Are You Missing the Person Right In Front of You?

What Do We Miss When We Relate to Our Idea About Something Instead of What is Truly There?

I’m discovering the limits of theories and maps and mental distinctions. Very simply, when we hold a preconceived notion about something, we relate with our idea of it, rather than the truth of what it is in the moment.

The most striking example of this, for me, is in relationships. Much of the time we relate to our idea of a person instead of relating with that person. [1] And often we do the same with ourselves—we relate to an idea of who we are instead of being with ourselves as we are.

Relating to our ideas (instead of being open to what is) can be harmful.

This is obviously harmful in stereotypes—when we assume that a person is a certain way because of their skin color, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, political preferences, etc. But in this article we’ll look at how relating to our ideas also cuts us off from the vibrancy of the moment in more everyday situations. It is possible to “stereotype” others (and ourselves) based on what was true in the past, but is no longer so.

Think of a parent telling their adult child what they need to do in order to succeed—they are relating with their idea of their child as someone vulnerable and naive, instead of how their kid is today: a full-fledged adult with equal or better information and decision-making capabilities.

It is easy to forget that people are complex and constantly in flux.

Relating with someone as we think they were can be harmful. It keeps us from recognizing and honoring who they are. It keeps us from engaging with them fully in the moment.

I also believe this is true even when we hold ideas we are fairly certain are true now, with people we know quite well. A friend we know to be extremely introverted for example, might feel extroverted at any given occasion. If we assume them to be introverted and interact with them as such when they’re feeling extroverted, we are missing them as they are.

This can be sad, disorienting, and alienating—think about someone who is usually happy and suddenly feels sad. Assuming that they’re happy and missing them in their sadness, we might accidentally shame this feeling.

And the alternative can be life-giving, intimate, and energetic. We have the opportunity to meet them more deeply and be more supportive of what’s currently true.

Everything is complex and constantly changing.

I believe we can generalize this idea even further: We even relate to common, everyday objects as our ideas about them instead of what they are. Opening our minds allows us to be spontaneous and creative, creating art out of junk and beauty in each moment.

Take a plastic dinosaur. When we relate to it as a child’s toy, it offers us adults little but clutter. But when we drop our assumptions about the object, it can suddenly become a planter, a reminder of evolution, inspiration for a song, or a business idea.

Generalizing the idea even further takes us on a spiritual path.

When we generalize the idea even further, we discover that we have given everything we see all the meaning it has for us (though NOT all the meaning it has); and that a certain level we do not understand anything because we see only the past—our preconceived notions about something based on what we know from previous experience. As a result our minds are preoccupied with past thoughts, seeing nothing as it is now.

These concepts are laid out in the first few lessons of the year-long workbook in A Course in Miracles. The upshot is that this means we are never upset for the reasons we think we are—we are upset because of what we think we see (which is likely a false belief), not necessarily what is actually there.

The Challenge of Staying Present.

Of course this type of thinking can be extremely challenging to apply in the moment,[2] especially since the vast majority of the things and people we interact with seem to be steady. Yet this challenge is a bit like the chicken and the egg (and subject to the confirmation bias)—in that when we start to question our assumptions about the way people are, we open ourselves to discovering that people are far less fixed than we thought them to be.

This same principle is why artists consistently see creative potential in everyday objects; why photographers see beauty where others see nothing; where musicians hear melodies in traffic; why entrepreneurs see start-ups where others see annoying inefficiencies. These makers are willing to let the moment influence and lead them, instead of letting their assumptions lead them.

Living Experiment—Repeatedly Ask Yourself This Question

Of course this is not all bad. We have these patterns and cognitive biases for good reasons; we simply also now have the chance to add options to our engagement with life.

To practice this idea I will draw directly from the aforementioned workbook (which, like DailyHap, invites readers to a daily action item for changing thought and behavior). I encourage you to take a minute and look around you. For each item or person you see, ask yourself “Am I relating to my idea of this object/person, or am I in relationship with it/them in this moment?”

For example:

“Am I relating to my idea of my boss, or am I in relationship with them in this moment?”

“Am I relating to my idea of this computer, or am I in relationship with it in this moment?”

“Am I relating to my idea of this article, or am I in relationship with it in this moment?”

“Am I relating to my idea of myself, or am I in relationship with it in this moment?”

As you look around your surroundings, do not bother trying to do this exercise with everything, but try not to exclude any person or thing. I hope you enjoy it!

[1] This is extremely common in my love of Integral Theory. Although I still think it’s incredibly useful and encourage everyone to find a way to engage the thinking, it can ironically separate us from people, so that we relate to them as “a 7 on the enneagram” or “Green” instead just who and how they are.

Why is it still beneficial to learn and hold theories? Because it’s extremely difficult to relate with someone as they are, without assumptions—doing so is indeed it’s own idea/framework—so it’s useful to have more and more inclusive/transparent ideas and frameworks (until perhaps we can get simply be... with everything).

[2] The workbook I referred to has some good advice on this, essentially encouraging readers to try the idea out before needing to get it perfect or have a deeply intellectual understanding of it:

“But while you may be able to accept it intellectually, it is unlikely that it will mean anything to you as yet. However, understanding is not necessary at this point. In fact, the recognition that you do not understand is a prerequisite for undoing your false ideas. These exercises are concerned with practice, not with understanding. You do not need to practice what you already understand. It would indeed be circular to aim at understanding, and assume that you have it already.

It is difficult for the untrained mind to believe that what it seems to picture is not there. This idea can be quite disturbing, and may meet with active resistance in any number of forms. Yet that does not preclude applying it. No more than that is required for these or any other exercises. Each small step will clear a little of the darkness away, and understanding will finally come to lighten every corner of the mind that has been cleared of the debris that darkens it.”

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