly with the woman next to her for the entire flight. I took this as an opportunity to collect data about my avalanche of assumptions and what judgments arose from those assumptions.
Assumption #1: By listening to the woman’s voice, I determined she was approximately 70-80 years old.
Reality #1: She told the woman next to her she was 56.
Assumption #2: She talked so much, she must be lonely.
Reality #2: She told the woman next to her she was happily married.
Assumption #3: She talked so much, I decided I did not like her.
Reality #3: Who am I to say what “too much talking” is? And I did not once speak to her, so how do I know if I would like or dislike her?
My judgment was not based on the content of her character.
Meditation has been the great equalizer to help guide me to a more balanced path between my judgments and intuition. To know the difference, you must first be aware of your own thoughts and reactions on both a mental and physical level. By sitting and observing your thoughts, you start to become acutely aware of the emotion and/or physical sensation paired with a particular thought. For me, anxiety resides in my chest and abdomen. If I am nervous or fearful about something, my breath becomes short and rapid and my stomach does flip flops. When I am acting particularly harsh or critical of someone or something, my brow furrows, I hold my breath, and I feel the tension around the back of my eye sockets and my eyes dart about. Yet, when my intuition sails across my body with smooth, even breath and a knowing with absolute certainty (even in negative, sad, or upsetting situations)- it brings a deep sense of comfort.
The trick to understanding the difference is to remain open.
Intuition is paired with compassion. When you sense you are in danger, you are not taking it personally, but you are aware that the situation is not the best one for you to remain in – the story as to “why” does not come into play. On the other hand, assumptions playoff our ego, and our need to know why someone said something hurtful or reacted towards us in a negative way. We tell all kinds of stories to ourselves (or our friends) about why this person upset us. Or maybe, we tell ourselves all kinds of stories about “why” we think we are not good enough. What if you dropped the story?
The best answer I could come up with when the conversation shifts to gossip or I start to gossip to myself was, “I don’t know.” I have spoken these three little words many times over the past year. When my father asks why someone was rude to him in the store – “I don’t know,” I replied. When my girlfriend speculates about why some guy didn’t call her back – “I don’t know,” was all I could say. When I asked myself why I forgot a good friend’s birthday – “I don’t know,” I responded.
“I don’t know” removes the opportunity to make assumptions from the conversation.
It also gives me a moment to step outside of my ego to admit that I can’t possibly know why people do or say the things they do. It also reminds me that if I don’t know, I must either communicate with the other person to find out or drop it. When communicating with your own negative thoughts, remember to approach the ego in a friendly manner: speak to yourself as you would a good friend and try not to reprimand yourself too unkindly.
Fair warning: people may not know how to react to your use of these three little words. They are used to the old agreements we made to gossip and assume things about one another. I have noticed that people are a bit taken aback when I choose not to gossip. It’s as if by admitting I don’t know something, it insinuates that I do not care. Sometimes, it’s true – I don’t care about trivial or negative things that take up too much of my headspace, time, and energy. Sometimes, when I say I don’t know, it’s because I really don’t know! Then again, maybe I just don’t want to know. Regardless, be prepared for the other person to take offense to your lack of knowing/caring, and be prepared to be okay with that. If it helps, tell them that you have challenged yourself to stop making assumptions and start asking more questions.
And one more thing: Good luck!