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134. What Are Your Rules For Others?

This week's tip is about something that takes up an awful lot of our time, time you may like to recapture.... I am lucky enough to be in the Algarve at the moment, and this morning I went for a walk, just inland from the coast, through the Ria Formosa nature reserve. It was a perfect morning, not a cloud in the sky, and there was a gentle breeze blowing in from the sea. I set off along a sandy path, a deep blue lagoon on the seaward side and pine covered hills stretching up on the other. Birds swooped and dipped their wings into the water and the breeze cuffed the surface into millions of tiny ripples. Heading along the path, my attention was suddenly drawn by a movement on the other side of the path, on the adjacent hill. Standing on it, about halfway up, I was startled to see a man. A man with not a stitch of clothing. I tensed. He looked at me, unmoving. Was this a rapist? If I kept on walking would I soon hear the thunder of masculine feet and turn to find a priapic beast hurtling towards me? Or was it an exhibitionist? I didn't want to look too closely to find out. Or was it someone who had spent the last month on a nudist beach and had forgotten how the rest of the world live? Or perhaps he was doing it for a bet, and his mischievous friend was giggling in the bushes, watching the reactions. Who knows? I kept walking, nervous, trying not to look up at the hill, but failing on several occasions. There were no thundering feet and eventually I was out of range. Prior to my walk I had been wondering about what to write in my next email to you all, and I'd been considering the whole business of how we judge everything, but everything, and all the time. If you ever indulge in the wonderful programme Gogglebox, where couples and families are filmed while they watch television, you will know exactly what I mean. Almost every comment is a judgment of some kind. Ooh I don't like that! Ahh isn't that sweet! Oh no, did you see that? My god, have you seen what that woman's wearing? Now I like her, don't you? Have you seen that suit? On and on it goes, almost as if that is the whole point of watching television, to make a series of decisions, every few seconds, about what is and isn't pleasing to us. And why is it so enjoyable to watch? Because they're exactly like us! We wait to see if they agree with what we think, and when they do we're delighted. We laugh at their prejudices, because we have them too. We smile at their arguments, judge their judgments, empathise with their distress, giggle at their outrage - because we recognise them all. It is curious, though, is it not? How come we have all these judgments, why don't we just notice things and stop there? If you think about it, there is only one way that a judgment can come about - we must have an in-built rule. If we don't like someone's dress we must have a rule about how dresses should look. If we don't like the way they talk, we must have a rule about how people should talk. If we don't like what someone is saying, we must have a rule about that particular topic. When one of those rules is broken, we experience displeasure, and when we experience displeasure we judge what we see as the cause of our displeasure as bad. Sometimes we don't judge and that can be quite disconcerting. We see something, perhaps unusual, and we realise we don't know if it's good or bad. There is an odd sensation of space in our heads, a gap where judgment usually is. That is because we don't have a rule for it. You may be thinking that I have strayed a long way from our naked friend on the hill but here is the connection. That experience made me realise that I had a rule about going for walks in nature reserves and the rule is this: the term 'nature' does not encompass naked men. I never knew I had that rule before! I realised something else too, that the rule only stood while I was frightened. While I thought I might be at risk, I did not want that man to be there. Men should not cavort naked on hillsides in full view of paths. If they are naked and someone comes along, they should get their clothes on pdq! They should definitely not stand there, blatantly, genitals dangling, looking passers-by straight in the eye. The rules came thick and fast. Once I was out of danger, though, all the brain activity settled down to a slow trot. I didn't know the answer to any of my questions about what he was doing there, and why, and so my brain had trouble finding a rule that would cover them all. If he was harmless, as he probably was, I realised there was a rule-less space in my head which was not at all sure what it thought of people being naked in public places. I remembered a time in London when I turned the corner off the Strand, towards Covent Garden, to be greeted with a long stream of people riding bicycles, all completely naked. The naked bike race, although I didn't know it at the time. That same space in my brain was there then too. And do you remember the American photographer, Spencer Tunick, who took photographs of hundreds of naked people together, most memorably on the escalators in Selfridges? I loved those pictures. I have to conclude that I don't have firm rules about nakedness. The rules only come when I feel something negative - fear, embarrassment, threat, disorientation. Then I judge. Is there anything wrong with having rules? Not per se. Judging in the privacy of our sitting-rooms is harmless enough, inevitable, and often fun. But there was another thing I noticed on my morning walk that gave me pause for thought. Once I felt I was out of danger, and my brain quietened down, I found myself accepting the fact that the man was there, feeling quite ok about it, rather than resisting it. And when I did that something startling happened. Suddenly the blue sky came back into my vision, and was more brilliant than before, suddenly I could once more hear the call of the birds, and with more clarity, and suddenly I could feel the breeze on my face, and it felt sweeter. Economists use the term 'opportunity cost'. This means, not the cost of the thing in question, but the cost of not having something else. The opportunity cost of judging is the loss of experiencing what is actually here. Try this:

  1. Set aside half an hour of your time to watch television, read the newspaper, or just take a walk round the block.

  2. As you do this thing, bring your attention to your thoughts and reactions. What judgements arise, good and bad?

  3. Choosing one of those judgments, try and dig down to the rules that underlie that judgment. What is and is not desirable or acceptable to you in this instance? It may be something fairly trivial like, 'people really shouldn't wear short skirts unless they have good legs', or more serious like, 'people shouldn't be unkind to others'. Notice how it feels to have that rule and that judgment.

  4. Imagine now you could drop that rule. Anyone can wear a short skirt if they want to. (Which is actually true). And anyone can be unkind. (Which is also true). What happens?

What tends to happen is that you experience a nice big dose of reality. Or an unpleasant dose. Either way, it's real. The truth is that the world will carry on with or without us - the rules we have for others make not a jot of difference. Which makes them rather ludicrous, doesn't it? Have a peaceful week. with love Anita