Mindfulness and other people has long been a topic of conversation. Even emperors offered thoughts on the topic:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We are born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
When we get right down to it, mindfulness is about trying to see the world as it really is, without the screen of our thoughts and emotions and prejudices and conditioned understandings. I am not sure how possible this is, but we can at least try to see and accept things as they are. Other people are one of the biggest challenges in this regard.
Mindfulness and Other People
If I had to boil down most of what I see people identify as the main problem in their life, it would be other people.
My husband doesn’t listen to me.
My wife only thinks about herself.
My boyfriend won’t grow up.
My girlfriend doesn’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around her.
My kids won’t do what I tell them to do.
My boss is unreasonable.
That cop was on a power trip.
My dad doesn’t know how to let things go.
My roommate doesn’t know how to do the dishes.
Other drivers suck.
Everyone who didn’t vote the way I voted is a moron.
The poor only want free stuff.
The rich are corrupt and use their wealth to keep other people down.
Our president is a moron.
Our last president was a moron.
Every president we’ve ever had was a moron.
That other country’s president is a moron.
Everyone except me is a moron.
It goes on and on.
There is a reason Zen masters retreat to the mountains and Sadhus retreat to caves and monks retreat to monasteries where no one is allowed to talk. It seems like you can’t find enlightenment with other people around.
Of all the things we have to learn to be at peace with in life, other people pose the most serious difficulty.
They don’t listen, they complain, they get in the way of what we are working on. They are selfish and stupid and arrogant and just have to live their lives near us living ours.
There is a good chance the sorry bastards would even have the nerve to say these exact same things about us.
While most of this essay will be about trying to find ways to work with other people, let’s get one thing out of the way at the very beginning: not everyone has the same degree of self-awareness and insight and mindfulness in how they go about their lives. This is an inescapable fact. The idea that everyone approaches life with the same amount of skillfulness and knowledge is nonsense. Some people are healthier than others, some people have a better sense of things than everyone else.
There is no way around the fact that many people out there don’t really pay attention to the things they do, don’t take the time to be introspective and see where they might improve. There are many people who honestly do not care how their actions might affect others. Mindfulness in how we live is not somehting that everyone cares about.
This is all true.
The mistake we make is in thinking we are one of the high functioning elite. Especially if we think we are in this rarefied class in every situation. This kind of thinking points toward a sort of narcissism or solipsism. No one is always right.
It might be useful to ask ourselves if we are really as mindful and considerate and enlightened as we think we are. Even if I am one of the more self-aware and honest people in the world (which I’m not), I will still fail to be consistent 100% of the time. I will still make mistakes and behave poorly. Often on a daily basis.
I am lucky when I can go a few minutes without doing something foolish or unskillful.
I, of course, have a reason for this, and it’s never me. My reasons for being a turd are good and valid.
Mindfulness and Motives
We all like to think that we have a reason for doing what we do. Our decisions (for the most part), make sense to us. We can trace our way back to the precipitating cause and follow a chain of events from there to where we are. It all follows a logic.
The thing is, this is true for other people as well. People are not selfish and difficult without cause, and in their mind, they are not being selfish and difficult. They are standing up for themselves or drawing boundaries or simply doing what they do. It makes sense to them. A central aspect of living with mindfulness is recognizing the differnece between the situations we find ourselevs in and our stories about those situations.
And this is the crux of the problem we are dealing with here: everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. What they do makes sense to them. Nobody thinks they are really the villain.
Lex Luthor thinks he is saving the planet from an overpowered alien.
Magneto is fighting for an oppressed minority.
Agent Smith is fighting to bring balance and order to the Matrix.
Every good villain thinks they are the hero.
This is what makes them believable. We inherently mistrust a villain who is evil for the sake of evil, but we jump to the conclusion that the people around us are being jerks just to be jerks and ruin our life. It doesn’t even make sense.
They are living their lives, same as us. They may be selfish and stupid and self-absorbed and all those things we like to tell ourselves we are not, but they are, for the most part, oblivious rather than malicious. Sure, there are malicious people in the world, but they rarely see their malice as malice – they believe it to be justified.
Just. Like. Us.
When someone is malicious, they are malicious because they are suffering, this is how life works. I do not know that I ever see a situation where malice is present where suffering is not. They go hand in hand. This changes the nature of our relationship to others and their behavior. It takes it from the realm of resistance and opposition to that of compassion. Not without boundaries, but compassion for their suffering.
