Sometimes, when I’m going through a particularly rough time, I come across a passage in an article or book that relates strongly to my current situation.
It’s as if the text were written for me, like the words were placed there for me to find. I usually underline and put a star beside the passage and read it over and over again. It’s what I need in the moment. I find this helpful. Especially when life is overwhelming.
Right now, I’m struggling with how to not take other people’s stuff personally.
When someone chooses to unleash their emotions onto someone else, we can either let it go or we can get hooked and make it part of our own suffering. I fall into the latter category. In other words, I choose to make it personal and I turn on myself.
What did I do? I must have done something wrong to make this person react the way they did.
Feelings of guilt and shame play a big part. It’s like I have a long stick and I keep whacking myself with it, until I’m exhausted and depressed. And then I beat myself up some more.
But other people’s emotions and reactions aren’t my own, so why do I torture and blame myself?
Many of us in the West are hard on ourselves. It’s one of our defining characteristics as a people and part of our drive for external validation and success. We have the art of self-judgment and loathing totally perfected.
In a recent interview with the Shambhala Sun*, Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein says that we often don’t take responsibility for the suffering in our own minds. We immediately look outward, searching for someone to blame. Goldstein says it’s up to us how we relate to our own suffering. Instead of attacking the person or criticizing ourselves, we can sit with the feelings through meditation practice and contemplation.
In the past, when I felt stuck in an emotion I would often react in anger and distract myself with other thoughts or busyness.
But that never made the emotion go away.
It stayed, simmering underneath, leading to a constant state of edginess, feeling desperate and trapped. I learned through Shambhala teachings that I can’t let go of emotions until I actually deal with them by facing them on the cushion or wherever I happen to be.
To make space for the emotion and just let it be there and not to try and force it away.
To feel it in my body and get curious about it.
And then bring loving kindness to it.
This is key. Without the practice of self-compassion, I could sit on the cushion all I want, but nothing will happen. I might get stuck in the emotion and never learn to let go.
I was recently treated to a practice called Inner Smile during one of my classes at the Vancouver Shambhala centre. Sitting on my cushion, I was asked to come up with an image or memory I associated with a feeling of love. I brought attention to my body as I allowed myself to feel the emotions connected with this loving image or memory.
When I first practiced this, I pictured my son’s toothless grin and my body radiated warmth and my heart opened. At other times, I’ve explored the Shambhala Buddhist term in the cradle of loving kindness by imagining outstretched palms cupping my heart and embracing it as a mother would her child. My heart swells and I wind up feeling overwhelmingly happy, while at the same time devastatingly sad. Shambhala Buddhist teachers describe this feeling as the genuine heart of sadness. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and truly open, we experience this raw and tender heart.
By bringing gentleness and kindness to ourselves while we work with our tough emotions, we can rise above our inner critic. We realize that people around us are suffering too and may be reacting to their anger and fear, just like we might be reacting to our own. If we’re aware that people who react in anger might actually be stuck in their own suffering, it becomes easier not to take it personally.
Instead, we begin to feel compassion because we know exactly what they are going through. We can stop beating ourselves up, put our sticks down and let go.
This is cultivating loving kindness.
With the inner smile contemplation practice and through bringing a genuine loving kindness to myself, I was able to find some relief from self-judgment. I was also able to let go of my anger at the person who I thought was causing me harm and look at it through a different lens.
Slowly, I began to feel compassion for the other person and their suffering. And although I still occasionally feel hurt when I think about it, the sadness doesn’t overwhelm me anymore and I know I’ve done all I can. I can’t control other people and the choices they make. Instead, I can choose not to beat myself up about it and extend my tender heart outward into the world.
* What Makes Us Free? Insight Meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, in conversation at California’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, moderated by Michelle Latvala. Published in Shambhala Sun. January 2014. P.36-42.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Hannah Harris/Editor: Bryonie Wise