How open are we to the good qualities of others?
Twenty years ago today, I was in the middle of a four-month retreat in the mountains inland from Alicante, in Spain. This was the retreat in which I, along with 25 other men, became members of the Triratna Buddhist Order.
It was an amazing experience to be on retreat for so long, and to be studying and practicing the Dharma so intensely. We were living in a valley in simple huts, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and rugged rock formations that jutted above the gorse-covered earth. We ate outdoors, and meditated in a simple hall which was filled with incense and the singing of nightingales.
At this point in the retreat, one person was being ordained each night. The ordinations took place in a small building some distance from the meditation hall, and we gave a special send-off each evening to the person being ordained. Part of the send-off included a “rejoicing in merits” carried out by Suvajra, our retreat leader. Suvajra would give a beautiful account of the fine qualities of the man who was being ordained. Suvajra had this amazing ability to recognize the good in people, and so these rejoicings would often go on for some time.
Now of the 25 other men being ordained, most I loved dearly, but there were a couple who irritated me for one reason or another. I tended to find fault with their behavior, and didn’t enjoy being around them. And when the time came for their ordination, I found myself wondering, “What on earth is Suvajra going to say tonight? How can he possibly find anything of merit in this guy?”
But you know what? Not only did Suvajra find plenty to say about the people I disliked, when he rejoiced in their merits I found myself thinking, “You know, that’s true. And so’s that. And that.”
There was often an odd sense that I’d both noticed and not noticed the qualities he was describing. The qualities he was rejoicing in weren’t hidden or in any way hard to find, but I’d not allowed myself to resonate with them. I hadn’t allowed the good in.
Later, one of the other men on the retreat commented on Suvajra’s ability to see the good in others, and his own difficulty in doing so with certain individuals, and he said he’d wondered what was stopping him from seeing the good. He said he’d realized it was himself. As soon as he said this I realized that this was the case for me as well. I’d erected filters that stopped me from acknowledging others’ good qualities. Having decided that I didn’t like someone, I wasn’t willing to see anything in them that I did like. There’s a certain sense of security that comes from having people we dislike.
Sometimes when we filter out others’ good qualities we just don’t register them. They don’t fit our preconceived pattern of what that person’s like, and so those perceptions just don’t register. In more extreme cases we’ll take good qualities and imagine them to be signs of something darker: someone’s generosity is seen as them trying to curry favor, for example. We come to believe we have special insight into this person’s thoughts and opinions. So we may need to ask this person a favor, but we don’t because we “know” that they’re going to say no. Or we assume that they don’t like us and are thinking critical thoughts about us.
So how can we become more open to the good qualities of others — especially those we have difficulty with?
- Start with the assumption that this person has positive character traits that you’re just not seeing, rather than assuming that they have no redeeming qualities. If you assume that there’s a filter you’ve erected that’s stopping you seeing what’s there, you create a gap in your filters through which reality can begin to penetrate. Unless another person is a complete sociopath, they will have some kindness, some patience, some honesty, some positive ambition.
- And stop bad-mouthing the other person. The first thing to do, if you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. You won’t see the positive if you’re constantly seeking the negative.
- Ditto for thoughts. Now you can’t just switch off your critical thinking, but whenever you realize that you’re indulging in an inner rant, just let go of those thoughts, and then with the other person well.
- If you’re lucky, you’ll have an experience like mine, and hear a third party say something kind or complimentary about someone you have difficulty with. And if you do, don’t discount what’s said. Let it in.
- Sometimes you’ll not like someone but another person you do respect sees something positive in them. I noticed this last year. There’s someone I sometimes work with who I find a bit wearing because he talks a lot, and I find this exhausting and keep trying to avoid him. But there’s a third colleague who I really like and admire, and I found myself surprised by the fact that she liked hanging out with this guy. That created a sense of openness in me, which helped me to feel more tolerant.
- Remember that this person that we tend to judge is, at a very deep level, just like us. They want to be happy. They find happiness elusive. They don’t want to suffer. They suffer all too often. Recognizing this opens us to our own vulnerability, and this sense of tenderness helps us not to judge others.
- Based on that, recognize that others’ intentions are often good, even if the execution doesn’t agree with you. The person who talks too much is perhaps seeking a sense of connection, a sense of security, an escape from loneliness. Try to see past the behaviors you don’t like and allow yourself to resonate with those intentions to seek happiness.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.