Knowing What’s Really Happening: Experience vs. Interpretation

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience.

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience. Your experience is simply whatever is happening in the moment—a sound, a taste, a bodily sensation, an emotion, any kind of interaction, etc. Your interpretation is your mind’s reaction to that experience. One way to understand this difference is to picture that when you are directly experiencing a moment of life, you are within it; when you are interpreting it, you are outside it.

Interpretation occurs as the result of a combination of several factors. The mind has an automatic tendency to interpret an experience and create a story about it based on memories, past associations, and attitudes you have about yourself and others. It then selectively gathers data from within the experience to support its interpretation. It may seem to you that your mind is simply trying to figure out your experience, but really it’s screening for evidence to support the story it’s clinging to. However, this story is a delusion because your mind is being clouded by the strong emotions of the moment.

You can easily become committed to a particular interpretation to the point that it becomes a habit, a story that you repeat in similar or related circumstances. For example, “nobody wants to date me” is a story I often hear from both single men and women between the ages of forty and sixty. This belief is usually based on a very limited effort to make contact with potential partners that is undermined by unrealistic standards they have held since they were in their twenties. But when I point out that they’re more mature now and may need to change their criteria, I am often met with an exasperated look that says, “You don’t understand.” They cling to their interpretation of the problem rather than allowing the challenge to evoke the change and inner growth that is necessary given the arc of human life.

How the Mind Resists Uncertainty

When confronted with a difficult experience, the untrained mind wants to be anywhere but in the present moment, where it perceives acute unpleasantness. The mind becomes anxious whenever it’s uncertain and reacts as if one’s survival is at stake. So rather than staying with the experience and determining the best possible way to relate to it, the mind jumps to creating a story that involves worrying about the future or judging oneself or others based on past experiences. This pattern of resistance to staying present in experience is an automatic response arising from the limbic brain as it detects threats. Ironically, the story imparts a false sense of knowing what’s going on and therefore can seem temporarily soothing.

When we start to interpret an experience, the thoughts generated by our reactive mind become our primary experience, as opposed to whatever is actually happening that needs our full attention and considered response. Usually we continue on with the activity, but our attention is split or less than complete. Is it any wonder that we don’t do our best under such conditions? And sometimes we just can’t continue the activity. For example, Scott, a Life Balance client, suffers from what he describes as “shutting down” at work. Although Scott is a high-performing manager, whenever his colleagues critique his ideas, his mind starts spinning and he has to wait for the episode to pass. He reports losing two or three hours a week due to being “triggered.” Scott interprets his peers’ feedback about his ideas as a personal attack.

You too may have triggers that cause you to get lost in interpretation rather than staying present; you may even have a pattern of interpretation that shuts your mind down but have never realized it’s happening because you are so accustomed to it. For sure, there are so many different experiences vying for attention in any given moment that in order to deal with what seems like an overwhelming amount of stimuli the mind rushes to interpretation to gain a sense of control. In reality, though, interpretation creates a false impression of stability. As you start to become aware of your patterns of interpretation, be kind and nonjudgmental toward yourself. It’s not helpful to fall into self-blame or self-loathing, both of which are forms of interpretation.

Becoming Mindful of Your Experience

You can begin to break the habit of automatically interpreting every experience by practicing anchoring your attention firmly within the experience. Notice any physical sensations and emotions that are arising and observe the state of your mind. Is it racing, agitated, fuzzy, or clear? For instance, if you feel that someone has not lived up to an agreement they made with you, rather than contracting into an interpretation of them or their motives, simply stay with the feeling of what it’s like to be let down by another. You might say to yourself, “I’m just going to be interested in this,” and then watch what happens. Just be in the moment and let the experience form.

I realize that what I’m saying sounds easier to do than it often is, especially when the experience you’re having is going badly. Staying with the experience can seem impossible if you don’t know what to do or think, and it’s getting worse. But everything you’re noticing and feeling, even your resistance, becomes part of the direct experience. If the situation doesn’t feel safe, you obviously need to respond as skillfully as you’re able to avoid getting hurt. However, if you’re willing to let loose of controlling the experience, there is a greater possibility that you will intuitively find a more skillful way to respond than what your pattern of interpretation might dictate.

For instance, when you and your spouse are having a disagreement and she’s not being the way you want her to be, it can be confusing or threatening to you. It’s a disagreement you’ve had numerous times before, and so you jump to your usual interpretation, to reassure yourself. Sometimes that may work, but it’s unlikely, because what you’re really doing is recycling the experience. What would happen if you just noticed what you’re experiencing? “In this moment, I’m hearing her words. My heart is troubled. But my body feels comfortable. What else am I experiencing? I’m having this moment that’s emotionally unpleasant. It’s so unpleasant that my mind is jumping to interpretation and it’s grabbing hold of it.” Could you just stay with that experience and see what unfolds? Sometimes we feel so compelled to respond to a situation that we rush to interpretation. But do we really have to? What would happen if we didn’t give in to the drama of the situation? Maybe if you paused your spouse would take advantage of the silence to say something unexpected that could shift how you respond and therefore establish a new way of relating to each other.

The next step toward breaking your habit of automatically interpreting every experience is to practice being mindful from moment to moment of the distinction between experience and interpretation. Begin to notice, “Is there a difference between my direct experience of what’s going on and how I’ve interpreted it?” You’ll need to practice noticing over and over again before you really start to know the difference. The more you’re able to distinguish experience from interpretation, the more you’ll be able to stay in the moment, the calmer you’ll be, and the more choices you’ll have for responding skillfully to whatever circumstances arise.

