We Are All Learning

Post written by Leo Babauta.

It’s really difficult to change mental patterns, and one of the hardest is getting frustrated with others … and ourselves.

From getting angry at other drivers when they rudely cut you off, to being frustrated with your child or spouse, to being irritated with co-workers, to being offended by a stranger or waiter or rude flight attendant … frustrations from others can ruin our day, or a good chunk of it.

And we get frustrated with ourselves as well … when we lose our patience, or fail to do a habit, or procrastinate, or eat something sweet or fatty when we resolved not to. That frustration doesn’t help us.

The frustration, anger, irritation and being offended … these don’t help us. They lead to us acting in a way that’s destructive of our relationships with others. They lead to us acting in a way that isn’t compassionate, calm, understanding. They lead to us not being trusted by others, making others angry, making others not like us. And just as bad, they lead to us feeling bad, which doesn’t make for a good day.

If these feelings aren’t useful, what should we do? We can’t just flip a switch and turn them off, nor can we suppress them (we can try, but it doesn’t work).

This is a little strategy guide for dealing with these tough reactions.

1. Awareness & Space

You probably knew I was going to start with awareness — it has usually been the first step in any change that we’ve had in this course. Being aware when things come up like frustration, anger, irritation, being offended … this is how you start to change it. You can’t change it if it happens in automatic mode.

Once you notice it, the key thing is not to act — it’s OK to have the feeling, but the action is what is usually destructive. Acting in anger means you’re going to do something not kind, not helpful.

So give yourself some space. Walk away, calm down, breathe. The space is where you can watch the emotion rise, peak, fade away. Then you can think about it calmly, and act in an appropriate manner. That’s what we really want: an appropriate response.

What’s an appropriate response? If you take away the anger, the feeling offended … you can respond in a way that makes sense for the situation. For example:

2. We Are All Learning

This is a slogan I use to help me put things in perspective.

“We are all learning.”

What does it mean? If someone is rude, it just means he has a lot to learn about being considerate, or managing his anger. If my co-worker screws up, she has some things to learn about the work. If my child screws up or acts badly, she also has a lot to learn about life.

And that’s OK. We all have things to learn. We are all in the process of learning, all the time. We’re at different stages with different skills, but none of us has learned anything. And if we realize this, we can then be patient with this fellow learner, who after all, can’t be expected to know everything and be perfect, right?

We can use this with ourselves as well … when we mess up or react badly, we can forgive ourselves by saying, “We are all learning.” Including ourselves. We are just as imperfect as everyone else. We still have lots to learn.

When someone does something less than perfectly, rudely, inconsiderately, inappropriately … just tell yourself, “We are all learning.” And then smile.

3. The Other Person Isn’t the Problem

This one is more of a ninja-level skill, so don’t worry if you don’t incorporate this right away.

Here’s the thing to ponder: The other person is never the problem.

What does that mean? If someone behaves rudely and you get angry with him, the problem isn’t the other person’s actions … it’s your reaction. Or more accurately, it’s not even your reaction, but your action based on that reaction.

This point of view contends that other people’s actions are just an outside stimulus, just like a leaf falling outside, or a rock falling in front of us on a mountain path. When a rock falls in front of us, we don’t get mad at the rock. We go around it. When a leaf falls, we don’t think it’s being rude to us. We just watch it, and think of it as a natural phenomena.

Other people’s actions are really no different. Consider this story, from the Zen tradition:

A man is rowing a boat and sees another person rowing a boat towards him. The boat bumps into his, and he start yelling at the other man, mad that the man bumped into his boat.

Then consider this alternative version:

The same man is rowing a boat and sees an empty boat coming towards him. The boat bumps into his, but he simply steers his boat around it.

In the first version, he gets mad. In the second, he reacts appropriately.

Here’s the thing: the boat is always empty. Even when there’s another person causing the stimulus, that person isn’t trying to do anything to us. They are doing their own thing, motivated by whatever they’re going through, and so we shouldn’t take it so personally.

When we take things personally, we get angry. When we see the external event as an empty rowboat, we react appropriately.

And so, the other person isn’t the problem. It’s us taking things personally. This takes time to learn, in your gut instead of just as an idea, but it makes a ton of difference.