Have you ever confused your girlfriend’s purse with your girlfriend (perhaps trying to kiss the leather thing instead of the person who owns it)? Have you ever mistaken your parents’ old suitcase for your parents and argued with the suitcase? And, when an airline lost your duffel bag, did you ever think that it actually was you who was lost?
While most of us have no trouble distinguishing between luggage and people, when in conflict, we do have grave difficulties telling apart the person from the baggage they carry.
And, we all have baggage. It comes in different shapes, sizes and colors and carries our conditioning (the way we learned to react to particular stimuli); our beliefs (thoughts we have carried with us for a long time); our experiences (thoughts about what took place in the past); our projections (thoughts about the way other people “should be”); and our expectations (thoughts about the future). As we go through life, we accumulate all these thoughts in our baggage, picking things up from our parents, culture, books, television and other people we simply come in contact with.
The confusion arises when we believe this baggage – all these thoughts, conditioning and experience – we carry to be who we are. But just as we are not our duffel bag and our parents not their old suitcase, neither are we the conditioning, beliefs, experiences, projections and expectations we carry. We are the space in which all these things arise. How else could we be aware of them?
When we are in conflict the weight of our baggage pulls us down because we have a strong tendency to believe what we think. We are identified with the story we tell ourselves about what is happening to the extent that we cannot differentiate between our interpretation of (our thoughts about) a situation and the situation itself. In conflict this predicament makes us react in ways that do not serve us in anyway.
One of the most powerful, initial steps we can take when we find ourselves in conflict or when a person triggers us is to become aware of our thoughts and to know that they are just baggage we are carrying.
When the first signs of conflict or being triggered arise – which is always experienced as some kind of discomfort in our body – we simply notice what thoughts are appearing in that moment without engaging in them. We do not try to change them or make them go away. We push the pause button on the conflict or triggering event outside of ourselves and let our attention rest in our body. Having our attention anchored in our body helps us dis-identify from our baggage so we can become aware of and be the space for it.
When we consistently step out of our stream of thinking we are able to perceive a situation as it is. Seeing a situation as it is, means not only putting down our own baggage so it does weigh down our perception of the situation but it also means that we do not confuse the other person with their baggage. Just like us, the people we interact with carry baggage but that does not mean that they are that baggage.
The consequence of seeing baggage for what it is – just thoughts, experiences and belief systems which play themselves our as a particular behavior – is wide-reaching, because it enables us to see that another person’s baggage is not a statement about our value as a person, but a reflection of the way they learned to react to particular stimuli – just like us.
No longer placing overriding significance on the behavior of another person connects us with our shared presence and frees us from our own baggage and kneejerk reactions in conflict situations. This does not mean that we let other people walk all over us. On the contrary, it enables us to respond to people and their harmful behavior in appropriate ways (saying a clear “no” or removing ourselves from a situation) without confusing their behavior with who they really are. It is just baggage – not him, her, them or us.