When we experience conflict with or ill will toward another person it’s obvious that there’s something about them that causes us pain or discomfort. But it’s less obvious that it’s the feelings that arise within us that are key; when we have hateful or critical thoughts we’re reacting not directly to another person, but to our own pain.
Our ill will toward another person is really an inability to deal with feelings within ourselves that we find uncomfortable.
The purpose of hatred is, ultimately, to drive away the supposed source of the problem: the other person. If we’re unpleasant to them, we assume, they’ll go away and leave us alone. But this doesn’t work when we’re bound to each other by social ties and we’re stuck with those to whom we have feelings of ill will. And ill will does nothing to deal with the real source of the problem — our inability to accept parts of ourselves that are in pain. Not only that, but it is itself painful. If we look at our experience when we’re full of hate, we’ll see that it’s a tight, conflicted, unpleasant state to be in. And acting based on ill will leads to conflicts that come back to bite us. Ill will is like a toxic medicine that only makes the disease worse.
Until we are able to deal skillfully with our own pain, we’ll continue to have aversion to it, and therefore to others. If, on the other hand, we learn to accept our own uncomfortable feelings, we’ll no longer need to have hatred.
When we’re cultivating compassion in meditation, there’s a stage where we call to mind someone we experience conflict with, or dislike, or feel critical of. I suggest that as you bring this person to mind, you check in with your body to see what kind of response you’re having toward them. Often you’ll find that there’s physical discomfort around the heart or in the solar plexus. This is the unpleasant feeling that we’re trying to push away. This is what we need to accept and respond to with compassion.
You can notice the discomfort, and accept that it’s OK to feel it. You can even tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this.”You can wish your discomfort well, and give it reassurance: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I love you and I want to be happy.”
As you do this, you may notice that you can bear your discomfort in mind without ill will arising. However, if critical or hateful thoughts arise, just turn your attention once more to your actual experience of the body and to the painful feelings that are arising there. Keep accepting that it’s OK to have those feelings. Keep offering them reassurance and compassion.
Once you’ve done this—and it may only take a few seconds—you’ll find that it’s easier to turn your attention in a compassionate way to the person you find difficult. And you may find that you can respond to them in a “cleaner” way. It may be that there’s something about their behavior that’s not working for you in the long term. Maybe you need to ask them to look at this and ask them to change. But now you can do so with less of an “edge,” and in a way that’s more empathetic and that takes into account both your feelings and theirs.