It happens to the best of us – and I think it’s in fact a universal human trait :o)
|Amsterdam kitty (cats do this, too).|
Let’s suppose you are working in a bookstore, and you see somebody coming in. Well, unless you are so busy that you let them navigate the place without really taking notice (which happens ;o) you find yourself scanning this person visually. In two seconds, you have a mental idea of them, based on their attitude, expression, voice, clothing and so on. This impression, or feeling, also reflects your own way to see the world, of course (and your mood at this moment).
Even if you are trying not to let preconceived ideas influence you, this immediate “registering” of people has a tendency to make you classify strangers somewhat, at least on an subconscious level. My Vipassana practice (which consists mostly in observing your reactions, whether in meditation or in daily life), however, made me aware that I did tend to do that, particularly in the bookstore.
I realized that I more or less classified people in two main categories:
1) I feel a spontaneous ‘connection’ to this person
2) I don’t feel particularly connected to her, or to him.
|Like star-shaped flowers. (English common name, anyone ?)|
* Jodi found it: White Campanula :o) *
But Lobelias on my balcony make my heart sing, too.
Since the second category included a lot of people that looked nice and everything (they were just not my “type of person”), this didn’t have a negative effect on my relation to them – or so I thought – unless they were really not nice (which was rather unfrequent).
Of course, the “Free Hugs” event made me approach this in a different way. First of all, for the whole subsequent week at least, I was not only aware that I was connected on a deep level to everyone – I could feel this connection inside me.
Also, since almost every customer seemed to have sensed this in me at the time (or so I gathered from their profuse thanks when leaving the store) I started to wonder if maybe I could use in a positive way my instinctive ‘scanning’ of customers and strangers.
|You get the general view|
|then a more specific one.|
So now, every time I caught myself noticing things that made me feel “not particularly connected” to someone, instead of judging my reaction (as I was tempted to at first), I simply looked for something endearing in them, when they were not looking in my direction.
To my surprise, it was rather easy.
The intuitive/sensitive part of me was now proving quite useful: whether it was a worried look, a tired hunch, a false assurance, a crease between the eyebrows or even a crumpled raincoat – as soon as I was looking for them, these subtle signs would call me in an instant.
|Protesting moves of the Crab Apple tree.|
Right afterwards, a kind of subtle shift took place, allowing me to see this woman or this man as a complex human being, carrying a whole story (unknown to me) that made them who they were.
If my discrete observation was not yielding something that I could use to make this happen, I simply imagined that person as a child. Here was a kid disguised as an adult, trying to cope with this difficult world. Relating intuitively to their true, candid self enabled me to establish an inner connection with them, always.
|Illustration inspired by a picture of Ansel Elgort taken by his dad - Arthur Elgort.|
I'm sure you have tried this yourselves a few times :o)
But then something very strange happened: often, when this inner shift took place, the person that I was now perceiving more clearly turned to me with a smile, from whatever they were doing at this moment, exactly as if I had said a few kind words to them.
I was perplexed at first, but then I had to believe it: they could sense it across the room.
|Customized lock tied to the Pont des Arts, in Paris.|
Or, if I was helping other customers, I kept my intention on the back burner so to speak, and when the person came at the counter to pay, I focused again on my perception of them, then I deliberately conveyed this feeling of connectedness while handing the receipt, or saying something nice.
However the words I said (whether general or more personal), and even my friendly smile, were in fact very understated: they were simply the ‘contact points’ that allowed my intention to go through.
At first I did all this rather intuitively (and not with everyone, by all means, as I was rather busy with my endless tasks!) but I soon began to understand what was going on. And I trusted the process, which in turn enabled me to try it with all kinds of people. So then when they left the store, looking at me with that big smile, I felt truly grateful (and happy) for their taking part in this wonderful mysterious thing. It felt so magical and empowering!
|Locks are not the best way to keep your love safe, however.|
I remember a man who was always very negative: whatever he said, even when he asked a question, it was in a negative form. Nothing could escape his criticism - as if he couldn't help himself (which is an interesting formulation, now that I think of it). He would try to 'choose' a guide on an African country by showing them to me one by one with dry, ironical, dismissive comments, waiting to see how I would respond.
Prior to the Free Hugs event, I simply asked him in return what kind of information he needed for this particular trip (they were always for business). Then I came and picked up the one or two travel guides that fitted these needs, explaining why in a few calm, positive sentences, then I left him to ponder this, and resumed my tasks.
It worked – at least to the extend that he was quiet for a while, and ended up buying one of the books, although not without disillusioned remarks even as he was paying, like "Well! This is better than nothing, I suppose".
|Am I getting too metaphorical with these pictures? Anyway, you get the idea.|
But one day, inspired by the experiences described above, I went one step further. Instead of just not paying attention to his negativity (which was my approach so far), I glimpsed at him while he was browsing the guidebooks, and tried to imagine his childhood, his teenage years. How did he become that way?
In this moment, I realized - or rather, I felt - how lonely he must be all the time. And how scared, maybe, to expose himself by saying something positive. (What if the other person dismissed that?)
|Sketch from a live model session.|
When he came to the counter with the guidebooks he had selected, I proceeded to the transaction as usual – while focusing on my new awareness of him, wondering how I would be able to convey it this time, since we had always been on such neutral terms. He was, however, watching me as if expecting something... I merely put the books in a bag and handed it to him with a kind look, saying something vague, like "alors bon voyage"… and it happened.
His face lit up, and he thanked me several times for my help, smiling, saying totally uncharacteristic things like "Good! I'm glad I have this travel guide with me" – his whole happy countenance expressing a grateful relief at being in a safe environment to be positive and nice – then he left, still smiling, still thanking me.
Can you imagine?
It was truly humbling. I wanted to thank him for letting it happen, for showing his vulnerable side to me right away, and in such a positive way!
|This illustration is quite in the mood of the season. Happy Spring, everyone.|
At the time I felt trapped into my job, since it was neither really useful nor creative (I only remained because there was a lot of daylight coming into the store!), but my receptive customers were now showing me that even in this small, unobtrusive place downtown, I could make a difference in somebody's day, if I chose to: by allowing our connection to come through, we both became attuned to something very elusive, but powerful.
We were put in touch with this peaceful, vibrant place in each one of us where we can change – from moment to moment – our way to see the world, to relate to it, and to create it.
And this, dear readers, is what becomes fully evident in the fourth chapter of this story – in which my understanding is deeply touched by the work of two wonderful women. (Among, you know, many others who can be heard between the lines ;o)