We've all probably heard some variation of the story of the "snake on the road" wherein the man leaves his house at night and sees a snake in the road. He runs back inside and does not leave his house because he's scared of the snake. The next morning when he comes out, cautiously, he finds that the snake was really just a piece of rope.
This one comes up often in various Buddhist books, and is used to great effect when talking about fear, illusion, perception and such. The story stuck with me from the first time I read it because it really is such a great example of two things that I try to keep in mind always:
~ Perception is nine tenths of the flaw
~ Most people judge you based on their perception of you.
Having been one of the "long hair freaky people" most of my life, I'm accustomed to being judged on my appearance. It doesn't happen nearly as often as it did many years ago when I wore my leather jacket and my hair flew free and crazy looking, but it still happens regularly. I've never liked it, but I've grown to understand it and even have compassion for those who do it. Because I'm as guilty as the next guy of this I have, as I mentioned above, always tried hard not to do the same to others. Being human, I often fail.
Recently, while out of the country on business, I had a real life example of this story happen to me. It was a great reminder, as well as a great opportunity, for me to utilize the lesson that this story had to teach.
I had been in Bermuda for a few days, and had seen and encountered a few homeless guys who by most anyones standards would seem a little scary. These guys were the kind that even a big and tall scary looking guy like myself would cross the street to avoid. Most of them sported waist length dreadlocks (or just plain matted) hair, which in itself could scare average folks. And I say that as a guy who knows…I've got 3 foot long hair myself, and I've unintentionally frightened more than my share of people based simply on my appearance.
Anyhow, I was walking down the sidewalk, late at night and in the "rough" part of town (Bermuda's rough part of town is nicer than most American neighborhoods). I saw, a couple of blocks ahead of me on the sidewalk, what appeared to be a large homeless man sitting on the sidewalk slumped over against a trash can. When I passed by earlier, he was sleeping in the doorway near there. Having seen the guy before, and seeing this ominous shape now in the same area, I fairly safely surmised that this was the same guy and I mentally prepped myself for the inevitable encounter.
Now, in the past, my typical way of dealing with beggars is to ask them if I can have a dollar before they get the chance to ask me. This usually throws them off so much that they never get the chance to ask me. This works extraordinarily well. In recent days, I've been struggling with how I should deal with this in light of my recent path. This is a LONG involved topic for another post. So, for now, suffice it to say that I prepped myself for the encounter and kept walking toward him.
As I got closer, and was reviewing what I would say in my head, my newfound-mindful-Buddhish-metta nature started kicking in, and I started reviewing alternate ways of more skillfully dealing with him.
When I finally got close enough to make him out, I saw that "he" wasn't a "he" at all. "He" was a load of rubbish. An amalgam of garbage bags, debris and trash that had been thrown out on the curb by the trash can. The fact that this wasn't even a person and that I had fallen for the self-imposed "Snake in the road" mental illusion aside, there's the additional irony here of the symbolism. It did not escape me that I not only saw a piece of rope in the road and mistook it for a snake, but it REALLY hit home to me that I mistook a giant pile of trash for a homeless HUMAN. What does THAT say about my unskillful perception and judgmental mindset??
Anyhow, the whole deal made me very keenly aware of my own shortcomings and illustrated how much of my path lies ahead of me, and how little falls behind me.
A couple of blocks later, I did encounter the very man I thought I was seeing. He did hit me up for money, and I did not give him any (but because I sincerely didn't have any at the moment). What I DID do, however, was take the time to stop and talk to him like a human being and apologize with great sincerity (whether he knew that or not) that I wasn't able to help him.
So the moral of the story is two-fold. First, don't assume that your perception is reality. It very often is not. Second, when you do perceive something, take the time to consider your reactions to that thing. You may not be able to prevent (at least at first) your lifelong habit of drawing conclusions based on your visual input, but take a few seconds to consider your reactions and ask yourself if they are founded on reality or perception. It's normal human nature to jump to these conclusions, but it's not always reality!
Hopefully, I will do better next time!