Category Archives: difficult person

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

Is Somebody Pushing Your Buttons?

Years ago I began to notice a mental pattern of getting annoyed and aggravated by women who were powerful. No matter how nice they were, something about them pushed my buttons. It wasn’t until after I started meditating regularly and began to notice the recurring pattern that I could see that these women were openly expressing what I was actively and covertly repressing in myself. I was stuffing my power so I resented them for ‘flaunting’ theirs.


This was a big discovery for me, the kind of discovery that happens quite naturally with the regular practice of insight meditation. Once I saw the pattern I was then able to see through it to the deep fear of allowing my own power to be expressed. (‘If I express my power, will I become an intolerable diva, unlikable by anyone I care about? Isn’t it much safer to stuff it?’ Good grief! Who needs external limits when I can so effectively dis-empower myself?)


This dislike of people who express what we’re repressing is an example of psychological projection. Does it ring any bells for you? Is there a certain personality trait that really pushes your buttons, causing a visceral negative reaction that activates judgments and fears that are out of proportion to the situation at hand.


Many of us have particular people in our lives who have the power to upset us. But the key to these relationships is the power they have over us, causing us to feel threatened. For example, we may have strong negative feelings about a sitting president, but once he is no longer in office our antipathy dissipates considerably. They are no longer perceived as a threat.


Likewise there may be a family member who we perceive as having power over us, even if it is not a physical power but the ability to break our hearts.


When someone is pushing our buttons but they don’t have any power over us, then it is something else. If this brings someone to mind, ask yourself:  Is it some particular trait that annoys or upsets you? Is it something that brings up a lot of emotional energy and tension in the body? Do you find there are a number of people with these same traits that activate this energy? If so, this is probably a case of projection.


Next time you feel your buttons pushed, take the opportunity to investigate. What is it that bothers you so much? Listen to the judgments you are making, the opinions so strongly stated in your mind. These are rich clues to let you know what aspect of yourself is being stuffed down, imprisoned deep within, rattling the bars and yelling for help.


Anytime we are doing an inner investigation, it is always beneficial to sense in to whatever physical sensations arise with the thoughts and emotions present. With the thoughts we may get caught up in a dense and circular story, or we go off on tangents that take us away from the heart of the investigation. If we focus on the felt sense of the experience, and breathe into the area that is tight or achy with compassion, we become more open in our thoughts and emotions as well.

I am happy to say that today I admire powerful women and enjoy their company. I accept leadership positions myself as a natural part of maturing. I make a point of learning how to be skillful with power, to be compassionate and generous, to listen, to collaborate and to bring all of who I am to whatever I do. And if someone finds being around me pushes their buttons, may they investigate the true cause. It ain’t me, babe!

Loving Kindness Shifts Relationships

In exploring metta, the practice of sending loving kindness, we come to the challenge of sending it to a ‘difficult’ person, someone with whom we struggle or who pushes our buttons. This can be a family member, co-worker, client, or a public figure whose policies, beliefs or behavior seem wrong, maybe even evil to our way of thinking. (If you wonder why we would send loving kindness to such a person, look at the last post under ‘Obstacle #4. Metta Seen as Reward.’)

We picture this ‘difficult person’ and think, ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace,” or similar well wishing. If they are going through difficult experiences, we could send compassion with phrases like, ‘May your difficulties ease. May your struggles or sorrows be held in compassion.’ As you read this, can you sense that the activity of sending loving kindness and compassion softens our hearts, gives ease to our body, allows our mind to be more restful and spacious? Even if we question whether metta has any power or meaning, we can at least acknowledge a certain satisfaction in being able to do some positive action, even though it’s only within our mind. The behavior of others is beyond our control, and that can be frustrating and scary. We can’t change them, but we can send them metta.

So is it just about making ourselves feel better? Maybe yes, maybe no.

