One of the most universal recommendations for self-improvement is to not take things personally. Best-selling author and speaker don Miguel Ruiz, places such a high value on this code of conduct that “Don’t Take Anything Personally,” is one of The Four Agreements he recommends for living a life of personal freedom. In a quick google search, of “don’t take it personally” I find psychologists giving this advice for everything from anger management to creating a better workplace. The consensus is that the behavior of others has nothing to do with me, or you, and that believing otherwise causes unnecessary emotional pain and reactivity that can escalate conflicts rather than resolve them.
As a person who has a long history of taking everything personally, I have both deeply loved this advice and grappled with it, resisted it and struggled to understand it on a deeper level. What does it actually mean to not take something personally? Where does my responsibility to you begin and end and where does your responsibility to me begin and end?
Even more profound questions arose out of studies with my spiritual mentor, who suggested to me that I not take my mind so personally.
“What???” I thought. “How could I possibly not take my mind personally? What does that even mean?”
Years later, I finally understand. And that understanding is like an earthquake that levels the whole house of cards of my mind’s foolish and painful constructs to leave behind a level ground from which I can build a solid foundation and a sound home. And this is what I understand: I know who I am.
I am not my mind. I am Presence. I am the Awareness that observes my mind. My mind is a part of me, just like my toes and my eyes and my moles. It’s a part of me and just because it thinks and it speaks, doesn’t mean it gets to define me.
You see, sometimes my mind says truly terrible things to me. For a long time, I didn’t realize that my mind was saying mean things to me because it would say something mean and my emotional reaction would happen so quickly that I lost myself in the emotional aftermath. It’s only through meditation that I learned to slow down and uncouple the thoughts in my mind from the emotional reaction in my body. The process of learning to observe my thoughts and observe my reaction to my thoughts helped me to take them less personally. My thoughts come and go. My thoughts, generated by my mind, are inconstant, inconsistent, fleeting. However, I am constant. I am always present. I am always present, even when I feel that I am “not very present.” I am the one who responds, reacts, acts, focuses and chooses. I am not my mind. I am my presence.
Now that I know what I am, I am free of the restraints of my mind. I no longer need to take my mind personally. It still happens to me, of course, that my mind will say something mean and I believe it. A friend doesn’t call me back and my mind may say that she doesn’t really care about me (which is code for “I’m not worthy of love and belonging”). And I believe my mind for a little while and I feel downright terrible. Until I become aware that this is a story that my mind is telling me and I have no actual evidence that it is right. In fact, I have a lot of evidence that I AM worthy of love and belonging and that my friend cares for me deeply. Now I’m free to not take my mind personally. The quality of my thought no longer defines the quality of my personhood.
Everybody has this kind of mind. The mind has many aspects of course and many beautiful capacities for creativity and ingenuity and communication. Everyone has these beautiful parts of their mind. And everyone has a mind that is connected to our fear-brain. It’s job is to constrain our behavior to keep us safe. It’s job is to keep us from jumping out of moving cars and reaching out to pet a rattlesnake. The trouble comes when our mind employs its beautiful imagination, in cahoots with our fear-brain, to concoct wild imaginings to keep us safe from abstract threats. This becomes truly insidious when our mind seeks to constrain our behavior by threatening our sense of love and belonging. If we don’t keep the house perfectly clean or we don’t meet our sales quota or we don’t get an A on that test or we don’t make time to help our child make cupcakes for a friend’s birthday then we will a) be rejected by those we love, or b) feel like a total failure and be unworthy of love.
Sound familiar? It’s not personal. “It’s not personal” meaning that: 1) EVERYONE has a mind just like yours, 2) YOU are not your thoughts. Your thoughts come and go but YOU are constant. And the quality of your thoughts doesn’t define who you are. You are the presence that observes the thoughts. You are the presence that FEELS the emotional reaction. You are free to choose which thoughts you give your energy to. You are free to put your focus wherever you choose.
This is true personal freedom. And it feels gooooooood.