One of the central practices of the bodhisattva, the exchange of self and other gives a heightened form of empathy. It involves imaging oneself in the place of another, removing one's personal views and prejudices, and reaching a sense of understanding and compassion through the practice. It is a discipline which takes time to cultivate, but one I have concentrated on over the years as part of my journey.
In life one will find the other people we encounter to fall into three categories. There are those we feel are superior to us, whether we find they are wiser, stronger, or somehow more powerful. There are those we feel are inferior, who are struggling, suffering, or just in some way annoying or frustrating to deal with. Then there are those we feel are our equals, those who walk and talk on the same level we do. We naturally divide people into these categories as a result of how we see them, but if we are able to remove judgment and our own preconceived notions about what constitutes lesser, greater and equal on a human level, we can discover that we are not all that different in the end.
Sometimes it is life circumstances that form the dividing line between superior, inferior and equal. The wealthy and powerful man we may look up to and admire may have simply had things in his life break in a better way than the waves broke in our life history. The man who struggles to make ends meet, falls into crime or drugs and has bad teeth because he can't afford a dentist may simply have had the waves crash heavily against him in his life history. We do not know when we only look at the surface how strong the undertow has been in the ocean of their passage.
It is key to remove the prejudgments that cause us to decide whether someone is worthy of our time, energy and love. It is also key to remove those prejudgments that cause us to decide someone simply doesn't need a person as lowly as ourselves because they have access to far more tools and resources than we do. We often make these simply and quick calculations in our mind. "This man has done this to themselves and they will never learn to sidestep the path of self destruction, so fuck 'em." There is really little difference between this calculation and the one that says, "This man has wealth, power and fame and easy access to the means and ways of happiness, so I'm going to go have a taco." When we only see the nature of the surface, we do not grasp the big picture.
By exchanging self and other and opening ourselves to all the elements that make up their individual situation in the journey of life, we can get closer to grasping the big picture. We are quick to condemn the criminal who has done wrong to others. In our defense we will say that we would never have done the things he did and if we had we would be worthy of the same fate. This is simple and easy, but if we exchange ourselves with him and stand in his shoes, knowing the path that has been taken and the consequences that are faced, we can reveal the humanity that remains. We may accept what we have done and the penalties for those actions, but this does not leave us as the void. A human being retains thought and emotion, regardless of his or her path, and to place ourselves in a position where we can see and feel what the condemned of society feel opens us up to the depths of life's abyss. What if we had taken the path of the murderer? Even if we believe we are incapable of such actions, remove that personal standard and imagine if we could and had.
"One cannot understand the light until one has walked in darkness."
If we feel we are good, we must understand the other side of that coin or we meander onto the path of self-righteousness. Those who try to help or guide those who have fallen into the dark paths of life often do not understand the nature of those dark paths. They grow frustrated because they do not understand why anyone would be led onto these paths. They prescribe simplistic solutions, single-minded answers and struggle with trying to understand why others do not simply come on over and walk the clear and well lit paths they themselves walk upon. Although they know within themselves it is not that easy, and although many of them have known on some level the struggle with darkness, they forget and see things only through the eyes they now have.
Pride is one problem with exchanging self and other. Envy is another. If we exchange places with the perceived inferior person, our pride can conceal our ability to see and feel as he does. With the murderer, our pride tells us we would never find ourselves in his shoes, we would never make the mistakes he has made. With the wealthy and powerful man, our envy keeps us from seeing that he may also struggle and stumble. "If I had his money and power, I would have no problems at all." To make the exchange we must remove these negative, base emotions and believe that once we remove those things we dress ourselves in, we are all essentially the same. What divides us are the choices we make, the circumstances we face and the lessons we learn.
In order to escape these pitfalls, which I continue to struggle with from time to time, I developed the ability to laugh at myself and to mock myself almost religiously. No matter how serious or difficult something might be, I seek out the underlying humor in it. It is a practice I attempt to seek, for I believe true misery is the result of maintaining absolute seriousness in the face of the trials and circumstances of one's life. Sometimes humor can defuse the bloodiest of arguments, but only if we are able to laugh at our own point of view before translating that laughter to the argued point of view of the other. I don't believe there is anything worth getting punched in the face over, but you have to be willing to let go, and by exchanging self and other, in the midst of an argument or fight, one can find that little red wire that needs to be cut before the bomb goes off.
No matter how certain you are that your point of view, or your beliefs, are correct, what does it really matter? You can present those beliefs as an alternative to what another states and defends as truth, but you will not change their mind. They will continue to be who they are and see things through their own eyes. Views stated as absolute truth in argument with other views stated as absolute truth will only arouse passion, and eventually anger, at which point there will cease to be any value to the discussion. I have worked to make the exchange of self and other before such a point even looms on the horizon. Sometimes I fail, but like you, I am merely human.
Here on E2 I have tried to maintain the essential nature of the exchange, and truth be told, I am often having conversations with two users here who are arguing over something of little consequence and agreeing with both of them. I am not agreeing with both to be diplomatic or because I lack the ability to put forth my own point of view on the topic. I am doing this because you cannot understand someone's point of view until you allow them to express it. If you put a person on the defensive, you will learn nothing of what they mean and feel. If you accept that their point of view and their beliefs are valid, then you can get to the heart of the problem. Sometimes you can find the real problem as you listen with an accepting ear. If a person knows you accept them as valid and do not dismiss what they think and feel, they become more open to listening to you in return.
We're all just negotiating our way through samsara. In the end, the superior, the inferior and the equal are all the same. You can't really walk a mile in someone else's shoes, but you can find a similar pair in your own size.