The Sufferings of Human Relationships

I once had a disagreement with the monk who runs a local Buddhist monastery. I was concerned some of the people he had around were using him, taking advantage of his good nature. What bothered me the most was that he realized what was going on but was being complacent about it. During our conversation, out of my frustration I got a bit excited – but I thought for good reason – then I said, “I’m sorry. I’m passionate about things sometimes.” He replied, “That’s what we’re trying to cure.”

I wanted to say, “Yes, but passion can be good. What about a passion for peace? For justice?” But, I didn’t. He was uncomfortable having the conversation, so I dropped it. Later on, I understood that from his view of the cycle of birth and death, where he had lived countless lives in the past and would live countless lives in the future, some problems in this present life did not seem very important. Perhaps he also thought that being a doormat was a sacrifice he was making for the dharma. Maybe he felt that as long as it served his end, what did it matter? In that way, he was probably using them as much as they were using him.

While I understood his point of view, I was still disappointed he didn’t do anything. He comes from a culture where people naturally seek to avoid what they think might lead to confrontation. But, the feeling is not exclusive to that culture. Many people avoid talking about things directly for the same reason. Though, I suspect that it’s often just an way to avoid dealing with problems or difficult situations.

I like directness and I appreciate that quality in others. I like things to be clear, out in the open. I like to know where I stand and what others are thinking, even if it is unpleasant for me to hear. It’s preferable to being in the dark and not knowing.

So when I have to deal with a difficult person who evades discussion, I’m frustrated. I feel I am being stonewalled. Because I am also a somewhat emotional person, I dislike holding in my emotions. The challenge is not to vent my frustration in anger. A challenge I sometimes fail to meet.

This is not to say that anger is always a negative thing. Compassionate or righteous anger can be positive if directed in a reasonable way. However, I have learned from cold, hard experience that, just as we should master our mind, we need to also master our emotions. It’s basically the same thing. When we express our frustration, we need to be able to do so skillfully. The term we often use in Buddhism is upaya or “skillfulness.” Here it means coming from a place of wisdom and compassion and with cool-headedness.

Another teacher of mine once told me that if you want to reach a person’s heart, first you must know what’s already there. I hadn’t bothered to try to see the situation from the monk’s point of view. I was just looking at what was right and wrong.

We may not be able change others, but we can always change ourselves. The first step is to rethink what is in our heart. For that, we have to dispel our conceptions and judgments, often our biggest obstacles in communicating with others.

Even after we rethink and still feel we were right, so what? The important thing is how we use that right. We may think we have truth on our side; however, truth is neither negative nor positive, it’s merely a fact. The use of truth is where skillfulness comes into play.

There’s the analogy of the butterfly collector, who sees a beautiful butterfly and pins it to the board. There’s no escape for the poor creature. We can do that with people. We can so right, so justified in our point of view, that our attitude pins them to the board where there is no flexibility. When people feel this is happening to them, it is only natural that they shutdown and stonewall us.

It’s very easy to pin others, to perceive their faults. To some people the whole idea of finding out who is to blame has its own purpose. It’s part of trying to avoid the unsavory act of taking responsibility. But it’s a waste of time. You just end up with some sense of righteous indignation, which does not create any value or lead to any real solutions. To recognize “self” and realize how our ego is trying to protect itself at all costs, admitting that we were wrong or that we did something stupid, helps to defeat that nature, that egoism within. To do that is actually a great accomplishment.

Most of all, it is empowering. Realizing that we are the cause of our problems means that we are also the solution. We have both within.

The empowering aspect of responsibility is what gives us the means to prevent whatever we are going through from becoming a long, painful austerity. The difficulties we experience from our interaction with others can be overcome. Frustration may persist, but it becomes the joy of concern and not the suffering of human relationships.

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