Soften the hard places: opening our hearts to those we find difficult 

Reflections in advance of my May 5th online class with World Wide Insight, which you can join live (or watch later) here.

When others intentionally or unintentionally disappoint, disrespect, betray or harm us or our loved ones, we tend to stiffen, going into a defensive, frozen or fight mode. This hardening is not wrong, it can be important for our survival. And yet once we are safe, our nervous systems, our bodies, our minds and hearts, cannot flourish if we stay in this hard, rigid response to harm. It is possible to learn to soften around this hurt, to gently invite our hearts to open and release our resentment so that we can begin to heal our pain.

If I look deeply into my own experience with people I find difficult, part of my suffering  comes from knowing somewhere in my heart that we are connected. Some part of me wants to love them in spite of my anger or resentment, or at least knows that this is a possibility. So we have the pain of what the difficult person did and added to it, we have the pain of our reaction to it, the inner conflict. Perhaps we sense that ignorance is creating an illusion of our separateness. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” 

The fact that we are connected does not mean that we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to further hurt. We need to protect ourselves and others from harm. And we can do this while also learning to open our heart to find forgiveness. 

We cannot receive love if our heart is closed down. Turning toward our own pain with love and compassion is the first step. Then we can learn, bit by bit, to offer kindness and compassion to others, even to those who have caused us great harm. This frees us up to access the love and support that are always available, coming to us from many directions.

Here are some practices that can help:

  1. Soften first toward yourself. The moment you feel tension or hardening for the difficult person, be aware of it. Allow it in, be kind to yourself in this moment of difficulty.  Stay focused on the emotional experience of your own pain, bringing compassion to yourself rather than focusing on the other person and all that is wrong with them. 

  2. Meditate on the suffering of the difficult person. What “secret history” of sorrow might be there in that person’s life that could help us “disarm our hostility”? If we put ourselves in their shoes how can we be sure that we would act differently? 

  3. Spread good rumors. Look for any good qualities you can find in the other person. Make a point to share these positive observations with at least 2 or 3 other people. (It is not necessary to tell the difficult person directly, though in some situations it can be skillful).