There is tremendous power in trying to understand just why someone behaves the way they do. It takes us out of the me-versus-them mindset that causes us so much suffering (which we then vent on others in unhealthy ways).
Babies scream and cry and lash out when they are in pain, many adults never find a more constructive way to meet their needs. Complainers often feel like they have no control and seek to alter things through complaining. People who create drama may feel insecure so they cause trouble between you and other people so that the two of you can team up. Laziness is often depression related, but it can also be an expression of powerlessness or something they saw modeled growing up. Cruel and manipulative people are seeking to get their needs met in very unhealthy and unskillful ways. Those who tend toward self-absorption and a lack of insight were often not raised to have these things and, due to the very nature of self-absorption and no insight, probably don’t even know they are self-absorbed and lacking insight.
The Illusion of Control
When it comes down to it, we are talking about control. We want to control other people, we need them to do what we want them to do. I often ask people to make a list of the things they always have control over in life. They tend to list the same things.
You’ll notice, even though none of the things on this list are under our control, other people do not appear on it. Even when we are listing things we think we can control (and getting it wrong) we don’t even consider putting other people on the list.
Yet we let so much of our happiness rest on controlling them.
We constantly outsource our emotional wellbeing to this thing we know we cannot control. We put our peace and contentment in the hands of something that is completely out of our control, and then wonder why we are anxious.
There are so many ways that we give others control.
We take offense to what others say, think, or believe.
We believe this offense means something.
We wish others would do something different.
We seek to manipulate or coerce others into doing what we want.
We think our unhappiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think our happiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think anything going on inside of us actually has something to do with them.
The fun part is that they are probably thinking the same things about us.
We are stuck in this web of interactions where everyone is blaming everyone else for how they feel, and then wondering why nothing is getting better.
This isn’t helpful.
There’s an easy exercise to expose and deal with this:
Today, whenever something related to another person makes you unhappy, ask yourself what it might be like if you took responsibility for your own emotional state.
There is the other person and their actions, and then there is your reaction.
You only have control over one of these things.
It isn’t them.
So many of our problems and difficulties stem, not from other people, but from our desire to control them.
To make them do what we want.
To force them into our agendas and plans.
So how we can we deal with others mindfully?
The same way we deal with anything mindfully: by being aware of the difference between the situation, and our judgment or assessment of the situation.
You want to see a certain movie, they want to see a different one.
Is it really a matter of them being unreasonable and selfish, or simply wanting to see a different movie? Is this really a thing, or just someone wanting something different from you? Is it all that important that you get to see your movie? Strip away words like fair – these are just concepts. They muddy situations like this.
This is a really good opportunity to explore the emotions and thoughts you have related to the situation rather than judging their behavior.
Are you tying this to previous behavior you have seen from them, so it is about more than this one movie (They are always selfish!)?
Is this really about feeling like you never get your way?
Are you just unable to accept not getting your way?
Do you experience anxiety when you aren’t in control?
What does anxiety drive you to do?
None of these things are necessarily good or bad. Neither is seeing one movie or another, they are just movies. A few hours out of your life. You will waste 10 times that many hours playing on your phone in the coming week.
Someone wanting to see what they want to see is neutral, and no different than you wanting to see what you want to see.
There is no morality or ethics here, it’s just two people wanting what they want.
So, take a moment, address what is happening inside of you, and accept that it is neutral. Accept that your partner wanting what they want is neutral.
Let yourself sit with these thoughts and feelings, without judgment, without reaction. Observe them, allowing them to be exactly as they are.
But what do we do about the truly toxic people in our world?
We’ve talked about the suffering people and all the words that go along with them.
And it goes on and on and on.
What do you do about people like this when they continually bring true harm into your life and the lives of those you love? Is this blog post advocating just accepting abuse and mistreatment?
There are times we have to address peoples’ behavior, we just have to do this without anger, and with compassion and an awareness of the limits of our control in the situation. These things will prevent it from creating suffering for us.
So how do we do this?
Confront them, kindly and with compassion. Without hurt or anger. Tell them how their behavior affects you. If this is a person who cares and deserves to be in your life, this should at least be able to be a conversation. If it cannot, you have to decide if they are someone that gets to keep a spot in your life. If they are, accept these things about them and move on. If they are a part of your work environment, then it may be time to look for a new job.
