None of us need to be told that our prior experiences – good and bad – affect how we react to situations. At some level we all know that, but we are not always aware of the effect at the time we are experiencing it.
And it happens all the time. The other day I read a blog post written by someone I didn’t really know, having read only one or two of her prior blogposts. I interpreted the post to be making a claim that there are no universal moral norms and replied to it critically. That was, in fact, not what the author was saying. Only after I read her subsequent comment did I realize that it was the fact that what she had initially written was close enough in tone and thrust to claims of total relativity I have heard made before that caused me to read it as I did.
Our reactions are particularly shaped by our areas of woundedness. When, for example, someone reacts completely disproportionately to something you say or in a way that just seems strange under the circumstances, it is likely the case that the reaction is largely about something other than you. Something in the person’s experience gets dredged up by your comment, triggering a reaction. At lunch the other day, a friend was describing to me how, based on experiences with a prior boss, as soon as her current boss said something on a particular subject, she immediately went into the mode out of which she dealt with the prior one…causing some confusion to the current one.
We obviously cannot stop prior experiences from coming up. What we can do is to be aware of when and how they affect us – sufficiently aware to prevent the worse of their effects. But that requires a level of mindfulness that we often lack.
I’ve written and spoken on many occasions of the value of mindfulness meditation, meditations designed to help us increase our awareness of the present moment. Whether vipassana (a form of mindfulness meditation I talk a liitle about in my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom) or some other form of meditation, we can all benefit from a greater sensitivity to, and awareness of, what if affecting our current reactions.