ymd13: Loving kindness meditation with challenging people

Updated On — 8th Nov, 2013

CC BY-NC-ND by jesuscmPin
CC BY-NC-ND by jesuscm

This loving kindness meditation is difficult to do, no doubts here. Our goal with the practice of the four immeasurables — intentionally cultivated mind states which are so vast and expansive that they cannot be measured in any way — is to expand feeling of love, joy, compassion and equanimity so they our boundless. This means we work will everything that presents itself as a perceived obstacle, which usually means, people with whom we have complex or difficult relationships. People we don’t get along with. People who tend to have a knack for pushing our buttons.

Hell is other people ~ John Paul Sarte

Sure, that is a little bit over-board, but it does make a point.

If we don’t include them, our loving kindness meditation practice will not be all-inclusive. One of the pithy statements we work with sometimes in cultivating the four immeasurables is “put no one out of your heart.”

Easing into All- Inclusiveness in Loving Kindness Meditation

So let’s just have a look at what happens when we do put some people out of our heart. Rick Hanson, PhD., a neuro-scientist and meditation practitioner notes that when we close our-self off to other people —

What are the results? Closing off doesn’t feel good. It makes your heart heavy and contracted. And it primes your brain to be more tense and reactive, which could get you into trouble, plus trigger the other person to act worse than ever.

In practicing loving kindness meditation with difficult people, we need to keep a cool head and not allow ourselves to be swayed by any underlying tendencies to identify with the oppressor —  a Freudian term that predates the idea of the Stockholm syndrome. In cases where we do this practice un-wisely, meaning we jump into this and pick someone who might have traumatized us at an early age.

Let’s have a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Stockholm syndrome:

Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.[1][2] The FBI‘s Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 27% of victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.[3]

Clearly, we need to apply the key Buddhism notion of upaya, skillful means, when we begin any of these powerful practices that expose the deepest aspects of our being. It is because these practices work so well as accessing the deepest aspects of our being that they hold the key to lasting personal change in how we see and react to the world and it’s inhabitants.

Loving Kindness Meditation With Difficult People Releases Our Anger

As we do this practice, starting progressively with more and more challenging people, over time our minds will become stronger, more confident. We notice we may hurt less inside, feel less anxious and less fearful, as the practice begins to engender stronger inner foundations of ease, joy, Ok-ness with the world and ourselves just as we are, ok-ness with others just as they are.

We start this practice as we do the previous practices — establishing the inner recognition that we are the same as others, in that we all just want to be happy and don’t want suffering. This has got to be an on-going journey, this simple realization. Many folks who take up the practice of the four immeasurables tend to set this aside as being too obvious and not worth contemplating.

Think again. Allow the possibility that this most simplistic and obvious thought may be more more profound than we allow to be. Just keep contemplating this before every period of meditation. Just try to set aside any misgivings here.

Often in doing this loving kindness meditation practice we uncover feelings of outrage and intense anger towards a specific person may have done to you. Please be careful here. When these intense feelings come up, one of my teachers counseled me to try to shift the perspective that we are angry at the unskillful actions of another person and perhaps not the person herself. That we are angry due to actions the person committed under the influence of what Buddhist called the kleshas, tendencies within a person that are reinforced by their actions and their thoughts. The kleshas are our stuff, our hang-ups. One Buddhist teacher calls them the “adventitious contaminants of the mind.” This teacher told me that if I had to be angry at anything, to be angry at their kleshas, not the person. The person who has little training in recognizing their own mental states is essentially being controlled by their kleshas.

I found that a hard pill to swallow. But after I got the pill down, it eased the fire of resentment and anger.

I was then taught to see that this particular person was not harming me with their actions and thoughts  but they were harming themselves. I was taught to feel compassion for their suffering, the suffering they were causing themselves by acting under the control of their kleshas.

Loving Kindness Meditation Must Be Infused By Wisdom

Loving kindness meditation must be guided by wisdom. The goal of loving-kindness meditation, the goal of the four immeasurables practice, is to benefit ourselves and others. But we start with benefiting ourselves, then as a result of the many benefits we receive, others invariably benefit. This is the goal of Mahayana Buddhism, and to realize this goal we are given many practices.

As we progress in our practice of loving kindness meditation with challenging people, we begin lose little by little the fear and anxiety which is locked up by resentment and ill-will. As those shedding happens we become more skillful at problem solving. As we  see through our own kleshas, our own inner obstacles,we can see through the kleshas of others with greater ease and skill. Loving kindness meditation then becomes a win-win situation for you and others.

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “ymd13: Loving kindness meditation with challenging people”

  1. In regards to the following excerpt:

    “…These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.”

    is it not more mindful to say:

    “Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. [These feelings, though they fail to take into account the danger, or risk, endured by the victims, arise when the victim begins to identify themselves with the plight or struggle of their captor which has prompted the initial kidnapping.”

    Certainly, even kidnappers are human beings, who only kidnap because they perceive it as their only option left? To that end, it is so difficult to image that it is common for one human being to feel empathy toward another, regardless of their circumstance? How many times have your parents put your consciousness at risk by screaming profanity at you – yet do you fail to empathize with them?

    • Hi Tyler. First, I am so sorry I missed this comment! Please forgive. And yes, I do agree with you and feel I was a little hasty there. Point very well taken. It takes a lot of heart to see things as you so kindly point out. Contrary to what cardiologists may say, the heart is an infinitely expandable organ! Thanks so much Tyler.

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