“If you don’t like something, change it.
If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
When we’re ready to test our progress in reversing our negative emotions, there’s nothing like working with difficult people.
How great it would be if we could just lend a hand to all the nice people out there, the ones who are easy to deal with, always pleasant and gracious. But they’re the ones who always seem to have people lining up to help them out. So there’s no need for us to join that crowd.
The people who need our help are the ones who don’t have anybody to call: the kind of people nobody wants to go near, the difficult-to-bear, the ones who cause lots of problems. What you can do for these people, at least, is give rise to compassion instead of animosity. And if you feel you can go further, if you really want to try to reach out to someone and be helpful, these are the ones who need it the most.
Growing Into Compassion For All
If you limit your compassionate activities to people who are easy, attractive, and full of fun, then whatever you do, whatever actions you perform, may not necessarily be genuine compassion. There’s a kind of self-serving aspect to what you do. How much of your commitment is tied to having a good time?
We touch the real heart of compassion when we can engage with someone who is suffering from carrying so much aggression, so much negativity, so much emotion that they can’t help but cause trouble and drive people away. If you can approach such a person and give them some support, then maybe there is some actual compassion there. This is one of the Buddha’s teachings on the courageous and noble heart of compassion. It’s challenging, but you can try it and see what happens.
The good thing for us is that this teaching doesn’t say we have to stay with that person forever. The point is to grow our heart of kindness and love for all. That includes difficult people. It doesn’t say that we have to be around them all the time.
Transforming Disturbing Emotions Through Action
In the beginning, it’s impossible for most of us to transform our disturbing emotions immediately, simply with mindfulness. We notice we’re full of angry feelings and thoughts and we tell ourselves, I believe in being positive, so just get over it! Doubtful.
So another approach is to “transform through conduct” first. “Conduct” means “actions,” and here we are talking about what we do with our body and speech, which are expressions of our emotions and intentions. We need to observe and work with both.
Working with our conduct is a more manageable approach because it’s immediate and concrete. You don’t have to guess, Did I just push Sam out of the way? Or was that a bear hug? You know.
Awareness of our actions is also key to seeing how we can befriend and support difficult people. Working with an awareness of our body language and speech can help us get a grip on our thoughts and emotions, which are the mental equivalent of walking and talking.
Working from the Outside In
If you have a strong habit of reacting with anger when criticized, for example, it will take only a little mindfulness to see when you’re acting that out in an obvious way. You start by directing your attention toward yourself, not toward your critic.
Look at your own actions, your own conduct, rather than the actions or words of anyone else. You don’t even need to think about the emotion itself at this point. You only need to be clear about your own actions in the present moment.
If you feel you’re about to get into a confrontation with someone, or just another hurtful conversation, stop for a moment (breathe). Now look at your conduct. What are you doing with your body? Where is it? How is it? Are you leaning into or away from that person? What are your hands doing? Where are your eyes looking?
Physical gestures are powerful communicators of feelings and intentions. So, be aware. Tell yourself to drop any behavior that signals hostility or threat. Stop pointing fingers or clenching your fists. Relax your gaze, sit or stand straight. These are things you can control once you notice them. You can even add a smile.
In the same way, look at your speech. Are you using harsh language? How loudly are you talking? How fast or slow? Again, be aware of any verbal signals you’re sending (groaning, giggling) in addition to your actual words. Tell yourself to drop any verbal expressions that incite you or the person you’re talking to. Consciously lowering your voice and avoiding inflammatory speech are things you can choose to do once you bring a sense of mindfulness to your actions.
At this point, we’re working from the outside in. Every positive external change we make helps to calm our inner disturbances.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, TarcherPerigee,
a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
©2017 by Dzogchen Ponlop. All Rights Reserved.
Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You
by Dzogchen Ponlop.
In this life-changing book, acclaimed Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche shows how to free yourself from being a victim of your emotions by gaining the awareness and understanding that will help you harness their power.
About the Author
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind. (“Rinpoche” is an honorific reserved for highly respected Buddhist teachers.) He is the founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers. (Author Photo by Ryszard K. Frąckiewicz. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)
VIDEO: "Searching for the Searcher" with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche