This is a conversation between a well-loved Tibetan meditation master (HH Khyentse, R.), who passed away ten+ years ago, and a student. You might find yourself in it like I did!
“How does one extend compassion to aggression in the environment?”
“Begin with the person nearest you.”
“How does one do that?”
“First, you do not respond with aggression even if you feel hurt and that the other person is at fault. That is simply adding fuel to a fire that is already very hot and painful. And beyond that, you express gratitude to the person who harmed you.”
“Why gratitude? I don’t understand that.”
“You are grateful to them for being your teacher, for showing you where you are still reactive and defensive. You are thankful to them for showing you the work you still need to do in order to become liberated.”
Note: This conversation is taken from a 2012 book by Frank Berliner titled: Falling In Love With A Buddha.
Here is a Commentary I wrote for those of us who wish to learn more about the density of our reactivity & defensiveness:
To me, this conversation is profound and wickedly on target. Who talks about this in the West? Nobody! To express gratitude to someone who has harmed you and has triggered your “reactivity and defensiveness” is so far ahead of our human evolutionary trajectory as to seem unreal, as if from another planet, or maybe seriously misguided. However, to me it clearly shows the next step for my own development, my own trajectory.
For example, my brother says to me, “You want people to come to you, you don’t want to go to them,” implying clearly a judgment that I am selfish and that something is wrong with me. I was stunned so I asked him how he knows this? His reply is that it is only “conjecture,” whatever that means. But truth be told I felt hurt but it did not immediately occur to me to feel or express gratitude to him. But my Nonviolent Communication (NVC) training did prompt me to ask myself later, “What’s going on with him that he would say that to me?” And I thought he was probably feeling some pain and wanted me to come up to Denver to visit him. NVC teaches that it is not necessary to get the answer right to this query. What’s important is the shift in direction and emphasis from my hurt, my pain, my reaction, my defense, my blame, over to shine the light of consciousness onto his feelings and needs. It is to become curious about his pain. In NVC we call this empathy.
It is a shift in me from dwelling on myself over to extending true compassion to another. And this in no way implies that I “should not” feel the hurt emotion. I can and “should” certainly honestly acknowledge what I am feeling. Yes, I am still “reactive” inside my bones, heart, cells, heart, tissues, etc. But I think what Khyentse R. is talking about is is to become mindful of my hurt, yes, but to not let this internal reaction leak out into a behavioral expression, a big reaction or defensive maneuver of speech aimed at winning. This is not a battle, but rather it is to contain my blood even if heated, and remember to also switch over to concern for the other person. Being peace is achieved in each moment by giving up struggle.
Now, is this “spirituality?” Well, if transforming the pain of perceived hurt and harm away from reaction and defense into compassion is not an earthy spirituality, then I don’t know what is. It is like Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says, “Feel your emotions directly and selflessly and let their power open you up.”
That’s what it means. Yes, feel your emotions and allow their power to open you up to the other person or the situation, open you up to seeing the bigger picture than just your own hurt, sadness, anger, whatever. This does not mean to diminish or judge or shame your negative or difficult feelings. But it does mean to not get stuck there. It means to use the event or occasion as an opportunity to transform your reaction and defense into compassion, becoming curious and seeing into the feelings and needs of the other.
Your reactive nature, such as it is, is now viewed as a launching pad for an earthy spirituality, for it takes a spirit element to uplift you out of self-centered, dense reactions. This spirit is needed to transform confusion into wisdom, and it feels like a blessing. It is the higher human nature, so to speak; it is a distilled essence we call “spirit” that is necessary to accomplish this movement from dense to light, from neurosis to enlightenment. That is, it feels light as opposed to heavy. And it all started with a difficult emotion (never call it negative) handled in such a way as to facilitate transformation. Wow!
This is a wonderful opportunity to access both the wound, the hidden pain that produces the reactive and defensive behavior we are carrying somewhere deep in our bones and cells, as well as the blessing that can open our heart to others, to compassion. When we can access both the wound and the blessing, that is where we can find liberation.