There is a Zen parable in which a powerful samurai warrior came to the Master in search of the secret of life.
"Tell me the nature of Heaven and Hell,” demanded the samurai.
The Master sat calmly and slowly looked up at the samurai whose armor was gleaming in the morning light. The Master smiled. “And why should I tell a despicable, worthless, ant of a man such of yourself?” he said. “What makes you-- a lowly worm--think you deserve to know of such things?”
With a swift swirl of rage, the warrior withdrew his sword and held it above the Master’s head, poised to strike down this thin, grizzled man who dared insult him.
Just before the samurai could bring down death on him, the Master pointed up to him and said, “That’s hell.”
The samurai dropped his sword and wrung his shaking hands. He could not believe that in a flash of anger he had almost been willing to murder a defenseless holy man. Tears dripped onto his intricately carved armor. He was fully aware of this man sitting before him whose words had, in a mere moment, taught him about the extremes of his impulses.
“That’s heaven,” said the Master.
We do not need to dwell among manicured rock gardens and read age-old parables to learn of the fundamental role of our scripting, our collective conscious and subconscious thoughts about emotions, and their role in shaping our social responses (or more impulsive reactions) to others. A lavish cruise, or an exotic beach, can equally be hell or heaven depending on what the script dictates.
A study by John Ruiz of Washington State University in 2007 brings this ancient wisdom into the modern world of psychological science. Ruiz analyzed the health outcomes of 111 artery bypass patients to see if psychological characteristics could predict how well these individuals did post-surgically. This sort of study is not new in the literature. It is well-established that the more psychologically stable (less anxious, less depressed) patients are, the better they heal after the ordeal of surgery. Ruiz didn’t stop there, however. He looked to see if the psychological characteristics of the patients’ spouses also predicted how well the healing went. The more emotionally maladjusted the spouses, the poorer the patients’ health outcomes were – unless (and here’s where it gets interesting) the patients were happy in their marriage. Those patients who accepted their spouses’ neurotic tendencies tended to not show the poorer health outcomes. The mindset of the patient may have have served as a buffer against the emotional contagion from their spouses’ negativity. This study highlights the crucial importance of perception, of the interpretative “filter” we use in our interactions with others from who we seek care and support.
Whether it be in your role as a parent, spouse, colleague or friend, ask yourself whether you are creating “heaven” or “hell” in your interactions with others with how you are framing your situation. What are you telling yourself about them? What is the “storyline?” Look for elements of blame. Looks for telltale signs of unhelpful scripting that uses words like “must,” “never,” and “always.” Are you resenting the person for for “intentionally” harming you in some way?
Though others are certainly responsible and need to be accountable for their behavior, you must be responsible for how you talk to yourself about the relationship. You have the final say as to what the relationship will mean – what emotional ripple effects it will have for you (and perhaps for others as well).
A few simple (though difficult to access in the moment) questions might help you put a new “frame” on the difficult exchanges in daily life.
“What am I missing here?”
“How else could I view this?”
“What am I assuming about the other person?”
“What else is causing this?”
An attitude of curiosity about how you might shift your relationship into a new, more productive space can go a long way. If we could only remember to pause before we react and ask ourselves such questions, we’d have a chance at sidestepping our old scripts and responding to one another with the compassionate, inclusive perspective that helps us get the connection we desire most.