One student shared her experience of sending metta to her sibling with whom she had difficulty. She began the practice to find peace within herself, a release from feeling so distressed when this person would cause disruption at family gatherings. She did find peace as she practiced, but what surprised her was how her sibling began to open up and become less prickly. Remember that we are not saying this blessing out loud. The other person is not even aware of it. But the softening that comes with wishing someone well changes not just ourselves, but them too. Now the sibling have a closer more loving relationship than they have had in their whole lives. (The student did not have that goal in mind, remember. If she had hopes or expectations that her sibling would change, then probably that hope would have sabotaged the pure practice of sending metta.)

This is not the first time I have heard such a story. But most of us don’t take the time to do the practice it in a consistent way. It takes intention to do so. If our intention is to access the infinite quality of loving kindness and compassion, to allow ourselves to dwell in it, and then share it, perhaps with special focus on those with whom it is challenging to do so, then the loving kindness can be transformative.

Sending metta to a challenging person might feel like too big an assignment. So we start with what we can do. ‘May you be well…far from here.” “May you be happy…somewhere else.” That doesn’t sound very friendly, but it is a start. If we feel vulnerable and unsafe with this person, then it is skillful to keep our distance, but we can still send metta. If our well wishing seems half-hearted, at least it is a little crack in the door we can begin to enter more wholeheartedly as we follow our intention.

Metta is a practice unto itself, but it is also a gift that arises out of mindfulness practice. As we become aware of our connection with all life, the oneness of all being, we feel included, safe, loved without striving to earn it, and are then able to give love to all beings, even the difficult ones. These two practices combine create loving awareness.

If you are curious about where metta fits in the scheme of Buddhist concepts:
Metta – Loving Kindness –  is the first of the Four Brahmaviharas.The other three are: 

Karuna – Compassion – is a feeling that naturally arises out of that sense of connection. It is quite different from pity.
Mudita – Sympathetic Joy, happiness for the happiness of others, that also arises out of that sense of connection. Don’t be frustrated if this doesn’t feel so ‘naturally arising.’ Have compassion for yourself.
Upekka – Equilibrium. When our practice provides so much spaciousness that we can hold the extremes of emotion as in those when a loved one is dying and another is being born or getting married or having some positive experience. Our ability to make room for all to be held in a loving embrace is upekka.

The Four Brahmaviharas infuse our lives with connection, joy, meaning and a sense of balance.  Each of the four has its own practice to help us develop, but each is also a gift of mindfulness, a fruit of the practice. Let knowing they exist keep you coming back again and again to meditation practice. But don’t turn them into a goal. Let go of striving. Practice with simple joy.

Meta-Metta

Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.
– Kalu Rinpoche

This political season is such an opportunity to actively send metta! When my students were talking about an upcoming debate last week, I challenged them to see if they could send metta (loving-kindness) to the candidate from the party they weren’t supporting.

I knew how challenging this assignment might be. When I was young and watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates on black and white television in my best friend’s living room, we threw ice at Nixon whenever he said something that drove us crazy. I’d like to say it was an act of kindness to cool his sweaty brow, but it was an act of violence plain and simple. We were lucky the TV screen didn’t break! So I understand how challenging this assignment might be. Many times over the course of the recent Bush presidency our class at Spirit Rock imagined him and his cabinet members in the center of our circle and sent them metta. What a challenge! But what an amazing practice. We’ll never know if our loving-kindness was felt by Bush, but sending it out certainly had an effect on us.

Naturally I was curious to see what my students experienced if they attempted to send metta during the debates.

One meditator said that she just couldn’t bring herself to send metta to someone who represented policies she abhorred. She didn’t want them to achieve their goals or be effective, so why would she wish them well? If she was supporting the other candidate’s success, then obviously she wanted the opposition to fail. So why would she send them good wishes?

