If we start from the assumption that our experience is all created from the inside-out – then we arrive at the concept of “Separate Realities.”
This is a natural consequence of the inside-out nature of our experience – the fact that the mind actively creates our experience moment-to-moment. Experience is not formed passively by what is going on outside of us, but by an active process in the mind which takes information and uses it to construct a model of the world.
Just try an experiment: choose a scene which you can easily see without leaving your house or wherever you are right now. Make sure it’s something familiar, something you have already looked at many times. In a moment I want you to close your eyes and visualise that scene. And after a minute or so, open your eyes. So go ahead and do that now.
Now look at the same scene with your eyes open. When you had your eyes closed you were using your imagination to visualise that scene. In fact I call that your imaginator. Now with your eyes open you are still using your imaginator to imagine the scene, but this time you have a data feed from your eyes which fills in missing details and maybe corrects some mistaken impressions that your imaginator has created.
But the important thing for understanding separate realities is that if you and I were to look out of the same window, we wouldn’t see the same scene. Each person’s imaginator selects elements based on previous experience, beliefs, even values and from those elements creates a model of the reality behind the window. For instance I may see lots of different types of birds, while you may notice the weeds in the lawn – because I have a filter for birds and you have a filter for weeds.
This is not about values or beliefs. It doesn’t matter if I’m vegan and you’re a carnivore; or if you’re a Christian or a Muslim and I’m a pagan. It’s about how the mind works – creating our experience in a constant stream of consciousness, moment-to-moment, in an active way, rather than passively.
So if we all create our own realities, then no two people actually share the same reality. And this is what we mean by separate realities.
This is not so important when you’re checking off your reality against that of your next-door neighbour. You can agree on certain things (like not mowing the lawn before 9am on a Sunday); the rest is relatively unimportant… unless your neighbour starts to be really antisocial. Some of us do find ourselves living with neighbours with antisocial habits, such as playing their music really loud until 3am. You can choose how to handle this – argue with them, get in a mediator, call in the noise patrol, or the police, or perhaps put your music on really loud at 6am so ‘they get a taste of their own medicine.’ In the final analysis though, it’s not usually all that important. It’s inconvenient and thoughtless, and you may even think your neighbour is being deliberately hostile – but that’s just your thinking. It’s not a life-changing problem.
However in close relationships separate realities can matter a lot. Marriages, sibling relationships, parent-child, best friends. We can find ourselves disagreeing about so much with people who really matter to us, and this can and often does cause extreme suffering. In fact it may lead to divorce or long-term breakdown of relationships.
But understanding that we all live in separate realities makes it easier to agree to disagree and to accept that the person we love so much does not share our view on everything.
In The Missing Link,” Syd Banks said “all we need is love and understanding.” I would add a willingness to investigate, to find out more about that person’s reality in order to understand them better.
With my ex-husband, I found it very difficult to allow him to see things differently from how I saw them. I could bow to his greater expertise on anything to do with IT because I recognised that he had a much better grounding in this, having worked in IT all his life.
But when it came to child-rearing – well I was the expert! I had an MPhil in Developmental Psychology and I knew a thing or two about children!
In fact we shared way more than we differed on, but I could only see the differences.
For instance we both agreed that:
- it was important to get outside (and climb mountains from the age of about 3 and a half!),
- that our children (two girls) could be just as successful as boys,
- that it was ok for our daughter to study dance when we were worried she’d be unemployable afterwards,
- that we neither of us believed in hitting children as a form of discipline.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So my reality of who he was did not really align very well with who he actually was. And I’m pretty sure the same was true for him – that his experience of me – his “Sorrel reality” was not well-aligned with who I was. And I wasn’t making any effort to enter into his reality. Or to understand why his reality was the way it was. I’m quite sure that it was our mutual inability or unwillingness to enter into each other’s realities that led to the constant arguing and our eventual divorce.
Chip Chipman, one of my mentors, tells the story of how he came to accept his father, who had been a violent alcoholic since Chip’s boyhood. It was Chip’s willingness to feel compassion for his father and to understand the suffering that had led him to turn to drink, that had made it possible for Chip to forgive his father for what he had done.
When I met my current partner, I decided from the outset that the most important thing was acceptance: to accept the things I wasn’t so keen on (for instance that he smokes when he’s working in the studio or out with his friends – though not when we’re together).
And because I can accept those things, I’m not trying to change him. I can listen to him with compassion when he talks about things I don’t see eye-to-eye with him about; and I can start to understand what his reality actually is.
And because I’m not struggling to change the things I’m not so keen on, I’m much more aware of the things that I love about him.
So we all create our own experience from the inside-out; we all have separate realities; understanding that this is the case means we can begin to investigate and understand each other’s experience.
And finally we can treat those we love – and indeed those we’re not so close to – with compassion. Because sometimes the other person’s reality is hard for them to bear. And what they need more than anything is to stop being afraid of their experience.