Shall we pause along the way to spy upon ourselves,
or shall we turn a deaf ear to what we might hear,
so important upon our stay?
These words remind me that life is a journey which humanity shares. The importance we give this sojourn, as so many learned people would say, should be of utmost concern to all of us. Instead of going through our time here on automatic, reacting to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, individually or as a society, why don’t we use these precious moments to appreciate the gift we’ve been given? Such an effort to genuinely take control of our lives, to sincerely pay more attention to what life is telling us, makes sense, does it not?
Of course, to most people, “listening to life”, means hearing the sounds coming from outside of ourselves. Not that it isn’t true, but it may be well less than half of what there is to hear. We can observe the veracity of this statement if we employ the ‘watcher’ we all have. For instance, while someone else is speaking, we usually have a simultaneous stream of thoughts commenting on what we’re hearing. Check it out the next time you listen to a colleague or person on t.v. Even while we’re in the middle of our backyards admiring nature, our mind is speaking to us. If we listen to the wind, we may find this ‘commentator’ reminding us of past ghost stories or tales of loneliness.
And what about the reactions we experience as we go about our daily schedule at work, our time with family and friends, or watching the negative news and commentaries on t.v.? Do we really pay attention to the continuous stream of thoughts and emotions that compose the reactions we feel to what we’re hearing? Probably not.
To elaborate further, what follows may be sensitive material for the reader, but they are experiences I wish to share, and I apologize if anyone is offended. For example, I’m a white American living fulltime in Mexico. When I came here in March 1994, I attended an excellent Spanish language school in the beautiful city of Cuernavaca, located about 45 minutes southwest of Mexico City. It was wonderful living there with a Mexican family and getting to know the culture through immersion before and after school. Being surrounded everyday by people, whose skin coloring ran from a very light tan to dark brown and sometimes black, was interesting. Since this involvement in Mexico was somewhat new to me, I sometimes felt a little intimidated, but because I had experienced living in other cultures with differences in skin pigmentation, I knew that I would soon become accustomed to being different again.
However, that wasn’t the only cultural distinction that I, as a foreigner, had to experience and to which I had to assimilate. Let me tell you about what two of my classmates and I underwent at the colorful open air market in downtown Cuernavaca one day before we returned home from school. You see, part of the Mexican culture is hearing vendors use skin color to call to potential customers as they pass by their stands. One of my friends was African American and the other one was Caucasian American, so as we walked along we could hear the people calling to us using the words, “guerito” (whitey) and “negrito” (blacky). Of course, we all felt a negative reaction inside ourselves, and we talked about it while we were in the market. Our black friend found it more difficult than we did not to say anything to the vendors because of the racial injustice he’d experienced in our home country. And here we were in a different culture having to understand that things were the reverse of the states, for no racial slurs or disrespect were intended.
I’d also had a similar reaction when I was living in Saltillo, Mexico a couple of years before, but fortunately, a Mexican friend educated me on this part of the culture. And since then, with a friendly tonality I’ve even greeted vendors in return with “Hola, Morenito” (“Hi, Brownie”), and they’ve smiled and laughed in response. Of course, whereas Mexicans wouldn’t greet each other as such, I have that alternative since I look like a foreigner.
There are other cultural differences here in Mexico to which one needs to assimilate in order to feel at home, especially if a person is living here year round. One of them that stands out is the expression “gringo”. This label is what Mexicans began calling the American soldiers who came here for a short time during a conflict in the 19th century. It means “green go” and originated because of the soldiers’ green uniforms and the violation of Mexico’s sovereignty. As a result, it’s common to hear Mexican friends refer to an American friend as “gringito” which is the diminutive of gringo. Of course, in this form and with a friendly tone of voice, there’s nothing harmful or negative intended. But it does take some time to accustom oneself to this term. On the other hand, it’s different when one is out in public and is called “Gringo” with a less than respectful tone of voice. This has happened to me only twice in the more than 21 years I’ve lived here. Such an experience hurts, but the only thing to do in public is to appear not to notice, keep on moving, and work on the emotional reaction at home.
The objective of the two examples I’ve given above is to point out that as humans we hear life experiences on both external and internal levels, and we really cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to either one. We need to pay attention to both and respond in appropriate ways. If we remain hearing-impaired, internally is where we suffer the most damage, e.g., repression, depression, and more. Of course, external harm usually results from people expressing themselves in out-of-control reactionary patterns.
So what should we do to use what life offers us? There’s a lot, but basically it boils down to this: pay attention! When we’re listening to something, i.e., people upset about racial injustice, and feel ourselves wanting to turn the channel or a deaf ear to it, we should listen as attentively as possible while being aware of what’s happening inside ourselves without letting it distract us from being present—in the now. When we get to a quiet place at home, at work, or elsewhere, it’s appropriate to open and spy upon what we’ve just experienced with discernment, letting it resurface in our minds without reacting to it, and staying with it until it simmers down—reaches an equilibrium. Also, we should take the time every day to just be with our minds, observing all thoughts and emotions while staying tranquil. Finally, if there are actions we need to take, then we’ll know what to do based on what comes to us from the non-thinking, non-conceptual, non-reactive part of the mind. Subsequently, we use the thinking mind to carry these responses out. If we do these four things during our stay in this world, we’ll develop the wisdom to benefit not only ourselves but others.
So yes, we should pay more attention to what life tells us. Not letting life go by on automatic, we hear what comes to us from without and within, we understand our reactions and probably those of others, and we improve our ability to relate with the world. And just as Larry Rosenberg in his book, “Three Steps To Awakening” says, we find that all of life is a relationship. If we wake up to this gift, then life can be doable, peaceful, and happy.