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placing yourself in the shoes of another“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

Placing oneself ‘in the shoes of another’ is something we often emphasize within the Desteni Group. In academic psychology the term used is ‘empathy’, the ability to feel for another or to imagine how another is experiencing themselves and then acting accordingly for example within compassion towards another. However, within the context of how we’re applying this principle in the Desteni group it means so much more and is actually a core skill that that is necessary for each of us to develop to become dignified human beings that care about one another on a real and tangible level – and thus can make a difference in this world.

When we place ourselves in the shoes of another, we can look at how we would have experienced ourselves had we been in the situation that they are in. When looking for example at animals being abused or people living in impoverished areas without clean water, through applying the principle of placing ourselves in the shoes of another, we can see clearly how we would have not wanted to be in their shoes and therefore realize that it makes no sense to accept for them to exist in this situation either.

Now – within observing how people look at one another, we have a tendency of believing that we’re placing ourselves in the shoes of another and thus seeing who they are, when in fact we’re doing the exact opposite.  We are placing others in our shoes, which has the effect that we don’t get to understand or see reality from their perspective but instead distance ourselves from them. We do this even further through judging others based on our own standards or habits. An example of this is when we say: “Well if I had been her I wouldn’t have done that. I would have done this instead.” Such a statement is actually quite redundant and only serves for the ego to uplift itself in seeing itself as superior to another from a stance of a self-righteous judgment. It’s the same when we for example say: “I simply can’t understand why people would do something like this” or “Why can’t he just do it this way?” where we again define what others do and who they are only through referencing our own (limited) perception of reality.

As is evident from the examples above, when we place others in our shoes, we often tend to do so from a starting-point of judgment, blame and self-righteousness for example within a context of seeing our ‘moral values’ as better than others – where we, in the act of distancing them from ourselves in our minds, uplift our own egos so that we can feel better about ourselves. But what also happens when we do this is that we completely miss seeing other people for who they are, because we only see them based on who we believe ourselves to be. Because of this it becomes impossible to assist and support others to change or expand themselves, let alone ourselves. Within this, what also tends to happen is that we place information, like things that has worked for us in our lives as ‘universal’ and ‘generally applicable’ for everyone. This could be a certain diet or a health regime or a way to tackle an addiction. So we might say: “You should definitely do this, it totally worked for me” or “It’s super easy to stop this addiction, what are you talking about?” without considering the other person’s unique situation and the process that they’re walking where they might face points in a different way than we did.

So how do we place ourselves in the shoes of another?

Let’s use the example of placing ourselves in the shoes someone living in an area without clean water. This person might have to walk several hours every day to get to a place with clean water. If we use the approach of placing them in our shoes we might say that: “oh well that’s not so bad, I’m fit and that would give me more time to exercise if I had 2 hours to walk every day.” We might see it this way if we for example are a young male who goes to the gym a couple of times a day and who has a stressful job. So when we imagine walking through the bushes to get water, it looks like a really nice thing to do compared to our life. But what we may not consider is for example that the person walking to get the water is a pregnant woman or an old man with severe arthritis that hasn’t been treated because there’s no medical aid around. We may also not consider that since this person is forced to walk several hours to fetch water every day it is because they have no access to money or work. Because otherwise they could simply take their car to the nearest shop and buy bottled water ‘like everyone else’. We may also not consider how the people in the village perhaps have already been drinking their own contaminated water causing their children to be born with birth defects, making the long walk to fetch the clean water even more important. This is obviously merely an example to show how, when we place ourselves in the shoes of others we must consider the specific situation and conditions they are in. It is unfortunately very often that we tend to see things only from our own perspective, for example when it comes to the division of wealth in the world, where we can easily justify why some people are poor because we see them as lazy – when in fact we have no idea what their life is like. So when we practice placing ourselves in the shoes of another we can begin by looking at their physical conditions and get the information necessary for us to effectively see things from their perspective.

