Skillful Filters: noticing – and choosing – the filters with which we view others

I have a recurring dream. I’m back at the job I had in my mid-20s. Things did not go well at that job. I tried to understand, tried to adjust my work to please my employers. I was actually quite enthusiastic about the work and saw it as a career move. I wanted to make it work, and when things started to go poorly, I initiated conversations, asked questions, tried to understand why they weren’t happy with me. Toward the end, when it seemed that nothing I could do was working, I interviewed at another job. The very day I finally had an offer in hand, my employer asked me if I was looking for other jobs. I answered honestly. He asked for my resignation. During that process, where I hand wrote a letter in front of him, he took the opportunity to say to me that Mary (a co-worker from my previous job) had told him what I did before I left there. When I looked shocked, he nodded his head and said, “That’s right. I know.”

The only problem was, I hadn’t done anything wrong that I was aware of, and I had no idea what Mary had told them. The look of shock on my face wasn’t one of surprise that he had discovered my secret; it was that he apparently thought I’d done something sinister at my previous job. In that moment of revelation, I was just beginning to register the ramifications of what he was saying. I was just beginning to understand that the reason that job had gone so horribly wrong was that no matter what I did or said, my employer was seeing me through a filter that had nothing to do with me. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was well on my way home before it occurred to me to ask what Mary had told him. I’d been too shocked at that moment, too pumped up on adrenaline with the anxiety of the situation to think clearly. I have always wondered what happened, wondered what Mary said, wished I could say, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Sometimes I dream I have found my former employer, and I have a chance to set the record straight. I awaken from these dreams with a sense of dread and lack of control. I had another such dream last night.

It has been almost 25 years since I left that job, and it was today I found release from the weight of that event.

These days, I’m sitting in meditation a lot. So I took that dream to the cushion with me. With my awareness anchored in the breath and my body, I allowed this scenario to unfold in my mind and my emotions, watching as it did so. I felt the deep sense of injustice of the situation. I perceived that my employers saw me through a filter I knew nothing about and had no control over, and nothing I did could win them over. Every action I took, every word I said, he interpreted through that filter, and I allowed myself in meditation to feel the full impact of that. I wept.

After several minutes, calm returned, and then as if in a mirror, I saw myself with my own filters firmly in place. I saw a recurring cynicism – a cynicism I can be quite attached to, even proud of. I can rock a room with laughter by being cynical. But I can also become mired down in my distrust of other people’s motives and intentions, a deep sadness that I can’t quite sink into full acceptance of the love and kindness that others bring to the table.

I felt my way back to childhood: I’d had no filters toward my caregivers whatsoever, and what I suffered in childhood cut straight to my heart. I’d assumed the best of mother and family, and as I’d been left unprotected, I assumed I deserved their abuses. By my teens, I’d finally found my armor. It seemed in retrospect that cynicism was actually protection, was actually wisdom, rather than an unnecessarily hard shell around me. My cynicism had come with an element of sadness that there was no one I could trust, not even myself. Over the years, my cynicism has become more refined, often repressed. But it is still there.

Deep distrust was a filter that prevented anyone or any group from succeeding in my life. By assuming ill intent or, at best, ignorance,  I could find evidence for it everywhere, and it could deflate the best of intentions in anyone. Even my own dear husband, a few years into our marriage, once asked me, “Couldn’t you give me the benefit of the doubt?”

I suddenly saw, as if in a funhouse mirror, that the gifts of my experience at that job so many years ago were ones I had not yet received: the gift of seeing how my own filters had prevented others from succeeding in giving to me as they’d wanted to do. It was the gift of seeing that I had choices about the filters with which I saw those I loved, those I worked with, those who employed me, those I went to church with. It was the gift of cynicism for my assumptions that fueled the filters themselves. It was the gift of empathy for those who suffer deeply when others filter them for the color of their skin, their religion, their gender. It was the gift of recognizing that filters are profoundly powerful. And it was the gift of having a little compassion for a man who was doing the best he could, at that time, with the information and skills he had. He was being human, too.

In meditation, I’m practicing compassion and generosity as filters with which I view myself and others. Every time I sink into a morass of shame or guilt, I expand the compassion with which I view myself to be just a little bigger than my faults. I’m also beginning to see that there are people who walk around with filters of kindness and generosity as the default, and those filters wield a powerful effect on those around them.

Having a filter of compassion doesn’t mean I never say “no” and or that I don’t create wise boundaries. I simply no longer need to do that out of a sense of fear or revulsion; I can do it with care and respect for both the other person and myself. I can also take time, when appropriate, to ask questions to really understand the person in front of me, rather than letting my habitual filters eliminate them from consideration prematurely.

After a wave of grief, I directed  deep compassion toward myself and toward the very understandable and human tendency to have filters like these. And I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude for my previous employer and his mistake. If it weren’t for his misunderstanding of me and the pain of that experience, I don’t know if I would have realized the pain I, too, cause others. I don’t know if I would truly understand the power of the filters with which I view others and how I can assist them in blooming – or wilting – in my presence.

Despite my best efforts before today, I have never felt anything other than sadness and resignation about that job. Today, I feel genuine gratitude. And I see before me another set of filters with which I can view my life and those around me. I’m excited to practice mindfulness through compassion and generosity toward others as part of this unfolding practice. I have the choice available to be skillful in my use of filters, or I can be unskillful and unconscious. I’m grateful to be restored to a sense of choice today.