Ending Our War With Others

There's an old saying that if we want to understand why its so difficult to change other people, we need only pause and reflect on how difficult it is to change our own habits and tendencies. Easier said than done: the mind tends to note cause and effect effortlessly when it applies to other people—why can't Sue stop hooking up with Sam? he's such bad news! etc—but we're slow to acknowledge karma—which actions lead to good or bad long term results—when it applies to our own thoughts and behaviors. So we wind up stuck in routines, confused and frustrated by friends and loved ones who dial pain or ignore our requests.

Learning to acknowledge and let go of our irritation with annoying behaviors of friends, work colleagues, family members, roommates et al is an essential part of our spiritual practice. Irritability and judgment turns us into the proverbial tree that cannot bend with the wind; we no longer let life—with all its inevitable first arrows of suffering, such as frustration and being stuck with difficult people—move through us with ease. As the Buddha taught in the wonderful Sabbasava Sutta, there is no happiness without developing tolerance. And the second arrow of suffering, all the discomfort we experience that's not inevitable, often arises in the form of disapproval.

A fun example is how we all walk at various paces—fast when we're late or busy, slow when we're peaceful and absorbed—yet those who walk slowly, directly in front of us when we're running late (how dare they) or push past us when we're content, are always perceived to be walking at the incorrect pace. Meanwhile, our pace is invariably the right one, even though it changes from one day to the next.  In short, whenever someone acts in a way that's different from how we prefer, there's a good chance impatience and frustration will result. The problem is generally less about their actions than our expectations, which can cling to as if they're inscribed in rock and we're moses descending from the mountain to reveal The Truth. 

And the stress continues to mount the more we focus on others, rather than observing the tension that builds via our tensed muscles. Whenever we insist that people must change, we declare war on life as it is. The preceding statement doesn't mean to deny that people can be abusive, or denigrating, or deeply intolerant; they may well indeed be acting quite poorly. But demanding change is almost invariably a waste of effort after the second or third request is made, and much obsession and agitation can result if we believe they're not changing to spite us (generally they're just programmed to behave that way from previous life experience, and it has nothing to do with who we are). It feeds the delusion that peace of mind is not possible unless someone reforms. We cause ourselves so much suffering when we hold our own happiness hostage by pinning it on others.  If we wait for people to behave differently to relax, we'll never find a state of ease. As we continue to affix our happiness to agendas and demands, we’ll never be satisfied. As the Buddha taught in the Ratthapala Sutta, the world and other people are not enough to satisfy our craving.

This doesn't mean we need to stick around and put up with those who are continuously unskillful; the teaching of Upekkha, or equanimity, is about developing the skill to note a lost cause when we see it, knowing when its time to detach and step away with love.

If we find that certain topics are unsafe to discuss with a loved one, we draw a boundary and stick to it. Again, pleading or demanding do not lead us in spiritual directions.

Complicating this practice is the emotional mind, which tends to hope that all our security and attachment needs will be met by specific, single individuals or very small groups; we tend to believe its the duty of our children or parents, girlfriends or boyfriends or best friends to provide all our emotional needs. ("She's my mother! She should support me no matter what.") Of course life doesn't work out this way; no matter how emotionally tolerant others may be, there'll be some emotions of ours they wont be able to handle, and they'll become triggered and unpleasant. Does this mean we've chosen our friends poorly? Hardly. It means we need to continue widening our support network. 

Accepting that others will probably not change in the ways we want, that the way they're acted previously is a good indication of how they'll continue to operate is not defeatism or resignation; it teaches us, again and again, to turn and face what we can control: our intentions, what we focus the mind on, where we turn for security and emotional mirroring. Letting go of demands, we can respond to life with imagination and renewed resilience.

When we’re no longer at war with the world, we can actually begin to find peace right here.