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The Scandal of Believing in Objectivity

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Much of the disharmony in relationship can be attributed to the belief in objectivity—that is, belief in the notion that we experience other people the way they really are. As we’ve seen, the belief in objectivity tends to arise right along with the belief in being a separate individual. Through my own separate me, I see separate others. Once you’ve made this division in your mind, there’s a tendency for you to believe that you, the subject, can see other people and objects exactly as they are. And in that tendency there’s a kind of mental sleepiness, a blindness to the fact that every time you see anything, what you’re actually doing is thinking. You fail to see that you’re looking through a filter of thought.

When you believe in objectivity, you have difficulty seeing that your words, pictures, and energies paint others in a way that is unique to you. Your words, pictures, and energies make up your entire view of reality. Your views of other people are shaped by your memories, your personal history, your culture, your worldview, and your psychological and emotional traits along with various other influences. You don’t see others the way they are. You see them the way you are. The painter is inseparable from the painting.

For a quick experience of this reality, rest for a moment without any thoughts. In the moment of resting without thoughts, you don’t know who or what a person is, precisely because no thoughts are arising in you. Your thoughts inform you of everything you think you know about anyone, including yourself. When thoughts begin to arise in you, notice that they’re coming from your own personal set of memories. Each of your arising thoughts has to do with a particular past experience, one that you interpreted in a personal and particular way. Your view of another person is actually a view of your own memories, as if you were in relationship with your memories and not with the other person. And as emotions and sensations arise alongside your memories, your image of that person is reinforced.

Notice that this is always the case, no matter whom you encounter. At any given moment, the way you see a particular person—that is, your thoughts about that person—will depend completely on the particular words, pictures, and energies that are arising in you. And what you think about that person will have a lot to do with your education, your upbringing, your fears, your thoughts about yourself, and many influences from your culture that shape your attitudes about who people are or who they should be. This reality can be difficult to see until you begin meeting people freshly in the moment, without dragging your memories into each encounter and using them to interpret others’ words and actions in the present. When you’re not able to see that your thoughts are producing your view of another person, you buy into the belief that you are seeing the other person objectively, exactly as he or she really is. You can’t see that your view of the other person is relative and subjective. You can’t see that your view of that person is limited to what you think, feel, and sense in the moment.

Even though any one of us may know, at the intellectual level, that our view of someone else is subjective, relative, and limited, we often act as if our view of that person were objective. For example, Brad and Tony are discussing the leader of a Middle Eastern country. Brad, a Democrat, finds himself disagreeing with Tony, a Republican. Brad gets very upset as he listens to Tony. Intellectually, Brad may know that his view of the Middle Eastern leader is largely subjective. He knows that his view has been shaped by his experience of being a Democrat and by all kinds of other experiences. But his intellectual awareness doesn’t stop him from getting angrier and angrier as he listens to Tony. Brad thinks Tony just doesn’t get it. He really wants to prove that Tony is wrong about this leader. The very fact that Brad gets so angry as he listens to Tony is an indication of just how deeply Brad believes that his thoughts actually represent reality. There’s nothing wrong with anger. It’s a natural human emotion. But it’s often based on a skewed view of reality. Brad is acting and responding to Tony on the basis of his own belief in objectivity. The Middle Eastern leader is not just someone who’s “out there,” separate and objective. Brad and Tony are both experiencing particular thoughts, emotions, and sensations that paint the leader in a certain light—as good or evil, right or wrong. And their emotions will tend to strengthen their particular views and mind-sets, making their thoughts seem all the more objective.

The belief in objectivity is a scandal. Look at the degree and depth of the suffering and conflict that have arisen throughout history from the basic belief I see others the way they really are. I call it a scandal because this belief is universal, but we don’t realize it’s a belief. We mistake it for reality, and this mistake comes at great cost, creating widespread disharmony in human relationships. The scandal has left us with a trail of murder, torture, rape, abuse, war, conflict, bullying, divorce, control, manipulation, alienation, and loneliness in relationships. Whenever we fail to see the subjective nature of our experience, we treat others as objects who are somehow independent of our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations. This belief in objectivity is directly related to our desire to change, manipulate, abuse, judge, blame, bully, and control others, as well as to our tendency to seek approval, attention, self-worth, validation, and love from others.

When we’re pointing outward, we’re overlooking the projector—the self—that shows the world in a particular way. When we stop pointing outward, when we stop behaving as if we could see people and situations objectively and focus instead on the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are arising within us, a new clarity becomes available to us. We free ourselves from the belief in a self that sees others the way they really are. And our relationships begin to harmonize. As a direct result, the world “out there” begins to reflect our own inner peace, joy, love, compassion, and wisdom. The inner and the outer become inseparable. Once we see this, we can still express our views, but we can do so without the belief I see others the way they really are.

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