March 18, 2011

You’re Not Making An Assumption Are You, Charlie Brown?

With Practice, We Can Shed the Blinders of Our Assumptions. When We Do, Quite Often the People We Love Astonish Us.

As a mother, I have always believed that I know my children through and through. And I do know them really well. I know where their tickle spots are, I can tell their fake laughs from their real ones, and, without batting an eye, I can tell you the particular way they curl up in their beds at night. Because I know all of these things and more, it is tempting to assume that I also know what makes them tick, what inspires or scares them, and what interests them or bores them to tears.

Assumptions like this, I fear, may be a mother’s biggest blind spot.

This weekend, my son slipped gracefully into the role of Linus in the musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and slipped out of the cloak of motherly assumptions in which I’d swaddled him. Had you asked me if he’d enjoy participating in the 8th grade musical, I would have said, “Sure! He’d be great on the stage crew or in the pit orchestra.” Never in a thousand years would I have dreamed that he’d audition for a leading role. Never in a million years could you have convinced me that he’d play the role so well. Nevertheless that is exactly what he did.

My boy, who is never on time for anything, nagged us about getting him to rehearsal on time three days a week for months. My son, who loses everything, never misplaced his script. My “wifty,” distracted child memorized loads of lines, dance steps and cues. My quiet, shy guy danced out on that stage all by himself and sang a solo to a packed auditorium. My relatively serious, intellectual son revealed a gift for comic timing that is missing in many prime-time television sitcoms.

As I sat in the middle school theater watching him perform, it was like seeing my child for the very first time. It is hard to describe how powerful it was to see him do things I hadn’t taught him, helped him with or even suggested. This was, pure and simple, all him. And he shined up there.

One of the gifts that yoga gives us is the ability to see clearly. On our mats, we learn to see ourselves as we really are. To be certain, we learn about our anatomy. Are our arms longer or shorter relative to our torso? Are our hips naturally loose or tight? But we also learn about aspects of ourselves that are harder to see. We begin to be aware of our mindset as we practice. Do we feel hopeful or fearful? And how does that affect our practice? We start to notice our reactions. Do we tend to shrink away from or rise to meet challenges? Do we take success in stride? Does failure make us want to quit or to keep trying? It’s not long before we find ourselves at work or at the doctor or running errands and calling upon the self-knowledge we gained on our mats.

Quite naturally, we begin to see others more clearly as well. We may become aware of one friend’s creativity in the face of problems or start to turn to another for help with logistics. Instead of assuming a tersely worded email is a personal attack, we seek the meaning behind the note because we have observed that its sender is a man of few words. Instead of getting our knickers in a twist when a fellow committee member starts yet another argument, we can gently step back because we’ve learned she thrives on conflict. As we observe the people who fill our days, they will probably surprise us fairly regularly. After all, if we can surprise ourselves by rising to meet a challenge we would typically shy away from, doesn’t it make sense that an associate could just as easily surprise us? As this happens again and again, we begin to shed assumptions.

For many reasons, our assumptions about our family members are often the last to go. First off, I think these assumptions are the hardest for us to see no matter how aware and “evolved” we are. They are squarely in our blind spot. Secondly, we’re with our family a whole lot more than we’re with anyone else. Assumptions, in this case, are almost a practicality. They serve as a type of relationship short-hand that speeds things along. Thirdly, these assumptions can be a bit circular in nature. Because we know our children, our spouses, our siblings and our parents so intimately, our assumptions about them are often right. Our high rate of accuracy can actually validate our inclination to make more assumptions. And so it goes.

Sometimes it takes something mind-blowing like my son’s dramatic turn on stage this weekend to shake up our assumptions. These moments are gifts of clarity. But, even without a big, public production, if we keep our eyes open and continue to observe people as closely as we observe ourselves on our yoga mats, we can shed the blinders of our assumptions. When we do, quite often the people we love will astonish us.

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