The Value of the Person Next to You Right Now

I recently completed a Master’s in Public Administration and I spend a lot of my time thinking about government, governance, and the world of politics. One of the things I frequently hear in podcasts is how successful politicians have this ability to focus in on the people they speak with to truly connect to them, make them feel like they are the only person in the world, and earn their trust. Becoming a successful politician requires the ability to connect with others and it really stands out to us when we meet someone who can exceptionally connect with us and make us feel like the center of the world.

 

I think about this often because it is something I am actually not that good at. I want to be better at connecting with people and engaging with them more deeply and thoroughly. I want to be the kind of person that people think about and remember deep engagement with. The challenge for me is that I am often very distracted, and I don’t always do a great job focusing in on the moment and on the person I am speaking with. Luckily, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about ways of thinking that can help with my troubles in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.

 

Hanh writes, “The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future?” This quote is powerful because it reminds me that I don’t know when any given moment will be my last moment. It focuses on the only thing I have, which is the present moment, and reminds me to make that moment meaningful and valuable for myself and those whom I am lucky enough to interact. The quote alone is not going to change my behavior, but it can help me stay focused on the things which matter most, and that piece of mindfulness can help me think about my habits and the triggers that set me up to be focused or distracted.

 

Hanh continues, “The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.” Looking beyond the person in front of you or speaking to you now to see who may be more interesting to talk to ruins your connection with the person in front of you. Thinking only of yourself and approaching another person as a transaction, as if you will only speak with them and give them your attention if they prove themselves worthy of your investment diminishes the quality of your relationships. When you instead treat other people as if  they were the most important thing in your life, you can become more connected with them and learn more about yourself and the possibilities of the world. This is what Hanh is describing when he says that making the person with you happy is the pursuit of life. Engaging with the person you are present with does not just look good for you, and it does not just make the other person happy, but it truly increases the value of the present moment and enriches the lives of you and the other person.

Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.

What We Think of Ourselves

Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts.  He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later.  One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 

Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us.  Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.

 

Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.

Recognizing the Positivity of Others

Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses not just on how we should think about ourselves, but on how we should think of others.  During his life he strived to avoid thoughts of negativity and he focused on finding the positive aspects of humanity in all people.  Rather than reducing people to their flaws and lowest qualities, Aurelius recognized that all men act in a way that made the most logical sense to them.  He did not reduce individuals in his mind, but instead he built them up based on the values and virtues they exhibited.  His thoughts of others and how he tried to approach others is partially explained in the following quote,

 

“When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.  For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Wherefore we must keep them before us.”

 

In his practice of thinking about others Aurelius highlights the best parts of them, but not in a way that is overly flattering.  Rather than seeing the worst in people and picking them apart for their flaws, he looks to others to admire their great qualities and to see what he can learn. By looking at what people around us do well, we are able to recognize the qualities and traits that we wish to display, helping us understand the values of our actions from new perspectives.  His focus is on continually growing and improving through reflection, and by doing the same in our lives, those around us become new lenses through which we can view our place in the world.

 

Aurelius is also focusing in his quote on a type of contentedness in our lives that few of us achieve in our capitalistic society. We are constantly compared to others and it is tempting to want to tear others down rather than build them up. Focusing on the flaws of others is an easy way for us to place ourselves in the moral high ground and to feel good about our decisions, but it is a myopic way to approach the world. Seeing the value in others and actively searching out their virtues is a humbling practice that can leave us feeling like we are not as awesome or impressive as we would want to believe, but we can learn to love our society in a greater manner. What Aurelius argues in his brief quote is that we can become more at peace with ourselves and with those around us when we make an effort to better recognize the greatness of others. We can feel a greater appreciation for our peers and fellow citizens, treat them better, and be less insecure with our selves if we can better recognize and accept the virtues of other people rather than the shortcomings of others.