Now – in the context of for example placing ourselves in the shoes of someone in our immediate reality or someone whose life might look very similar to ours, we can also expand the dimensions we look at to the inner experiences a person may be feeling. We can obviously also do that in the example above, but when it is someone living in a completely different environment than ours, there’s the risk that we again place them in our shoes instead of placing ourselves in their shoes, simply because we only have our own point of reference in the world to look through. So here we require walking a deconstruction process through which we expand our perspective to come to understand our own preconceived ideas about the world and the things we take for granted. Because even if we were to go to the impoverished area, we might actually not see how others experience their life because our entire scope of perception is so entrenched in our own preconceptions about reality. So to us an impoverished area might look ‘exotic’ or ‘quaint’ and we fail to see the real lives of real people.

When we look at placing ourselves in the shoes of another whether with regards to their physical condition or with regards to their mental state or emotional experiences, we are looking at two different dimensions: one the one hand we’re looking at the individual’s unique history and the things they’ve gone through in their life for example, but on the other hand we are also looking at patterns of mental development (such as personalities) that are actually the same for all human beings. This could be anything from the thoughts we think, to how we handle crisis situations. There is thus a baseline of identical responses that all human beings share and then there is our ‘personal spin’ that we put on it.

What this means is that we cannot effectively place ourselves in the shoes of another on a mental or emotional level if we haven’t walked a process of understanding our own minds. We cannot recognize or identify that which we haven’t seen within ourselves. Furthermore, let’s say that I throughout my life have developed an intense reaction towards dogs with memories of being bitten haunting me causing me to have an extremely fearful and negative relationship to dogs. I would not be able to place myself in the shoes of someone who loves dogs in this context. Because I would be so completely immersed in my own personal experience that I wouldn’t be able to see things from another person’s point of view. I would therefore again be placing them in my shoes instead of placing myself in theirs.

One of the benefits of being able to see things from another person’s perspective is that we will be able to communicate much more effectively with the people we encounter in our world and reality and miscommunication will be less likely to happen. But even more so, we will be able to assist others as we have assisted ourselves. The more we walk our process, the more we get to know and understand the mind and the patterns through which it functions and operates, the more we will be able to place ourselves in the shoes of others. The more self-honest we are, the more we will be able to also assist others in becoming self-honest, because when they speak or when we read their words, we will be able to recognize the lies they tell themselves, because we know these lies from ourselves in utmost detail and specificity. The more we work with transcending and taking responsibility for our own minds, the more we will be able to assist others to do the same. And this is because all minds are virtually identical. The only difference is the personal story of each individual, but even then, the more we get down to the nitty-gritty of our mental patterns and personalities, the more we will see that we are all essentially exactly the same. So when we assist others it is important to consider both the general mental patterns and the unique personal history. We can even apply the principle of placing ourselves in the shoes of others when it comes to experiences that we might not have had in our own lives. So if you’re talking to a drug addict and you have never been addicted to drugs yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot place yourself in their shoes. Because you can for example look at the general patterns involved with addictions or see that you’ve participated in a pattern of escapism that you now recognize in another.

The application of placing ourselves in the shoes of another is an important tool in the process of changing the world to a place of compassion and equality. Because as can be seen from the examples above, we currently exist in separation from each other, each only having their own personal experience as a point of reference in the world, like a bubble of self-interest. Seldom do we consider the perspectives of others and we live our lives as though they are completely disconnected from the lives of everyone else, not recognizing the interdependency of our lives on this planet.

Placing ourselves in the shoes of other as a directive application is a way that we can start seeing the interconnectedness of our life with everyone else’s and we can begin living according to the principle of doing onto others as we would have be done onto us. If we would not want to have to walk 2 hours every day to carry water, it makes no sense to accept it for someone else, even if that acceptance is tacit and passive in the sense that we simply don’t care even though we might not actively be forcing them into such a position. As such when seeing how such living conditions are unacceptable we realize that we have a responsibility to change them because we understand that it could have just as well been us. And this doesn’t mean to now pack a bag and go on a mission to change someone else’s life, because that simply isn’t practical. Therefore what is important is to establish a political change where the principle of equality is implemented into the very structures of our society so that we create a system based on these principles. This is what we are doing with the Living Income Guaranteed System.

To Care for others, to be compassionate with others in such a way that we are able to assist with improving their quality of life at a practical level, we must understand how they experience their lives, physically as well as mentally and to do that we must understand ourselves. This is what we are doing with Desteni, the Desteni forum and the Desteni I Process courses.