You are walking along a sunny path, and suddenly see a snake centimetres away from your shoes. You leap in the air, yell, your heart is thumping, and when the snake doesn’t move you have another look. Now you can see the ‘snake’ is actually a stick, and perhaps you have a little laugh, call yourself silly, feel relieved. Yet there is no way to avoid the first, instinctive fear response. We are biologically hard-wired to make up our minds about any situation in split-seconds, jump to a conclusion, and, if we sense danger, act before we are even sure what’s happening. On a holiday earlier this year, I was walking towards a pond in a forest when suddenly a snake was coming right at me with its head raised, ready to attack. Of course I jumped out of the way, and luckily the snake went past, but what I remember from this incident is that I had no time at all to think about what was happening. I’d already moved before any thoughts came into my conscious awareness. In the case of inadvertently disturbing a snake and being attacked by it, this instinctive response can help to save our lives. I’m sure we can all think of times, however, where quickly jumping to conclusions about a situation was anything but helpful!
Tashi 1 was a popular meeting place for the few back-packers who had decided to brave Tibet in the middle of winter. Some were adventurers, riding their bikes across the Tibetan plateau, others were students of Buddhism, or taking a year out to travel the world, or interested in Tibetan culture. The conversations were lively, wide-ranging, always with the edge of being in an occupied country, of knowing we were being watched. Several nights I noticed a group of three middle-aged people, dressed in boring parkas, sitting quietly in the corner, not seeming to have much to say. They looked a little out of place, not hip and animated like the rest of the crowd. I had little interest in talking to them, and I’m not even sure how I did end up having a conversation. It turned out they were doctors with Mèdicines Sans Frontières, had been to places like Rwanda and the Sudan, and were in Tibet for some less stressful medical work before heading back into another war zone. I ended up getting a lift back with them into Nepal, a journey which took three or four days across the Tibetan plateau, so got to know them much better. Needless to say, these people were anything but boring!
There are times for reacting before thinking, but these are few and far between. For our ancestors on the savannah, in an environment where signals were perhaps easier to interpret – predator means danger, my tribe keeps me safe – it was efficient to quickly categorise signals into dangerous or safe. In our modern environment, reacting to instant judgements about people or situations is generally not helpful. I find it useful to remember times when I got it really wrong – such as theMèdicines Sans Frontières doctors – and make an effort to keep an open mind about what might be going on.
Weekly practice idea:
Is there someone in your life who you find very irritating? What might their story be? If you watched a movie about this person’s life, well-scripted and with a talented actor, might that help to change your perspective?