The Person Meditation

Vance MacEwen

A monkey staring at its reflection in a compact mirror it's holding
Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

February 4, 2021

A simple shift in thinking can give you greater peace and sense of control.

I recently watched Crash (2005) for the first time. It’s a bit reductionist, but the film sketches character vignettes of several Los Angeles residents with entangled stories. Its exploration of identity and prejudice reminded me of a practice I started years ago. This practice may help you feel more empathetic, more in control, and less jerked around by the outside world. With divisiveness and identity politics abound, I would like to share the Person Meditation with you.

Try thinking the word “person” whenever somebody enters your field of view. Anybody. Interrupt whatever other words might come to mind.

Look around the room, scan the gallery of participants in a video conference, listen to the murmuring voices of the crowd. As each individual enters your mind, think: Person. When somebody appears in a daydream: Person. It’s such a simple practice, you may be surprised at the impact it can have.

Trying dating apps for the first time in 2016 inspired me to consciously implement this practice. Swiping through profiles demanded a lot of snap judgments. We size people up in milliseconds all the time in the real world, and dating apps cranked this rapid profiling into overdrive. I felt uncomfortable passing judgment with laughably little information about people. Thinking “person” any time I saw a face was an attempt to consciously rewire my brain.

Using this meditation in daily life, my mind wanted to interrupt and keep putting labels on people. What I saw in the mirror depended too much on the transient feelings of the day. Feeling down? Loser. Feeling high? Boss! But I wasn’t changing; only my feelings were. And how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat ourselves, right? In times when I felt insecure, I threw labels around like it was my side gig. And if a label weren’t immediately obvious, I might feel a sort of tabloid curiosity.

Putting people in boxes helps us feel a sense of certainty. But the world is uncertain. And over time, the word “person” started intervening unconsciously. It started to enter my mind before labels. It broke down barriers in my mind between categories of people. And it humanized people who hurt me, people I might be tempted to write off as monsters.

Something incredible started happening. I was feeling warmth toward everybody, even people I might have felt animosity toward before. The differences between people seemed smaller. My mental chatter when observing strangers was quieter. If my headspace ever felt like a Comedy Central Roast before, it was increasingly feeling like an extended family gathering — I don’t know everybody in this room, but I know I’m connected to all of them.

A forked dirt trail in a rich green forest
Photo by Sam Barber on Unsplash

This technique is not about any sort of blindness. It’s not about pretending we all have the same story. Our differences are beautiful, and the consequences of structural discrimination should not be ignored. Rather, it is about seeing the shared humanity in each other. Everybody has the dignity of personhood… even if they’re making you angry, or aroused, or repulsed in this moment.

You have probably used this technique before if you ever experienced rudeness from a stranger, took a deep breath, and reminded yourself: “Been there.” “They’re only human.” “You never know what somebody’s going through.” Empathy is great at preventing spiraling negativity.

The Person Meditation has become a reflex after years of practice. Before anybody is special, before anybody is lesser, they are first and foremost a person. Other descriptors come to mind second or not at all. And when I start feeling upset by somebody, “person” is a rapid intervention, a sort of soothing balm. I don’t need to twist myself in a knot throwing labels at them.

Humans are mixed bags. We’re flawed and we hurt each other. If somebody hurts you, are they worth suffering twice for? Do you want to hold the hot coal of spite in your hand, hoping they feel the burn? The Person Meditation is as much about preserving your own peace as it is extending grace to others. Hold people accountable for their actions — just don’t tie your identity up in it. When you tie yourself to something, it controls you, too.

Photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash

I look around a crowded space. I scroll through the internet. Person… person… person… person… person. My tranquility is untouched.

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