What a great question! And it made for a very rich class. I so appreciated the opportunity to clarify what metta is and what it is not. I realize that if she, a very wise woman, was unclear about the nature of this loving-kindness we are sending then many others probably are as well. So I would like to explore the concept of metta more thoroughly, and hopefully make the purpose of sending metta to difficult people understandable and the practice more accessible.

First, sending metta is not wishing for everyone to succeed at getting everything they want. The human condition is to want. We want all manner of things all the time. Our desires are boundless. But, as we have discovered in our exploration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth and the causes of suffering, fulfilling our desires does not bring us the deep sense of joy we long to experience in life.

So when we wish someone happiness, we are not wishing for the fulfillment of a current desire. We are wishing them a much deeper sense of happiness, one that comes from a sense of completion, of being a valued expression of a vitally interconnected whole. We have been discussing this energetic interconnection over the past few weeks as we explored the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth. (Of course, if they are lacking in the basic needs of life, if they are going to bed hungry or have no bed to go to, for example, then out of a sense of caring connection we include that in our well wishing, and hopefully follow up with some material aid to whatever degree is possible, practicing generosity.)

But generally, we are sending a kind of meta-metta, an infinite permeable all encompassing blessing. If you missed the last few posts, please go back and read them. This sense of interconnection — the physical (subatomic particle – energy vibration) as well as spiritual truth of our being — is ever present but often overlooked in the busyness of our lives. It may be paved over with calcified constricting fear. So when we send metta to someone, we are sending this sense of a flow of loving energy to help soften that calcification and remind them that they are an intrinsic part of a complex whole, not an isolated disconnected soul struggling for survival, any more than a drop of water leaping above the rapids is alone.

Is there any person, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or desires, that we would not wish this kind of awakening? How does our withholding metta from anyone serve ourselves and our awakening? Withholding keeps us tight and constricted and feeling disconnected and at odds as well. So when we send metta to that most difficult person it is a deep awakening practice for us.

We are not sending metta to change people. We are not seeking results. We are sending metta because we are sensing in to the universal nature of loving kindness, we are accessing the boundless flow of metta, and that level of access is like being a conduit of energy. The conduit does not determine where the energy will go. When we send metta we feel the powerful flow filling us and overflowing. We allow ourselves to sense the boundless energy of being, the powerful love that can be talked about in so many ways but is fully present and accessible in every moment for those who pause and open to it.

Another meditator says that she sends metta at the end of her daily meditation practice, and she hoped that sending it out to ‘all beings’ was sufficient, because she’d really rather avoid having to think about any difficult people in the middle of a pleasant meditative experience.

I appreciate the practice of simply sending metta out to all beings, and we end our class by dedicating the merit of our practice to the benefit of all beings. I sometimes remind my students that there are probably people at this very moment sending metta out to all beings, and to remember that this includes us. We can take comfort in actively receiving that interconnected sense of well wishing.

But this one step ‘all beings’ well wishing doesn’t take the place of a full metta practice.
Traditional metta practice starts with sending loving-kindness to ourselves. Then we bring to mind an ‘easy’ person for whom we hold nothing but loving thoughts and send metta to them: May you be well, May you be at ease, and other such phrases of general well-wishing. Then we think of a ‘neutral’ person, someone we see in the course of our day but don’t really know like the bank teller or grocery clerk and send them metta. And then we think of a person for whom it may be very difficult to muster up kind thoughts at the moment. This could be someone in our personal life that is driving us crazy, but it could also be a public figure with whom we disagree about policy. And then finally we send metta to all beings.

When do we do full metta practice? For some people it is a regular part of their day, for others a more occasional group experience. But certainly, whenever we notice we are avoiding sending metta to certain people, then there’s a perfect opportunity for practice. Recognizing avoidance is a gift of awareness and an invitation to deepen our practice.

