It was back when I was in my twenties working at a mental hospital that I learned the two most important lessons about the mind even after forty more years of study. The first was that the labels put on people’s misery told you very little about individual reality and nothing at all about the situations that led up to why they were there. We who worked there and the patients weren’t that different as human beings, the ones inside were more overwhelmed by their circumstances, but we that were the aides were there as part of a searching led by our own psychological fragility. It was while I worked there that I heard Thomas Szasz speak on “The Myth of Mental Illness” as something used by society to standardize people.
The other thing I learned is that what really healed people, at least on my hall, was Katy Phair. She was a wonderful woman who listened with wide-open acceptance and I could see people relax in her presence, even when they weren’t talking, because she was so totally with them. And she included the aides in her generous attention. Her look seemed to value me and helped me accept myself. One day in regard to something I was saying which I don’t remember she said, “Susan, you can’t have expectations of others.” Now this was the most revolutionary idea that had ever been said to me. I’d been brought up in a web of expectations. I couldn’t imagine not expecting things of others and couldn’t accept it at the time. It took me years to shake off the baggage of expectations when it comes to other people. The brain works by predicting, so expecting what happens next is part of its method but projecting the “shoulds” that are part of our own conditioning is a hazard to healthy relationships because expectations put conditions on how you pay attention.
What does it mean to say something given is unconditional? The obvious answer is to need nothing back, have no expectations resting on what’s given. Less obvious are the automatic internal judgments triggered by the receiver’s reaction. To give unconditional attention means to have no agenda, to take someone in as they are, really observe and learn the individual background and personal sensitivities. Taking someone in and learning about their reactions gives an understanding of what something means to them. People protect their insensitivity by saying the other over-reacted, that it was not our intention for them to react that way. We don’t learn our lessons when we say the other took it wrong. To dismiss another’s reaction is disrespectful and refuses to learn about the legitimate response of another. The I Ching says if you want to know what kind of person you are look at the effects your actions have on others. The ripples started by the action are the messages left in the field around you.
Practice attention as a gift to others. Like a plant grows and flourishes with careful tending, true attention feels like love. It’s the concrete evidence of love that words alone can’t show.