Productive Perceptions

Perception, paper collage, 2022

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.

Thich Nhat Hanh

It occurs to me that, in every situation, I am capable of viewing other people in one of two ways: productively or non-productively. What do I mean by that? When I see others productively, I see them more completely. As they are, not as I want or need them to be. I don’t even necessarily (or often) take what they say or do personally because that is non-productive. Indeed, to construe what another person says or does as being about me, even when it is directed toward me, is non-productive. And is both the cause of inner turmoil and outer conflict.

This has only occurred to me recently—within the past year, to be sure. It is only recently that I have realized I have the capacity for this dual kind of seeing. I think non-productive, or ego-centered, perceptions are the norm and are what I’d grown accustomed to. But some time within the past year, I’ve come to see differently. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly. And I’ve considered writing about this experience several times before, but I find it rather challenging to put into words. So please bear with me as I endeavor to describe the differences between what I’m calling productive and non-productive perceptions.

To see another person productively means to see much in the way outlined by the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above. If another person is saying something unkind to me, treating me with hostility, trying to make me feel badly about myself, as if I am somehow “less than”, minimizing my accomplishments, etc., it is because that person is suffering. That person is at war with him- or herself, and I happen to be caught in the crosshairs. 

It is one thing to know this. And it is another to perceive it. 

That is, to stand across from a person who is treating you unkindly and also see the person who is suffering. It is like looking at one person and seeing two: Self and Other. The one who is attacking and the one who is being attacked. The one who suffers and the one who causes the suffering. I remember the first time I really saw another person this way. And I mean really saw—not just understood intellectually the dynamic that was unfolding before me.

And being able to actually see it made all the difference in my response. I didn’t respond non-productively. That is, my ire wasn’t provoked. I didn’t say or do anything regrettable. Once I realized what I was witnessing—an individual who was fighting with himself, not with me, which was something of a revelation in the moment—there wasn’t much to say. I felt sad. I even felt compassionate. But I didn’t feel angry.

Had I not perceived the Other in the room, I don’t think I would have responded in the way that I did—that is, in a thoughtful, calm, and controlled fashion. I would have perceived myself as being under attack. As if I was the one being lashed out against, and I would probably have lashed out in return. 

So, I ask myself, what changed? What happened that made me bridge the chasm between knowing and experiencing? As I said previously, I’m not sure. (I might conjecture about the roles of art and nature, but that’s perhaps better saved for another discussion.) Regardless, it’s made a world of difference in the way I understand and respond—both internally and outwardly—to other people. What I think: you can’t see the Other in someone else if you can’t first see it in yourself. Indeed, as I write this, I am reminded uncannily of Matthew 7:3: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Maybe I finally paid attention.


Prints for the artwork above are available in my Etsy shop.

11 responses to “Productive Perceptions”

  1. Wow. This is really insightful. I really like where you are going with this. And if put into practice, certainly better than the usual flippant responses to other people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well stated. It takes real growth to look at someone who is trying to harm you with compassion and empathy and understanding. Throughout my life, when I have experienced another treating me unkindly, I have often found myself asking what’s really going on..because so often, the “lashing” doesn’t even seem like it’s really about me..and it is always difficult to field someone’s anger and mistreatment when it’s not even about you..many times I walk away, thinking that is the best action. But often, that leads to a build up of resentment and bitterness toward the world at large..and even a sense of superiority.. If one can stay in the moment and really see the Other, it provides connection and peace to fill us rather than hurt and justification for our own poor reaction. We see our own “plank” which allows us to have compassion for the person that is dealing with their own “plank” and their own cross that they are required to bear. It is a heavy burden for all of us and if we can slow down and really see what is occurring, we won’t be left feeling broken by someone’s anger..we will be built by the empathy and witnessing of another’s suffering..and feel a deep respect and love for ourselves and others.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So much of what you said here is thought-provoking. First, I agree that walking away in silence is sometimes best…and sometimes not. Sometimes asserting ourselves in the moment is the best medicine. I’ve learned to try and listen to my intuition as closely as possible in these situations; although, that can be challenging when we’re feeling emotional. I think that is when it becomes especially important to perceive the Other, rather than simply telling ourselves, “This person is lashing out because he/she is suffering”. When we can see the one suffering, somehow, our internal response changes. At least, that’s my experience. The anger isn’t there. The emotional volatility isn’t there. The whole dynamic of the interaction is changed, such that I’m less concerned about how so-and-so is treating me, how to get back at this person, make them feel poorly for what they’ve done, etc., and I’m more focused on how to deal with the person in front of me, as he/she is. That is, it becomes less about me somehow, and my internal (and external) responses reflect that.

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