Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fools, Metta, and Skillful Means

Found an interesting post over at the Insight Meditation Community website about relationship dynamics, anxiety, and other issues. What particularly piqued my interest was the following comments by Paul Waters, who was responding to the original post:

Now I'm at a stage, where I don't have any problem interacting with people (i.e. no shyness or fear or meeting new people) but I do find myself having negative feelings (ranging from boredom to contempt) for people in my extended social circle. This is mostly towards some of my wife's friends and family members. These people are harmless enough but don't have much in common with me and I tend to judge them as "unskillful" in their conversation and actions.

I don't enjoy spending time with these people but am obliged to every now and again. I realize that it's not very skillful of me to judge these people but it's generating a lot of anxiety for me.

I feel like there's two directions I can go with this:

1) I think the Buddha said something about not associating with foolish people. This seems like the easy way out for me though and I'm not sure if it really applies here as these people aren't exactly war criminals, they're just muddling through life like the rest of us. Also, this judgment call ("Fools!") tends to feed my Dukkha and throws me off my practice a little.

2) Apply Metta. I first got interested in the Dharma while trying to resolve some of these issues and in one particular case applied the idea of seeing my "enemy" when the were a defenseless child and imagining their fears and hopes throughout their life. I saw that in Stephen Batchelor's book "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and it caused a breakthrough in my relationships with my "enemies" (who were actually members of my extended family).

Now that I've written this I think I've answered my own question - #2 above: I need to start seeing these people as they actually are and not characters (the "bad guys!") in my personal movie. I also need to relax a little bit about how I perceive my time being "wasted" on these people.

I have to say I have similar reactions to Paul when interacting (or avoiding interacting) with some people. In fact, just sitting here in this coffee shop this evening, I attempted to avoid a pair of conversations with aquaintances who I just ddidn't feel like engaging. I had some work to do, but mostly I just felt like not engaging.

Other situations, like certain folks at work for example, are different. There are underlying issues, patterns of behavior and decision making on both my part and theirs that have led us to struggle to interact in healthy ways. I think Paul is dead on when it comes suggesting that applying metta is a skillful means of working with tangled relationships. I've seen how, in very surprising and curious ways, that doing lovingkindness meditations and including those I'm having great conflict with has broken down barriers that previously were there. The internal hangups ceased, or lessened, even if the relationship itself never went anywhere else. Gripes over old co-workers disappeared. Grievances about past girlfriends faded away. Old family issues dissolved. So it makes a lot of sense to approach difficult relationships with metta.

But I have to say, I also believe there are times when the Dammapada commentary about not associating with fools is the absolute right path to take, even if someone's feelings are temporarily hurt in the process.

Verse 61 from the Dhammapada

If a wayfarer fails to find
one better or equal,
steadfast he should fare alone
for a fool offers no fellowship.

Of course, like most everything along the Buddha path, it's not so black and white as just cutting out "fools."

Check out Verse 63

Conceiving so his foolishness
the fool is thereby wise,
while ‘fool’ is called that fool
conceited that he’s wise.

The reality is, no matter what, you are going to encounter and need to interact with people who are doing foolish destructive things sometimes. And maybe something, even just your presence, might be of benefit if you are able to maintain some level of detachment when it comes to whatever is being done unskillfully.

But I sometimes notice that there's a certain bending over backwards mentality amongst spiritual types who sincerely want to support and embody a more peaceful, loving existance, but who also confuse being nice with basic respect for each other.

In the case of the two people who came up to me in the coffee shop, I made the effort to drop off the irritation, engage in a short conversation, and then made it clear I had work to do. Maybe this was easy enough because they didn't reach the level of "enemy" in my mind, as Paul spoke of above. I didn't get into the storyline that they were interrupting me and I wanted them to go away, which surely could have happened if I hadn't caught the irritation in time.

Certainly being Buddhist, or being a compassionate person in the world, doesn't mean that we hand over our entire lives to whomever stumbles into our path. Just because some friend of a friend or family member is rattling on and on about celebrity gossip, doesn't mean you are obliged to engage that person. Just because you work together doesn't mean you are obliged to listen to every opinion that person has, or soothe every "negative" feeling that arises as a result of workplace conflicts.

I think this is one of the reasons why having some sort of sangha is of great benefit. You can choose to spend time and energy with people who are doing their best to remain upright and deeply examime their lives. It's an excellent counterbalance to the times when you just have to deal with sloppy, unskillful behavior, including your own.

But beyond sangha, I think one of the best ways to respect people is to let them take care of their own thoughts and reactions. Maybe someone feels a little hurt that you don't want to spend time with them. Or maybe they could care less. Maybe someone is terribly unskillful in their speech, for example, and you can see that nothing you say will help shift that, so you remain silent or walk away. Or maybe you say what you need to say, and then let it go. The way I see it, the way of the bodhisattva includes knowing when to intervene (not so often) and when to just be.


Celestial Horizon said...

Well said! Even in Buddha's lifetime, he could have intervened to correct the views of many people, but he did not do that all the time. My personal opinion is that not everyone is as ready as we are in trying to be skillful, and we just have to respect that fact as well.

spldbch said...

I think it's worthwhile that you notice your "judging" and that you don't judge yourself for it. That's a good first step anyway...

Algernon said...

"You can choose to spend time and energy with people who are doing their best to remain upright and deeply examine their lives... One of the best ways to respect people is to let them take care of their own thoughts and reactions."

These are very mature points you made. Deep bow.