Have you ever run into challenging opinions that are coming from people you thought you respected, and you just couldn’t understand how they could feel that way? While intellectually we may understand that diversity of opinion is to be expected, and even respected, in a democratic society, we may also struggle with feeling attacked or diminished by the politics and perspectives of others. How do we overcome these feelings of alienation and separation while allowing for those perspectives we may find hurtful and still respecting the other person?
It is easy to appreciate the diversity found in a flower garden, where you may find butterflies, bees, and flowers, all seemingly working together in harmony. It may be harder to appreciate the diversity found in political opinions. But if you take time to just stand back and appreciate the world around you, you may begin to notice their is an intrinsic order of life. There are no mistakes in the natural world, and everything exists in a particular balance, where life and death coexist together. On the surface, there may appear to be conflict between a predator and prey, but this relationship is crucial to maintain a greater balance in the world. The same is true in the world of humans.
Recognize that it is adversity that makes us stronger. The person at work giving you a hard time is your greatest teacher. We shouldn’t take for granted that we too have flaws and may be blind to particular issues or needs we may not have experienced. We need to listen to others, empathetically. Remember that without someone to disagree with, you wouldn’t be able to fully articulate your own opinions. Take a moment and thank those people who challenge you, and quietly offer them a blessing of appreciation. While at times we may feel threatened by opinions different from ours, we are not lesser beings because of these opinions. We are simply being given an opportunity for personal growth.
In any conflict it is easy to take sides, to choose a winner and a loser, someone or something we may find more worthy of winning in the inevitable struggle for life, love, or success. We may prefer our opinions to others, or our family to strangers, in the same way that we would prefer the growth of a garden we cultivated to the deer that may enjoy a meal from it. The difference in the deer and us is that the deer doesn’t carry its own self-consciousness around with it. The deer doesn’t think about being hungry, wondering what it should eat, or fretting about if he should eat from your garden. The deer simply sees food, and eats. There is no malice in the deer eating. It is keeping balance.
It is our own self-consciousness that leads us to prefer “us” over “them.” It is the blessing and the curse of self-awareness that we begin to try and take control of our life and we try and plan for the future, save money for retirement, or try and build a career to achieve some measure of success. In reality, we are not simply the image we have of ourselves. Our jobs, or relationships, our opinions, are all external and superficial window dressing that we identify with in order to defend the construction of our Ego-Self we have created. The great philosopher and thinker Alan Watts once put it this way – “Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself.”
Once we become a bit more self-reflexive, and begin to notice ourselves thinking, we can slowly come to know that our opinions, our construction of who we are, our identity, and the endless mental chatter that creates this illusion of self, is not the real Self. There is something underlying all of that, something that doesn’t actually change with our mood, something that we must realize exists in everyone. This something, often known as soul, can not be tarnished, and exists within everyone – even those people who don’t see things your way.
Self-consciousness enables our awakening to our own sense of identity, but also creates a natural bias where we prefer our own self to others we may identify as different from us. So what is the solution? How do we rid ourselves of this bias that inevitably separates and divides us from one another? In the end, one way to overcome the challenges of self-consciousness is surrender. Surrender to the greater principles of unity of humankind, surrender to the knowledge that your inner light can never be diminished unless you let it, surrender to the fact that we are all here to be learning from each other. Surrender your attachment to outcomes. You cannot change the world through force of will. You can only build alliances, community, and compassion. Once we find that something, that universal Self that ties us all together, we may find it a bit easier to surrender to the natural flow and balance found in the universe. We may be able to walk through the world with a bit more detachment, smiling with the knowledge that ultimately everything must remain in balance.
There is a lot to be learned from this understanding of Self, that can’t all fit here, but if you are interested, there a number of Alan Watts recordings that may help.