The human mind is a marvellous thing.
I sit here at my computer, thinking about the words that my fingers will type into the next line of text. At the same time, part of my mind stands outside, watching me as I work, noting the way my shoulders tense when I’m searching for a word. And behind that, still another layer observes how my mind is able to observe itself. And behind that, perhaps, still another layer.
How can it be that we humans can simultaneously get involved, and observe ourselves getting involved?
“We’re doing some tough thinking about this issue,” the late Val Anderson told a meeting of the United Church of Canada’s national executive, some decades ago. “And we’re thinking about how we’re doing that thinking—that’s good. But are we giving any thought to how we’re thinking about our thinking?”
I wonder if any other creatures could even ask that question, let alone understand it.
Other creatures have ways of communicating with each other, certainly. Whales and dolphins send long distance messages through the ocean; elephants apparently do the same through the ground, at frequencies below human perception. Wolves howl in the night; birds twitter; bees dance. Even trees have ways of warning each other about insect infestations and browsing giraffes.
But does a giraffe ever stand back from browsing on an acacia tree and think about what it’s doing?
Is a laboratory rat aware that it’s making a mental map of a maze?
Therapists use precisely that ability to step outside oneself, in what author Paul Smith calls “two-chair work” in his book Integral Christianity.
“In two-chair work,” he writes, “I sit in one chair, and in my imagination put the disturbing person or situation in the other chair. Next I talk to them, saying whatever I was thinking or feeling. Then I literally trade places—I go and sit in the second chair, and BE the other person or situation. I share back to myself—the self I imagine still sitting in the first chair.”
Smith relates the process to the first, second, and third person pronouns we use in speech.
First you face the situation objectively, as an “it.” Then you talk to the other, directly, as a “you,” pulling no punches. Finally, you become the other, as a first person “I.”
Except that you’re now a different “I.”
The role switching might happen several times. The key is to train yourself to see things through the other’s eyes and experiences.
It was, I understand, a key step in developing the peace process in Northern Ireland. The historically hostile sides were sent off to write out a position statement for the other side. Did you get that? Not to defend their own position, but for the OTHER side.
To walk in the other’s shoes.
To live in the other’s experience.
It’s a practical application of the age-old instruction to “love your neighbour as yourself,” and the Golden Rule to “treat the other as you would like to be treated.”
And it’s possible only because our minds are somehow able to step outside our personal preoccupations and observe themselves.
Some of us, anyway.