I like to think of stepping out of our own experience as the hallmark of advanced emotional development. It’s the height of achievement for many as it is not inherently a part of all humans – it’s a learned and honed skill that takes practice. It’s one of the most difficult things a person can do. It’s the basis for compassion; honoring the struggles others have as we have is to step out of our own experience and to step into theirs.
I can’t give him due credit because this is from a stranger on the bus, but he had a great way to address this concept in real time: he was frustrated, and my friend sort of wouldn’t stop asking him about it – I’m not sure why, she didn’t know him before he graced the bus with his presence that day. At first he said he wasn’t feeling well, but then he said “my cat is sick”. So my friend pursued the cat line of questioning, at which point he admitted, no neither he nor his cat was actually sick.
However, he had had an experience with someone that was upsetting, and rather than sulk in his experience of frustration, he used a technique. He told himself (and relayed the same to us) “maybe their cat is sick”. He told us that he knows what that feels like, and that it can make someone grumpy, so he extended his experience to another, and gave them the benefit of compassion in a moment when he was feeling hurt. For a young man under 30 that seemed in good health and doing alright for himself, I was a little surprised. It takes work to focus on someone else’s experience, and give it consideration.
Invaluable knowledge and experience comes from practicing the art of stepping out of our own experience. It helps us gain perspective about our selves and our experience (not to make it all about us again). It also helps us put the behavior of those around us in perspective and can help us relate with them which is critical to forming complex, healthy relationships, not to mention supporting self esteem. We need to recognize that others have a rich and varied experience just like we do, and seeing that is to everyone’s benefit.
Stepping out of our own experience generally results in stepping into the experience of another, but it can also lead us to gain external perspective on the human experience as a whole. Sometimes we need to see that frameworks and expectations are only there to guide our thought processes and feelings – these are tools people use to be able to formulate quicker and more useful responses. Those guidelines do not actually define or constrain the human experience, they only help us navigate rough waters on the high seas of life.
Stepping so far from my experience, and by extension my identity, has helped me chip away at a monstrously inflated ego that may have been childishly appropriate, but needed to fade away in adulthood. I am proud and honored to feel like I could even come close to appreciating the struggles of another. I’m thrilled to have proven to myself that I’m not always right, not by a long shot. I am excited to see where the world will take me since I’ve been able to let it have its own space and time, not crowded by my experience dominating the scene.
Although I suppose some could manage to step out of their own experience without being humbled, I hope that more people can use this or any other method to learn lessons of life. Hopefully others can realize that existence is vast, and the more we step outside of what we’ve built in our minds and hearts, the more we can learn about what’s really out there, and what’s really inside us, and everything in between.