For example, you may have a habit of collapsing into interpretation whenever you receive any form of rejection. If so, first observe the thoughts that pop into your head. Then notice what you’re actually feeling, physically and emotionally, right at that moment, and ask yourself whether you can stand to be present with those sensations. Most of the time the answer will be yes. Finally, examine your ego. Does it feel demolished, insecure, or angry as a result of the rejection? Is your ego doing the interpreting? Have compassion for your ego and appreciate that it just received a blow, but don’t let its compensating interpretations define you in the moment. If you don’t buy into the interpretations, they will eventually cease.

Releasing Your Compulsion to Interpret

Once you begin to recognize that interpretation is only your view of an experience, it becomes possible for you to begin to release your compulsion to interpret every moment. Ideally, your goal is to create a new habit, a new default setting for responding rather than reacting to all types of experiences. Establishing this new habit starts by staying with the experience. When you find that you’ve jumped to interpretation, just notice the difference. The noticing gradually becomes automatic. There are many activities in your life that you do automatically—driving, cooking, typing, etc.—and that you more or less notice without noticing. In the same way, you can develop the habit of automatically noticing the difference between your experience and your interpretation of the experience.

When you discover that you are interpreting rather than staying with your experience, you don’t have to stop doing it. I’m not saying that you must get rid of all interpretation, but I am encouraging you to learn to distinguish between experience and your interpretive reaction to it. As with any kind of mindfulness practice, being curious helps. Ask yourself: “What will happen if I practice noticing the difference between my experience and my interpretation of it?” “What does it feel like right now?” “How many times today can I notice? Twenty? Fifty?” Just be curious.

The opportunity to practice in this way occurs many times throughout the day and requires persistence. You may be in a meeting, driving your car, talking on the phone to a friend, or having a heated discussion with your child and notice the difference between your experience and your interpretation of the experience. The more you get used to it, the more you will notice it. The more you notice it, the more you will tend to notice it.

There undoubtedly will be moments when you won’t be able to stay with your experience and you will become lost in interpretation, so it helps to reflect afterward. For instance, on your way home from work you might stop to pick up groceries for dinner. After leaving the store and driving halfway home, you realize that you forgot something. In that moment your mind becomes filled with frustration and you think, “My evening is shot. I either spend thirty minutes going back to the store or I heat up leftovers for dinner. Either way the family is going to be disappointed in me. How could I have forgotten? I’m so stupid!” At that moment you are being consumed by your interpretations and there’s no stopping it. However, once you’ve resolved what you’re going to do about dinner, you can then reflect back on what just happened. Imagine saying to yourself later, “So I forgot. I had this experience of forgetting, and then I had this interpretation of my experience. What was it like?”

You can also cultivate your ability to make this distinction by observing other people as they’re acting out their interpretation of an experience or telling you about something that happened in their life. You can tell the difference between what actually happened to them and how they’re interpreting it. I repeat: their interpretation isn’t wrong, necessarily—it’s just different from the real experience.

There are certainly times when you need to be able to respond to an event that’s unfolding in your life while simultaneously interpreting it. For instance, you need to be able to interpret the body signals and emotional vibes of others in order to be a good communicator. Likewise, you need to be able to recognize and interpret patterns in people’s behavior in order to be effective and anticipate change. Moreover, sometimes someone may harbor ill will or jealousy toward you or see you as a rival, in which case you need to take steps to protect yourself.

Remember Your Intentions and Priorities

You can really harm yourself when your interpretation of your experience overrides your intentions and priorities. Charles, another Life Balance client, is a good example of what can happen when you base your actions on misguided thinking instead of your intentions and priorities. Charles was a high achiever who was chosen to represent his company in negotiations with another company about how the two companies might collaborate on a project. In preparation for the negotiations, I helped Charles identify some crucial points that needed to be included in the partnership agreement. However, when during the meeting his counterpart at the other company suggested the same agreement we had defined, Charles responded by saying, “Let me think about it.” When he told me this afterward, I asked him why he hadn’t said yes on the spot. Charles replied that he didn’t want his counterpart to perceive him as being too quick to agree and therefore weak; he also thought that there might be a chance of getting an even better deal. I was dismayed because what mattered was getting this particular agreement settled, and he had it in hand. But Charles got lost in his interpretation of what the other person would think of him and his ideas about how he was supposed to act in such situations. Sure enough, when Charles later contacted the other negotiator to accept the offer, he was told, “Since we didn’t reach an agreement, I thought more about it myself and I no longer want to do it.” Charles was devastated, but he learned a valuable lesson.

Showing Up for Your Life, Just as It Is

Each year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I help teach a daylong course in meditation for beginners, which hundreds of people attend. When you first learn to meditate, it’s not unusual for your mind to decide that since you aren’t doing anything else this is the perfect time to deal with your most challenging problems. The mind, therefore, can become quite agitated, so the students are given an opportunity during the day to have a ten-minute individual interview with one of the teachers, to talk about their experiences. A few years ago, a woman who interviewed with me presented a long list of seemingly unsolvable problems. I listened attentively as she described her difficulties, and when she finished, I spoke to her about the importance of practicing loving-kindness toward herself. As for resolving her problems, I had no suggestions other than that she focus on the experience of them and not on her interpretation of them. Recently the woman showed up at my weekly meditation class and said, “You won’t remember me, but I am the woman you told to stay with my experience, not the interpretation.” I did not remember her name or face, but I did remember her interview. “Well,” she said, “those words were what I really needed. I now speak to all sorts of groups, and I tell them about that interview with you and give them the very same advice.” She had learned to show up for her life by being willing to be present for what was difficult in her life. The same can be true for you.

Excerpt from Phillip Moffitt’s book Emotional Chaos to Clarity

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