See yourself in another
I’ve been thinking about Pema Chodron’s practice of ‘just like me’ contemplation. On the simple side, it’s as easy as being out in a crowd and noticing someone who in some way resembles you. We’re not talking physically here, although that can be a starting point. Maybe it’s their laugh. Maybe it’s their body language. Maybe it’s some longing or anxiety you see deep within them. It is a basic practice of seeing yourself in another and thereby reducing a bit of the isolation we often feel.
But that’s the simple version. It gets a bit harder to do in a time of frustration. Ani Pema sometimes gives the example of being in traffic and someone cuts you off. Your first response might be expletive or obscene hand gesture filled, but if you can pause before you start a road rage incident can you perhaps find a way in which that person is just like you. Maybe they are having a bad day? Maybe they make mistakes when they are rushing? Maybe they just sometimes forget about the needs of others? Haven’t we all been there? This is a deeper level of finding connection and compassion for those who may otherwise piss us off.
The starting point
It was a big revelation for me to realise that the more I criticised, judged, or simply got irritated by the actions of others (even if I felt that I had the moral high ground) the more I isolated myself from the human community. No resolution can come from deepening divisions. Just look at our current political situation. Maybe Ani Pema’s practice isn’t even a practice, maybe it’s a challenge. In this big isolated and conflict-filled world, can we find ways that others are ‘just like me?’ This is, I believe, the starting point for moving onwards and forwards into a more compassionate world.
Learning from art
As a way of training this skill, I’ve started to introduce it into my museum meditations. My last visit to the Wallace Collection I found a Dutch painting by Pieter de Hooch entitled A Boy Bringing Bread (1663). Immediately I saw myself in this painting. I was filled with memories of making southern American biscuits with my grandmother. Granted, this home cooking involved me popping open a can and placing them on a baking tray under her supervision, but it summoned a deep and visceral emotional memory in me. I started to think if I could use the question of ‘how is this painting just like me?’ as a way of training this compassionate facility within myself. It can start with obvious examples, like the boy and his bread for me, and move on to paintings of people and places to which you have no obvious relation and then challenging yourself to find a connection. I fully believe that art can be a pathway towards compassion and understanding. Maybe for you, it isn’t even painting. Maybe it’s a film or a song. Or maybe it’s that jerk in the sedan who has no clue how to use a roundabout.
Whatever it is, try the ‘just like me’ challenge and see if something in you awakens.