Meditations on “difficult” people


Since I’ve been having trouble finding time to post lately, I’m going to keep this one short!

Recently I spent two weeks practicing lovingkindness and compassion for “difficult” people, as part of the Joy of Living curriculum. At first I felt the need to edit the suggested phrases, especially when thinking about someone with current power to do great harm (e.g. our new Tweeter-in-Chief). Instead of “may you have happiness and the causes of happiness,” I said “May you have true happiness and its causes.” This, I realized, had all of my judgments embedded in it; a need to change the person I was trying to be loving towards. It was easier with people who don’t, to my knowledge, currently have much power to harm me or others — people I found difficult in the past, but who aren’t currently in my life in any significant way. For them, I could wish them a more open-hearted happiness, even if they don’t change.

But, I asked myself, would President Trump being unhappy really help? No. And when I tried to really wish happiness for him, and other scary-difficult people, I felt more love filling my heart. As Jean’s reply to my last post said, my heart felt more “full, open, clear, and strong.” The power of this practice, is, after all, not intercessionary prayer. It is not asking for divine intervention. It is not even an attempt to change other people. Rather, it is a practice to transform myself. In it fully, without the cognitive adjustments to the words, I feel myself. Rather than worrying about the other people and their bad behavior – their twisted souls, their personality disorders – I am feeling my own heart filled with love. And, sometimes, continuing to feel the obstacles to acting from a place of love.

I realized at some point during the practice that I didn’t need to pick people that were obviously and always difficult for me. I could use it to practice with times and circumstances that trigger me with people I love. Times when I collapse or go small, where I judge and try to change or fix them. Appease or avoid conflict. I think these are what the Buddhists call my “obscurations” – things that cover over my underlying goodness and power.

This practice also led me to reflect on the difference between saying that someone “is a difficult person,” and saying that “I have difficulty with that person” or, even less judgmentally, with their behavior.  I noticed that, as I was taking more responsibility with this phrasing, and blaming the other person less, it actually felt more empowering. Like the difference between dealing with evil incarnate, and a misbehaving child. Perhaps this is “premature transcendence” on my part, but that will have to wait for another post.





1 thought on “Meditations on “difficult” people”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate the honesty in sharing how the judgments show up in the midst of our practice. Indeed, how could they not, and isn’t that part of why we practice? Also loved the clarity with which you remind us that the point of metta practice is not to change the other person, but to change ourselves. The third thing that stands out for me is the shift between labeling someone a difficult person to taking responsibility, i.e., “I have difficulty with their behavior.” This to me is one of the most helpful, though also sometimes the most difficult, parts of NVC: taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs, rather than labeling and blaming others. I resonate with all of what you shared and find companionship in it, as I have been re-visiting this practice myself with regard to some people I found myself labelling (and avoiding). I too am experiencing shifts, though right now they are subtle and slower than I would like.

    I had not thought about power with regard to this practice before. It seems very significant to note that it creates even more separation and is an obstacle to empathy and compassion. It also seems significant that it can be overcome with awareness, choice, and practice. The power dimension is still there, but you have regained power over your own attitude toward the person in that position of systemic power, rather than being at the mercy of habitual patterns and attitudes.

    I am moved to say that when I do not manage to be as compassionate as I aspire to be toward people or behaviors that I don’t enjoy, it has been helpful to remember that those times are for self-compassion. Compassion for how hard it is sometimes to be human and to live our values given all the conditioning we’ve had toward judging. When I skip this step, I end up grumpy or upset, which certainly doesn’t help anything. And if I’m not careful, I can shift back from blaming myself to blaming the other person. It would be a lot easier to with them well if they would change! Then I could be more peaceful! It’s quite a practice to return again and again to compassion with and for myself just as I am. And with/for others, just as they are.

    Thank you!

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