We noticed in class that a key thing about a ‘difficult person’ is the level of control they seem to have over things that affect our lives. This is a really valuable aspect to explore. I noticed that once Bush was no longer president, the challenge to send metta to him was absent. His power to harm me and those I love was gone. He was no longer ‘the difficult person’ of my metta practice. Whatever errors in judgment he might make once he was no longer in power would probably not gravely impact me the way they did when he was in the White House.

This power issue holds true also with people in our personal life, and is a valuable thing to look at. But when we send metta to them we are not wishing them success at driving us crazy! We are dropping to a deeper level than our personality-based interactions into a state of deep interconnection, where there is no distinction between us. By dropping to this level – the namaste level where ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ – we allow for the possibility of a softening of the constriction that keeps us at odds.

We ended our class by doing a metta practice to a difficult person we each brought to mind, and perhaps you might like to give it a try, imagining a person to whom it would be challenging for you to send loving kindness.

We wish them ease. We wish them healing. We wish them a release from the tight constriction of fear that holds them, that shuts them down, that shuts all of us down. We wish them the same in-depth understanding of the nature of our inter-connection that we wish for ourselves and all beings.

Since being constricted in fear is the major cause of all dis-ease and discomfort in the world, feeling threatened and reactive instead of loved and responsive, it only makes sense that we want loving release for anyone who is knotted up in fear and reactivity, anyone who sees themselves as isolated and the world as a threatening dangerous place that must be fought with violence.

Is there any person, no matter how wrong-headed or evil we believe them to be, from whom we would withhold that sense of deep connection? If everyone felt this opening and easing into the flow of the infinite energetic is-ness of being, would this not affect them in a way that would be beneficial to themselves and to all beings, including ourselves?

I leave you with a little treat: Sylvia Boorstein leading a brief metta meditation. Sylvia was my first Buddhist teacher who read my book and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ She is a treasure of compassionate wisdom to both Spirit Rock Meditation Center students and to the Jewish community in Santa Rosa.

Sending Loving Kindness to Difficult People


Most people struggle at first with sending metta (loving kindness) to difficult people.

Who is a difficult person? It could be someone very close to you who causes you personal torment, so that even though you care for them, your feelings are very conflicted.

Or it could be someone you don’t know personally who you consider an enemy of some kind or who represents ‘evil’ to you: a wrong-headed leader, a serial killer or child molester. This is someone whose behavior to you is impossible to understand and maybe impossible to forgive. You can see how sending loving kindness to these people might be very challenging.

First, you may feel they don’t deserve loving kindness. But metta is not a reward that is doled out to the deserving. It is a radiance like sunlight that does not withhold itself from shining everywhere. As conductors of metta, we tap into this sense of expansive radiance and draw upon own inherent generosity of spirit in order to send metta to all beings.

Targeting a difficult person helps us to access that deeper place from which true metta comes. You may be familiar with the expression namaste, a Sanskrit word often used in yoga classes that loosely translates, ‘The god in me honors the god in you.’ When two people greet each other at this deep connected level, behavioral and personality differences fall away. They know themselves to be one and the same, aspects of a greater whole.

If we can’t bring ourselves to send metta to someone we don’t like, we have not accessed that deep connected space from which true metta flows. We are trapped in a sense of metta as a finite resource to be meted out sparingly only to those who ‘deserve’ to be happy. With consistent practice, at some point we may begin to see beyond this limited thinking.

This level of deep awareness is not something we can force upon ourselves. But, as we try sending metta to a difficult person, we have an excellent opportunity to observe our thoughts, beliefs and feelings as they arise, and to create spaciousness around them. We send metta to ourselves around this difficult process. We don’t scold ourselves for being unable to do what is challenging. We just keep coming back to the practice with renewed energy and attention.

Perhaps eventually there will be an aha moment, a little break through, where we may, for example, recognize that the difficult person of our focus is some mother’s child. Or we might see that it is painful for us to attempt to withhold metta from some people while sending it to others, that the metta feels less authentic in some way. Whatever insights arise, we note them, grateful for the rich fruits of the practice.