Saturday, July 25, 2009

Always Meditate on Whatever Provokes Resentment

Many years ago, in my aimless twenties, I spontaneously arrived at the conviction that any strong resentment or dislike we humans might feel towards another person is usually rooted in a projection of something we don't like about ourselves. I could occasionally see this type of unconscious projection taking place in myself and my own resentment-riddled relationships, but more often it was easier to observe it, impartially, in the behavior of other people. (Isn't that always the case?)

Later, when I began to study Buddhism and encountered the Tibetan Lojong (mind-training) teachings, I realized that this principle is encapsulated in the Lojong slogan, "Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment."

By meditating on whatever (or whoever) provokes feelings of resentment or irritation in us, we can not only begin to release our negative emotions and open our hearts to the other person, but we can develop profound insight into ourselves and our own "shadow" material. As Pema Chodron puts it, "Instead of the resentment being an obstacle, it's a reminder. Feeling irritated, restless, afraid, and hopeless is a reminder to listen more carefully. It's a reminder to stop talking; watch and listen." By doing so, we become more able to stay present and experience the raw, uncomfortable energy of what Chodron calls shenpa, that gut feeling of being hooked into our emotional reactions towards others, beyond all our storylines.

In Jungian psychology, that hidden or repressed part of ourselves that we project onto other people -- which underlies so much of our shenpa -- is called the "shadow." From Wikipedia:

The shadow or "shadow aspect" is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts.... "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is...."

According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to project: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized, "The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand...." These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Jung also believed that "in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness -- or perhaps because of this -- the shadow is the seat of creativity."

B. Alan Wallace writes that the Tibetan text of this particular slogan, like many of the other Lojong slogans, is intentionally vague and could be interpreted in several different ways. He translates it as "Always meditate on those who make you boil." Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche translates it as "Always meditate on whatever is unavoidable," and suggests that we meditate particularly on those people who give us problems or compete with us, those whom we simply don't like, and so on.

I once encountered a fellow Buddhist practitioner at a retreat who was so innately talented at provoking my shenpa, that by simply walking into the room he could stir up a whole conniption fit of moral judgment and disdain in my mind. His entire manner of presenting himself as a practitioner struck me as phony, pretentious, holier-than-thou, a case-study of spiritual materialism in action. Everything about his self-presentation irritated me: his very spiritual-sounding name (which, damningly, I knew wasn't his real name), the excessively mindful way he walked, the meticulous, softspoken way he talked, the way he bowed, even the very religious way he said his prayers over his food -- there was no room in my mind for this poor guy to do anything right. But because of the close nature of the retreat we were in, I could not avoid him, and my intense closed-mindedness and judgment towards him were constantly being put in front of my face. He not only provoked an inexplicable resentment in me, he made me boil without even trying, and he was unavoidable -- however you translate this slogan, he fit the bill.

One day, I had reached such a crescendo of aversion towards him in my own mind that I simply couldn't stand it anymore -- I decided to devote the morning meditation session to reflecting on my resentment towards him and seeing if I could transform it. In my reflection, I tried to experience the raw, naked energy of judgment and dislike, and to analyze what it was about and where it sprang from; I tried to see what kind of storyline was attached to it and what the underlying forces might be in me that could arouse such a solid storyline and such a strong, negative reaction to this person.

In meditation, I realized that my whole way of reacting to him sprang from my own fear, insecurity, and jealousy. On seeing his particular way of practicing the spiritual path, so different from my own, I felt insecure and uncertain that I was going about things in the right way; I feared it meant that I was less spiritual than he was. I was jealous of his seeming comfort and ease within his spiritual practice, when I so often felt awkward about my own, and I felt competitive. All of these feelings hearkened back to my earliest childhood experiences of religion, in the Southern Baptist Church, when I had tried so hard to be a good Christian but felt absolutely no sincere connection to Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and consequently felt hopelessly lost and in danger of eternal damnation. These were all things that I was unable and unwilling to see clearly in myself, in the moment, and so they became shadow material that was promptly transmuted into a thick, impenetrable wall of irritation, judgment and resentment towards this poor, sincere practitioner who was just trying to follow the spiritual path in the best way he knew how.

Once I saw these things about myself, through peering in meditation into the historical and psychological roots of my resentment, the fog of irritation and closed-mindedness began immediately to dissolve. The deep-seated habitual tendency towards judgment did not entirely disappear -- I could still feel it well up when he took too long to bow at the door of the shrine room, or spent longer than I thought any person should spend saying prayers before eating his food -- but now I was able to see through the emotionality of my reaction, to observe my own egomaniacal judgments with a sense of humor and spaciousness. I even began to enjoy this man's company and to look forward to conversations with him. With my own shadow material exposed to the light of awareness, my judgments about his way of practicing no longer served as fuel for irritation and resentment. I became grateful for the presence of this person who previously had driven me to distraction, and I even began to think of him with affection and kindness.

All genuine spiritual paths emphasize the importance of transforming our resentments in this way: the Christian path emphasizes forgiveness and tolerance; the 12-Step path emphasizes moral inventory and making amends; the Buddhist path emphasizes meditation and clear seeing into the nature of our own mind, and moving beyond our habitual patterns. Whatever path we are on, if we hope to continue growing in wisdom, if we hope to be more free from suffering, we must face our demons directly; we cannot afford to continue wallowing for another day in the pig-sty of our own resentments. By meditating on our resentments and transforming them in awareness, they can become, as Jung suggested, the very source of our creativity and wisdom.

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