Red, Yellow, Green: A Tool for Mindfulness and Developing Self-Knowledge
Know thyself. That’s what we are supposed to do, isn’t it? The image here, a screenshot from the 1999 film The Matrix, is, in part an exploration of knowing oneself. It’s a point when the character Neo, must confront his uncertainly, face his fears and discomfort and walk forward into difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances.
There is great power and wisdom in learning who you are, in how you move through the world. Knowing how you will react to something, can be a useful tool for a better life and for working in less than ideal circumstances. There are endless books and meditation masters who teach how to develop this kind of self-knowledge and wisdom. But it’s not easy, is it?
I’ve now been a practicing Buddhist for 6 years. But before that, I dabbled in pretty much every religion and religious teachings I could get my hands on. For me, Buddhism has turned out to be the best path for developing self-knowledge, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Different people require different tools and different methods to develop their self-awareness and no one tool is necessarily better than the other, they are just different. So, when I come across a new tool, or a series of encounters that creates some sort of alchemy in my brain and allows me to share what I think could be a useful one, I try to share it with people.
Recently my partner introduced me to the concept of Red, Yellow, and Green consent. That when you are doing things together, you can use that as a method to regulate experiences to gauge how you are feeling about things, and how to proceed. Then today, listening to Pema Chodron’s wonderful audio lectures Don’t Bite the Hook, it occurred to me that this method could be used for developing all sorts of mindfulness and personal awareness when working with your mind and emotions, especially in the realm of anger and frustration.
Red, Yellow, Green, the colors of a traffic light can tell us a lot about how we are feeling internally. So let’s break them down:
Red: I am absolutely not okay with this. It needs to stop immediately, it’s too much or too fast… or too something… and makes me deeply uncomfortable, afraid, or angry. I need to step back now and get out of this situation.
Yellow: This is pushing my boundaries and I am feeling some discomfort, but if we proceed cautiously I might be okay. However, I might need to stop and step back too. I had better check in with myself frequently as I proceed.
Green: I’m totally fine and this experience is going well. We can proceed with what we are doing or where we are going without worrying. I am feeling at peace with my outer circumstances.
This can be applied to anything. You can apply this to going out to a bar and meeting new people. You can apply it to deal with that difficult family member. How about that solo backpacking trip in another country where you don’t speak the language? I think it could also work extremely well in counseling or therapy, especially when trying to tackle painful experiences and trauma.
Knowing where you are at can be hard sometimes and sometimes you might not be sure. If you aren’t sure you are at it, you are likely in the yellow territory. It means you need to pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions as the situation develops. Honestly, a lot of life we spend in a kind of trepidatious code yellow don’t we? Some of us more than others. So much of our life is framed with expectations and assumptions and one thing you can do with the practice of looking at code yellow moments really digs into why you might be having those assumptions and expectations.
I often say, especially when discussing forthcoming books or films, expectations are the death of joy. If you are so filled up with expectations, you may miss something amazing because it didn’t go exactly how you thought it would. This is a lot of what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi was writing about all those years ago in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If we go into things like an open and positive beginner, much of life will be easier. But life can wound us, and if we aren’t careful, we fall into the expectation of it always wounding us, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
Why is this method useful? Well, when you are venturing into uncharted waters, no matter what that form might take, a few breaths and checking in with yourself can be a really important way to stop things from escalating to the point of allowing them to get out of control. Sometimes when we are in the middle of something we can find ourselves swept into an experience that we don’t understand, or that will later be a source of trauma, depression, shame, guilt, or anger. So, if we can check in with ourselves as things are happening, we can develop self-knowledge about how different experiences impact our mental and emotional health.
But what if I don’t have a choice?
If you go into a situation that you don’t have a choice but to be in a yellow or red situation, say dealing with a really difficult family member, you can still use this method. How? Well you know going in, it’s already a code yellow situation. You know that you are wary, and in the past, you have had lots of negative encounters with spending time with this family member. So, knowing that in advance, you can build in breaks or moments of comfort.
Perhaps you can only handle this person for an hour before you need a break. So, set an alarm, or have a friend call or text you to remind you when it’s been an hour and you need a break. You could also just set hour-long meetings with them until you’re comfortable with longer. In any case, after that hour, you can have a strategy for escaping what’s happening. Perhaps you go step outside for five minutes and center yourself. Maybe you go and take a little bit longer in the bathroom and take some deep breaths, notice where you are keeping tension, (or if your Buddhist say some mantras or practice a compassion exercise), and try to just be with it. Many religions and spiritual traditions have different methods for handling things like this. Make a plan. You’d be surprised how much it helps.
The point is if you know you are going into a situation that is yellow you can prepare. If you find yourself in the Red, it can be more difficult. You may have to physically leave. If you have no choice but to go into a Code Red situation, maybe consider bringing an ally that will help keep you grounded, or at least set clear boundaries for how things will proceed. Perhaps on the way there you listen to something calming and walk into the situation centered. We can’t always avoid these kinds of situations, but we can prepare ourselves and shift the way we think about them. As Pema Chodron says, (paraphrased) you can’t really avoid pain, but what you do with it, is what matters. Pain can be a powerful ally for personal growth and transformation if we let it be.
And of course, this tool may not work for you. It may work for very few people in general. But the point is, to work on learning about yourself. Practicing remembering where you are at, what you are doing, and what habits are further creating conflict in your life. Sometimes just noticing those things that upset you can be a doorway to something so much better.