When we engage in metta practice, often the hardest and most transformative part is befriending the difficult people in our lives. Difficult people are those who trigger the need to protect or defend ourselves, the “I and the mine.” Sometimes it’s an individual person or a whole group of people, but behind the difficulty is typically a set of conditions. What does the person or group of people represent in the story we tell ourselves? What’s behind the “othering” that goes on in our minds? We can use this investigation as a skillful means for transforming our understanding and growing compassion.
Pema Chodron says, “Others will always show you exactly where you are stuck. They say or do something and you automatically get hooked into a familiar pattern of reacting. When you react in a habitual way, it gives you a chance to see your patterns and work with them honestly and compassionately. Without others provoking you, you remain ignorant of your habits and cannot transform them into the path of awakening.”
Whether we’re sitting on the cushion or across the dinner table from a difficult relative, we’re always bringing the whole of ourselves to the interaction – mind, body, and heart. It, therefore, behooves us to bring a deep sense of inquiry to all aspects of our experience.
The mind is the seat of our confusion, and our thoughts and beliefs tend to set off a chain reaction. We can use mindfulness – a curious open awareness of what is – to name our thoughts as they arise. Judging, blaming, protecting, rehearsing, etc. This makes our thoughts less personal and more able to be looked at objectively. A practice I’ve often found helpful is noting how I, too, have these same habits. Perhaps in a different configuration or intensity, but we’re all subject to the human condition of suffering. Then I remember that I too am sometimes the difficult person.
How does my body feel when I believe these thoughts about the difficult person? Can I recognize that this is suffering, and connect with my sincere desire to not contribute more suffering to the world? Does this physical discomfort remind me of other times in my life or other people? Sometimes I can connect the dots to others’ experiences to trace back to the root of the confusion.
I remind myself to take a few deep breaths, relax as I exhale, and feel into the heart space. What happens when I notice I’m hooked? Who do I become? What qualities are present in my heart? How do I want to act? To treat others? Myself? Who is suffering the most? These inquiries can allow us to let go of the story, and just be in the moment with whatever arises. Our hearts are boundless, much wider than our limiting beliefs and stories.
When we touch into the truth of what it means to be human – the vast array of causes and conditions that lead any one person to speak or act as they do (including ourselves!) – we can’t help but soften. Thomas Keating, the founder of Christian Centering Prayer, said “If one completes the journey to one’s own heart, one will find oneself in the heart of everyone.”