The unmistakable sound of a gong suddenly rang out over the compound and the chattering among the fifty of us who had gathered for a ten-day meditation retreat immediately turned to silence. And just like that, there would be no more speaking, no more body language, no more reading, writing, music, television, computers or cell phones. There would be no communication or entertainment allowed at all.
It was time to focus strictly on self-reflection and meditation.
I’m sure many of you have probably heard or read about such meditation retreats before, so I’m not going to write about the details of the actual meditation practice that was taught. Instead, I want to write about the other fifty people that I shared this experience with.
During the ten-day retreat, and even though I was fully dedicated to my meditation practice, it was impossible not to notice the other people around me. Despite the vow of silence we all took, we still lived, ate and meditated in close proximity to each other for a week and a half. As a result, I slowly began to notice everyone’s particular habits and mannerisms and as the days passed, I actually began to understand more about the lives each person led in the outside world.
For example, there was the short, pale-skinned man sleeping on the bunk below me. He was a homeless man who used the free room and board that the meditation center provided as a way to stay off the streets for a while.
Also in our room was a very thin, red-eyed hippie, complete with dreadlocks and ragged clothes, a young guy who spent the first twenty-five years of his life doing nothing but partying and was on drugs throughout the entire meditation retreat.
The man assigned to the meditation spot in front of me in the main meditation hall was a rough, mean rancher from Texas, always wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots, and always ready to bash someone’s head in if they looked at him in the wrong way.
There was also the 18-year old runaway who seemed petrified of the idea that one day he may have to eventually return home to his troubled family.
Even though the women were separated from the men for most of the course, I did notice the wealthy corporate executive who was stressed beyond imagination throughout the retreat because she was unable to call and check in with her office every day. And sitting next to her in the meditation hall was a woman in her early thirties who appeared to be one of the saddest looking people I’d ever come across.
You get the idea. Even through silence, I managed to know and understand these other people so well. And when the gong rang out once again on the final morning of the retreat, and we were allowed to speak with each other once more, I felt as if there was nothing else to learn about my fellow meditators.
HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
Well, it isn’t possible. After spending several hours chatting with everyone on this last day of the course, I realized that my assumptions about every single person were one-hundred-percent wrong.
The man in the bunk below me turned out not to be homeless, but a well-known Hollywood film director who participated in a meditation retreat every few months in order to decompress himself from the intensity of life in Los Angeles. The hippie was a graduate student of International Relations at Duke University who wanted to work for the United Nations and the 18-year old ‘runaway’ couldn’t wait to return home and share his experiences with his loving parents and siblings.
And the angry Texan? Well, apart from turning out to be one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met, he was from Ohio, worked as a teacher for students with mental disabilities and spent the weekends working as a landscaper in order to send his daughter to a good school.
As for the women, my assumptions about them were as equally incorrect. The wealthy executive was far from wealthy, and far from being an executive. She lived in a small town in Oregon, scraping by as a waitress while trying to save enough money to take a certification course in massage therapy. And the sad woman was actually quite bubbly and happy as she couldn’t stop talking about her upcoming marriage to her ‘perfect man’ and the exciting plans they had for the future.
THE DANGEROUS PATH OF ASSUMPTIONS
Without having spoken to any of these people and without knowing one piece of information about their lives, I had somehow managed to create stories and identities for all of them. Even further, I managed to convince myself that what my mind had created was nothing but the absolute truth.
I really believed that I had spent ten days ‘getting to know’ these people, but in the end, all I had done was allow myself to judge, stereotype and make assumptions and then to fill in any missing gaps with even more of the same.
After making this discovery, I soon realized that this was not some freak incident. We all do this, all of the time.
We have a tendency to create stories out of thin air about so many people that we see, hear about or meet in our daily lives. In most cases, we fill these tales with half-truths or even worse, complete fiction, that we somehow believe to be fact.
And this, of course, isn’t fair to anyone, including ourselves. If we are making decisions in our lives based upon stereotypes and mere assumptions, we are heading down a dangerous path. Respect for first-hand knowledge will be lost and I hate to think of where that may lead.
While I perfectly understand that it is nearly impossible to gain a first-hand education about everyone and everything that comes into our lives, I still feel that it is a goal we must strive for. I firmly believe that every single time we are able to trade a moment of blind belief or unfair judgment about someone, or even someplace, for a moment of actual knowledge, not only do we benefit, but the entire world benefits as well.
Do you find yourself creating stories about other people without really knowing the facts? And have these stories proven to affect some of the decisions you’ve made in life?