Drop the interpretation

We suffer when reality doesn’t live up to our expectations. When we eliminate judgment, we eliminate suffering. Instead of judging or evaluating or measuring the present moment against an ideal we had in our minds, we can practice just observing the present moment.

If I could offer one baby step towards letting go of the ego and the inner critic and learning how to love yourself, it would be this: Let go of your interpretations. Our experiences and circumstances don’t cause our suffering. Our interpretations of our experiences and circumstances do. The meaning we attach to something someone said or did is what causes our suffering.

If you can catch yourself every time you start telling yourself a story about something in your life – about yourself even – you will begin to develop the skill of nonjudgment. And you will be released from so much needless suffering.

When I decide to rest instead of cramming one more thing into the last spare thirty minutes of my day, a story I might have told myself once would be that I was an unproductive, pathetic failure and everyone I know is more productive than I am. But that’s just a story.

When one of my students doesn’t say goodbye to me as she leaves the classroom, a story I might have told myself once would be that she doesn’t like me. But that’s just a story.

Ruminating on stories gets us in trouble.

Our present self might be a product of our interpretations, but we are not our interpretations. The psychologist Adam Phillips said that the interpretation is the “violent attempt to presume to set a limit where no limit can be set.” And the more persuasive, compelling, and authoritative the story is, the less we should trust it. Phillips also says we know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have the chance to see ourselves. 

What could you be capable of if you could really see yourself and others without judgment? How would your relationship with yourself or others improve?

Buying into one story precludes all other stories. But it’s easy to rest with the first interpretation that comes to mind, especially if we’re used to beating ourselves up or putting others down to feel better about our own insecurities. It’s more difficult to be mindful that we’re interpreting. The only meaning is that which we assign. And when we assign a meaning, we eliminate the possibility of other meanings. We close ourselves off to them. And then we close ourselves off to growth and ease and honesty.

We suffer because of our interpretations, not the events themselves. The meaning we assign is what leads to our thoughts which lead to our feelings which lead to our action or inaction. And it becomes a vicious cycle. We are trapped by our stories.

We can’t move forward and create the lives we want because we’re weighed down with stories. We’re so busy fixating on them and trying to pull them along with us that we hardly have the energy to engage with new possibilities and ways of being.

What if you were able to let go?

What if, at least once a day, you caught yourself interpreting something in a way that wasn’t serving or energizing you? What would it feel like if you weren’t obsessing over what’s already happened or worrying about what’s not happened yet and you can’t know?

This has been one of the most powerful strategies I’ve learned in my own life, and in my work with a coach and as a coach. I hope you’ll give it a try.


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