The practices of equalizing self and others help us realize that each of us is no less and no more worthy than anyone else. On the surface that probably sounds like a given, but it’s not actually all that easy to embody given our basic drives for survival and our US mainstream culture of competition and consumerism. The unexamined mind often reacts impulsively in ways that support our own wants and needs without considering others. If we’re not to overlook anyone when it comes to well-being, then we must also develop a willingness to share hardship as well as happiness. We must also dare to reach across perceived differences and connect with one another, even when it seems challenging or inconvenient, so we can build the intimacy and trust required to live together peaceably.
One of the greatest sources of our unhappiness and problems in life is the habitual centering of the self – a habit of I, me and mine, in which we hold ourselves, or the people and things we consider ours, as the exclusive yardstick of measurement of all things. We might call this tendency self-referencing, a habit that can be useful when applied wisely, but gets us in trouble when its our only “go to” tool for every job. We can forget to consider other people when the experience of the self crowds out other possible perspectives. Sometimes we end up elevating our own safety, needs and values over others. But, we also suffer when we deem ourselves less worthy of happiness, safety, and wellbeing. Both are forms of self-referencing.
Why is habitual self-referencing a problem? One reason is that there is pain in living. Habitually centering ourselves can make us hyperaware of pain to the exclusion of all else. We can start to feel isolated and alone in our suffering, worried or even hypervigilant, and engage in an endless struggle to control things that aren’t within our control. Another reason is we’re ever changing and impermanent, so if we cling to some eternal idea of an earthly self, we will ultimately be disappointed when our expectations aren’t met. We’re also inextricably interconnected – my well-being depends on yours and vice versa. Devaluing oneself or others is a denial of the truth of this interconnection.
In fact, everything we believe depends on views or perspectives. Research indicates we have a self positivity bias and an “other” negativity bias. Naturally, most of our judgments and comparisons tend to be self-referencing, or looking out from our own side of things. We ask ourselves, “What does this have to do with me?”, “What does this mean about me?”, or “How might this affect me?” In this way, we tend to over-personalize things such that we take on additional layers of suffering beyond what the present moment circumstances might objectively warrant. Reactivity to the consequences of this self-centeredness can lead to bias, prejudice, separation, struggle, discord, and even aggression or violence.
One example of how we habitually center the self is the practice of opportunity hoarding. This term was originally coined by Charles Tilly in the 90s to describe the use of money, power or position by people with advantages in these domains to give their in-group (friends, family, colleagues) exclusive access to certain resources or opportunities. Whom among us doesn’t want the absolute best for those we hold close? However, the cumulative effect of many acts of individual preference can have a significant impact on society. Many of us don’t realize that practices like legacy admissions to universities, providing internships for our friends’ kids, voting to retain low-density zoning restrictions in our neighborhoods, or taking advantage of lengthy property tax abatements, serve to shut some people out while concentrating power and wealth among a few. Are we willing to give up some of these advantages to create a more open and just society? The unexamined mind probably wouldn’t even consider it.
Fortunately , research shows mindfulness can reduce social and cognitive bias, make us kinder, and help us be less emotionally reactive to unpleasant stimuli. This is demonstrated in actual behavior and not just in attitudes. Over time, what we eventually discover is that, the more we practice expanding our perspective and equalizing our own well-being with others, the happier we are. But, how can we practice mindfulness to reduce this problematic tendency of elevating our own experience above others?
First, we can start by developing a foundation of equanimity, or a balance of mind that is free from reactivity to automatic self-referencing. This quality can be cultivated through questioning conditioned views. We can:
- learn to hold in mind the truth that all living beings, from the simplest of organisms to the most complex, seek happiness and try to avoid suffering – and all living beings will someday die. We can consistently remind ourselves, “Others want to be happy and to be free of suffering as much as I do” in all our interactions; when we are stuck in traffic on the way to work, waiting in line at the grocery store, or find ourselves in conflict with someone else.
- challenge discriminating assumptions and judgments by asking ourselves questions like: Is my suffering more painful than others’ suffering? Is my joy more fulfilling? Why do I rejoice at my child’s accomplishments, but sometimes feel jealous of or threatened by another’s successes? Does it make sense that I love and cherish some animals and exterminate or eat others?
- challenge the illusion of “I, me, and mine” by reminding ourselves that friend, enemy, family and stranger are merely labels we use for those who help or hurt us, who we feel good or bad around, who we are familiar and connect with in some way, or who we feel unfamiliar or disconnected from. These labels are relative and subjective, often based on agreements between people. We can ask ourselves, “Have I been labeled by others and is it always true? Has an enemy ever become my friend or vice versa? Have strangers and even non-humans benefitted me? Have my enemies benefited others? Have I ever acted unskillfully out of my desire to seek happiness and avoid suffering? Is there anything to be gained by hating someone, who like me wants happiness, wishes to avoid suffering, and will some day die?
Equalizing and Exchanging
Next, we can practice equalizing and exchanging our attitudes toward self and others through exercises and strategies such as (you can explore many of these through our Resources page):
- Compassion cultivation training
- Lovingkindness meditation
- Giving and taking meditation (Tonglen)
- Equanimity meditation
- Cultivating appreciative joy
Research indicates that one of the most powerful ways we can decrease discrimination and prejudice is to make contact with people across differences. Through developing relationships with people who are different from us, our faulty assumptions are challenged, we build confidence in ourselves and trust in others, and we integrate a diversity of experience into our own self-concept. These benefits are also contagious, as research shows our own intergroup relationships can reduce prejudice in others in our in-group.
If you looked and looked at all of the solutions proposed by scientists over the years to combat prejudice and racism, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective antidote than intergroup friendship. – Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton Ph.D.
A Helpful Mnemonic
Our individual preferences and unconscious biases can add up to a profound impact on our collective wellbeing. Fortunately we humans have higher thinking capabilities that can allow us to override our baser instincts, when it makes sense to do so. The “SPACE2 Model of Mindful Inclusion” created by an organization called Culture Consulting is a collection of evidence-based strategies that activate controlled processing (or slow thinking) and enable us to detect and override automatic impulses. They say that “low-effort information processing” which makes quick use of surface level data, feelings and instincts, and which we’re more susceptible to when we’re distracted or feeling pressured, can cause us to react unskillfully based on assumptions, biases, and stereotypes. Instead, we can respond with greater wisdom through the use of the following acronym, which includes aspects of cultivating equanimity and practicing equalizing and exchanging self and others:
- Slowing Down — taking time to consider all the available data
- Perspective Taking — actively imagining the context, thoughts and feelings of others
- Asking Yourself — self-questioning to challenge previously unquestioned assumptions
- Cultural Intelligence— educating ourselves and seeing others’ behavior through their cultural lens rather than our own
- Exemplars — bringing to mind real life examples that counter stereotypes
- Expanding — widening our social circles and cultivating diverse friendships
You are comprised of: 84 minerals, 23 Elements, and 8 gallons of water spread across 38 trillion cells. You have been built up from nothing by the spare parts of the Earth you have consumed, according to a set of instructions hidden in a double helix and small enough to be carried by a sperm. You are recycled butterflies, plants, rocks, streams, firewood, wolf fur, and shark teeth, broken down to their smallest parts and rebuilt into our planet’s most complex living thing. You are not living on Earth. You are Earth. – Aubrey Marcus