Draw boundaries. Not everyone has access to all parts of our life. This doesn’t change because they are family.
No matter what, keep a focus on the fact that you are choosing to have these people in your life. Not as a way of blaming yourself or assigning responsibility, but because there is a great deal of power in acknowledging our ability to choose.
A lot of this depends on who they are and what role they play in our life.
If they are an acquaintance or casual friend, you can simply choose if you want them around or not. No matter what anyone says, we are allowed to break up with our friends.
If the person carries a little more weight in your life (a spouse or family member) or you don’t have a lot of choice about them being there (a boss or co-worker), things are a little more complicated.
We have to choose our reaction to their behavior and decide how much is too much – when does their negative behavior outweigh the level of requirement they have in our lives? When they exceed this, we may need to step away.
No one gets a free pass to stay in our life. Who we spend our time with determines who we are. Who we are is all we have.
When it all comes down, I really like people.
People are cool, people do cool things.
I think the cool things outweigh the uncool things by a very wide margin.
I also really trust people.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, for every person who has done something shady to me, thousands and thousands have not. I constantly give people the opportunity to screw me over, and they don’t.
People tend to show up when they are supposed to show up and do the things they are supposed to do to fit into society and be a decent human. We all know people who don’t do these things, but we tend to remember them because they are the exception. We forget just how many people we see every day who take care of their shit.
People are generally trustworthy.
I also think you can trust toxic people more than you can trust anyone else.
They are very consistent in their behavior and their actions are predictable.
If you know someone always thinks the other person is wrong in a disagreement, you can trust them to do the same with you when you disagree.
If you know someone starts trouble to make themselves feel better, you can trust them to do just that if you tell them about an issue you are having with someone else.
If you know someone is lazy, you trust them to be lazy.
If you know someone has no insight, you can trust they will behave as they have always behaved.
It is absurd to have this hope that someone is suddenly going to change and then get mad when they don’t. Adjust your expectations to fit what you know of them, and make your decision based on that rather than some hopeful nonsense.
If you know you can trust someone to respond selfishly, don’t share something personal with them and expect yourself to be happy or satisfied with the results.
If you know you can trust someone to blame others when things go wrong, don’t work with them on something unless you are ready to shoulder the blame.
Complainers will complain.
Blamers will blame.
Manipulators will manipulate.
Why are we surprised by this?
So, yes, you can trust people. You can trust them to act according to the nature they have cultivated. Work from this understanding and you will rarely get betrayed or be harmed. Don’t get mad at them, remember that they are doing the best they can with what they have. Cultivate compassion in response. Love them and be kind. But have boundaries.
Besides, remember that their selfishness and difficulty harms them more than it does anyone else. They pay the price for their behavior, it is not our job to bring consequences or play the role of karmic enforcer. Being treated poorly is an opportunity to offer compassion if we can step outside our own wants and desires and sheer annoyance for a second.
The most important thing in all of this is understanding that you are really in trouble if your emotional wellbeing is in the hands of someone else. I don’t care who the other person is. I don’t care how much they love you, how much you love them or how good their intentions toward you may be. You cannot outsource the regulation of your internal state without creating anxiety because people will let you down whether they man to or not.
In seeing things as they are, simply accept that you are going to encounter all sorts of difficult people today, and every day for the rest of your life. There is no escaping this. Some will be strangers, some will be family, some will be the people closest to you. Try to stay in your own business and offer compassion instead of judgment. Don’t let someone else’s selfishness or unhappiness push you into your own selfishness or unhappiness. They are the way they are for a reason.
Same as you, same as me.
Even as an Athiest, I can appreciate Jesus on the cross saying “forgive them for they know not what they do.” We are so quick to blame and make other people the scapegoat for our problems when all this does is create more suffering. But they don’t see this – so how can we be upset with them if they don’t see the pain they are causing themselves? Another great post James! You have a wonderful way of making this all so clear!
Thanks Meredith! I see people get caught up on whether or not someone “deserves” forgiveness or if they’ve earned it by apologizing, but forgiveness isn’t for the other person at all! It’s easier for me to forgive (which helps me) if I remember that “they know not what they do”. Thank you for taking the time to read such a long post!