05/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Uncomfortable? Exchange Places

In the wake of the natural disasters in Myanmar, China, and the U.S., many of us wonder, what can we do to help others? Not to minimize giving directly to help those in need in the face of a natural disaster such as these (i.e. send money, clothing, or give time), it reminds me again of how much we also need to focus attention on our own day-to-day thoughts, feelings and actions to make the world a better place to live.

Our natural tendency as human animals is to avoid or end painful or uncomfortable situations as quickly as possible and to find those that bring us comfort. As conscious human beings, however, we can override these natural tendencies and choose to remain in the present experience even when it is painful or uncomfortable. Making that choice when faced with very painful or frightening situations is not easy at all, and most of us will only do it in extreme situations when we have no choice (e.g. if you face death because of a life threatening illness, a loved one dies, or you lose a job, etc.).

Why put yourself in painful or uncomfortable situations? It can greatly help you when a real situation, out of your control, arises.

You likely don't have far to look. I would guess that you (like me) have colleagues at work, situations at home, with friends, family or strangers who often create uncomfortable situations for yourself. If we start by looking at the minor irritations in life and practicing with these, it can help in times of greater need.

Making a list of people that made me uncomfortable (those who made my stomach tighten, made me feel angry, hurt, 'less than' or neglected) helped me discover that they all exemplified people who wanted to control situations, wanted to have the 'upper hand' if you will, who were rather self-centered and not interested in the feelings of others. That realization made me see that I was uncomfortable because they reflected exactly a quality of my own that I had used to escape painful situations in the past and was trying now to 'avoid.'

I practiced 'exchanging' myself with those people by visualizing myself in their shoes interacting with me. This exercise is one found in many cultures and religions but when I was a child, we called it the 'reversal game'. In the game, we would pretend we were the other person (whether parent, friend, or foe) and talk and act the way they did. This game shed great insight to me as a child about how we each saw the world differently but also how we each felt pain from our own vantage points.

Neuroscientists have shown that specific brain cells, mirror neurons, are active when you imagine yourself in another's position; when you feel their pain, it's 'as if" you were feeling it yourself. If you take a person who creates discomfort for you and then you 'become' that person through a mind experiment - visualizing the way they feel, what they are experiencing, etc. to the best of your abilities - it will likely change your view of things.

Over the weekend, I saw a disturbing short film at 'Pangea Day', an event to connect people around the world via film. A man riding a subway in France tries to find the 'woman of his dreams' by appealing to the women strangers riding the subway to take a chance with him. He appeals to them by sharing his likes and dislikes, his career, his salary, his background, and with each new piece of information, he requests they 'get off the subway at the next stop', take a chance, and together they will discover if they try are perhaps the true love they both may seek. In the final moments, a young woman who has been listening intently jumps off the train in response to the kindness in the man's eyes believing this may be just for her. But, as the train doors shut and she alone stands on the platform - he looks at her through the train window and says, "sorry, it was just a skit". As her humiliation fills the screen we hear in the background the man now collecting money in a hat for a performance well done.

I couldn't figure out how this movie would help us see our 'interconnectedness', the goal of Pangea Day, it made me feel angry and sad at the humiliation of the young woman. But in the aftermath, I do see that this negative emotion - shame/humiliation/embarrassment - is a shared human experience - albeit one we all dislike.

Watching the film and experiencing the humiliation of the fictitious woman in the sequence or the man perpetuating the story is a great way to understand the roles we each play in hurting or harming another, often unintentionally without ever knowing how what we say or do may deeply harm another. This unintentional aspect of how we think, feel and act is one we can each discover - and bring bit by bit into consciousness - if we choose to do so. Practicing expanding awareness through exchanging 'self' with 'other' is one way to begin the process.