Don’t Take Anything Personally
Community Drop In Group
Last week we talked about Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements, and in particular the first agreement, “Be impeccable with your word” and how that relates to self-acceptance. I learned about this book from the Prison Mindfulness Institute where many people have found it to be powerfully helpful in meeting the hard stuff we carry.
This week I want to look at the Second Agreement— Don’t take anything personally, and I want to look at it today a little differently than Ruiz does. His way is very useful and we will get there next week. But I think this further context of not taking things personally is a useful starting place with this agreement. Both Buddhist psychology and modern science have a similar idea that all things are unfolding in light of what’s come before. In Buddhist psychology, this is called Dependent Origination and the scientific terminology is evolution. As evolutionary biologist Lynn Margolis says:
Independence is a political term, not a scientific one.
This is another way of saying, don’t take anything personally…
All of us are manifestations of endless generations of evolution and that evolution has not just been unfolding on in the large scale realms of biology, social and cultural but also in the small scale family history and experience. All of those factors add up to an endless web of cause and effect— and this endless web of cause and effect extends way beyond any immediate control I think I may be manifesting in a single moment.
This larger context is fundamental for understanding who we really are and why we think and behave in all of the ways we do.
I want to share a small simple example of how even the frame of my personal anxieties is actually not personal. When my girls were old enough to start going off on their own, my mind would start generating all of these crazy making stories of what could go wrong, especially if they ran even a bit late or didn’t let me know that they had arrived safely somewhere.
This is something I’m sure many parents can relate, which of course right there points to a “not personal” internal fear. Not all parents do this, but many have similar un-actualized constant fears for their kids. Even so, in the early days, I experienced this as quite personal. I misread this anxiety as having some personal meaning, like a mother’s intuition that something had in fact gone wrong. Ooooo did I ever cause myself some suffering by taking those crazy making stories as real or meaningful!
Yet eventually, this happened enough—without there being anything bad that actually happened —that I was final able to start questioning the validity of these stories and start seeing them through the lens of mind/heart practice, i.e. learning to find some way of bringing some wisdom and kindness to my impulse to catastrophize instead of hook, line and sinker believing the made up catastrophe.
Just that re-orientation was helpful, but the intensity that could arise was still so painful that I then started to create a second story of something being wrong with me for creating all these first stories! This is a classic second arrow that we can shoot ourselves with if we take things personally. The teacher says to his students, does it hurt to be shot with an arrow? Of course it does. Does it hurt more to be shot with one arrow or two? Two.
The first arrow is what is already here, i.e. my mind just created another panic worry story, and the second arrow is what’s wrong with me and my mind for creating these stories and getting sucked into them at a painful level! I stayed stuck here for a while with this story of the wrongness and flawed-ness of me personally for creating all of these crazy stories.
Then one day, I had a sudden flash of remembering arriving back home as a teenager after a long drive from college that took a bit longer than I anticipated and my mother meeting me at the door in a sheer panic that I had been killed in a wreck. That wasn’t the only time that happened. A flood of pieces fell into place that I had never connected before— my mother telling me stories around how her mother did this to her ten times more than my mother ever did it to me. She had
made a vow not to lay the same fear on me that her mother Ernestine had laid on her, but occasionally my mother would still get consumed with the fear and I knew it.
By the time I was raising my girls, I was able to bring this family passed down crazy story making to a much saner level than either my mother or grandmother, but the healing of this intergeneration painful knot was not yet resolved. Suddenly it was no longer something wrong with me personally, it was just another bit of this big intergenerational knot given to me to do my best to untangle, bring some light and healing to. That was freeing. Not personal, not mine to shoot myself about, but rather offered to me to heal.
Now, my mind rarely jumps straight to the catastrophe story first if a daughter is running late. But sometimes the old habit can still flash before my mind. If it does, I know how to just acknowledge it and offer a breath of compassion, to me, my mother, my grandmother and any parents anywhere worried about ones they love—but not bite the hook. In that way, I’m not even letting the first arrow take hold where it is not helping anything.
It’s so helpful when we can see into origins of our not personal crazy making! But more often, it’s not so clear. That’s why we need to understand the shared nature of these human minds and all of the natural ways they can get triggered and activated that have nothing to do with a personal me or a personal you or a personal them. It’s just all human and part of our nature. As Virgil said a long time ago, Fortunate is the one who understands the causes of things.
The idea of a free standing independent me actually in control of choosing what stories my mind produces, what anxieties or depressions I have, that’s just another crazy making story, this time a story of self-judgement. “Don’t take anything personally” has the power to disavow us of so many kinds of self-judgment and blame, and to invite ourselves back into the mysterious and miraculous web of interrelatedness and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being. The hard parts of ourselves in this way simply are another part of nature.
This is liberating! The places we struggle, the knots we get tied up in, become just another aspect of this shared human ever evolving web of conditions affected by nature. And it is also within our nature that we have the possibility of seeing all of these knots with a deeper wisdom and kindness that opens a door for healing.
If we can fully let go of the shame stories we carry about what’s wrong with us, it becomes so much easier, through that non-personal lens, to look at our hard stuff— all of the mistakes we’ve made, the hurts we’ve caused to ourselves and others, all of the pain making biases we carry towards people of particular as races, genders, sexual orientations, age. We can open to painful areas such as white privilege or entitlement.
When I stop going down the shame road, then I can take a new kind of responsibility for what is arising in me, meaning a strong ability to respond well, be pro-active to anything coming up within. I’m freed to be active.
The last thing I want to say is how this “not taking things personally” directly relates to compassion. Move out of my survival fight/flight/freeze in relationship to both myself and others and connect at the level of our shared flawed but beautiful humanity—painfully hurtfully naturally flawed at times—then I can connect with a strong heart that can wisely be responsive in the world.
Don’t take things personally — what ways might this be liberating for you?
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