On a recent meditation retreat, during a walking meditation outdoors, a woman walked up behind me & passed me on the sidewalk. I observed that she was older and I noticed I was having thoughts that sounded a little patronizing in tone about her gait and her slight limp as she walked and thinking that I don’t have an obvious limp and she probably couldn’t walk all the way down to the pond which I enjoyed so much. She seemed different from me. “I’m not like that.” All this despite being 72 years old myself and having had an issue with my left foot only a few months earlier that had made it difficult for me to walk with ease. I did feel a certain sympathy and pity, but also felt separate from her. As I became more aware of this pattern of thinking, it was curious to me to see it as a bias, a prejudice, ”ageism”. I wasn’t judging myself about it like I certainly would have in the past as unkind & shameful. I was just noticing it.
There is a natural human reaction to disconnect and distance from people and situations that trigger unpleasant emotional responses in us. Another, less obvious, natural human reaction is to distance or disconnect from our own unwanted thoughts, feelings and experiences. A common way that we do this is by projecting our unwanted emotions or thoughts onto others. When this happens it is very difficult for us to have any curiosity or compassion for others or ourselves. The practice of mindfulness helps us to become more aware of these habits of mind and to bring more kindness and curiosity to what is happening and what underlies these automatic reactions.
In this situation, I was able to see my distaste and judgment as a reaction to the unpleasant, disturbing awareness of the physical disability both hers and mine. Then I spontaneously began to recall the people in my life near and dear to me who are also experiencing physical limitation and disability and how I distance from them too at times, with impatience or irritation. I have thoughts like, “I take good care of myself and get regular exercise, etc.”, as if that is an insurance policy to protect me. These reactions create an illusion of separation and safety.
As I continued to walk, I felt a sense of deep sadness experiencing how this reaction also keeps me from feeling more connected in the moment with people I care about. How I was holding myself separate from them instead of, “Oh wow! This is real human suffering to which we are all subject!”. It was a gut level realization of how I was also a product of the cultural bias of “ageism” in which we stop seeing people who are older as competent & capable, rather than seeing them as “just like me”, no different. I’m going to be there, we’re all going to be there. And just the sadness I felt that those biases and fears lived in me as well. I felt a sense of gratitude that the awareness of my aversion and judgment of her helped me to see the things I’ve been struggling with in myself, i.e. the pain in my foot and my buttock that aren’t just going away which confront me with my own limitation and the denial and fear that I’ve not been willing to see. Then as my awareness softened I felt a sense of warmth and compassion for myself. The compassion began to extend to the preciousness of all life in its many forms.
When she walked past me coming back, I made myself really look at her, taking in the eyes. When our eyes met, she smiled. This time my experience was totally different. I was able to see and appreciate her wholeness and beauty. Mindfulness helped me move from feeling very separate from her and ended with me feeling a sense of real connectedness. I was able to watch the whole thing open and unfold, her limitations, my limitations, our connectedness with all humans who struggle and then I was back just sensing my body walking, held in nature, simply appreciating the light streaming through the leaves, chipmunks scattering by under the fence nearby.