resentment

Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

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We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As a bit of a quotation stickler, I feel compelled to point out that there’s no evidence she actually used those words. She did however express the core idea that feeling snubbed is something we do to ourselves.

Even if she never said the words in the quote, it’s certainly true that a lot of the time we make ourselves unhappy by making ourselves feel inferior to others. And this usually involves taking things personally.

Taking things personally means that we see things as being about us when they’re really about the other person.

Reacting to Being Snubbed

One time when I worked in Community Education in Scotland I was heading to a training course with Kate, a colleague of mine. Neither of us drove, so we took the train, which involved a bit of walking at the other end. As it happened, we weren’t entirely sure where we were heading, and so Kate suggested that I ask a pedestrian who was walking on the other side of the road. I dashed across and started following him.

As I got closer I said “Excuse me.” The pedestrian ignored me and kept on walking. I said “Excuse me!” again, but this time louder. Again he ignored me. By this time I was starting to get mad. How rude, I thought,  to ignore someone in this way! How dare he ignore me? Who does this guy think he is!

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I actually had to catch up with the man before I could get him to pay attention to me. At which point I discovered he was completely deaf! It turned out that he was very friendly, and he gave us directions the building where the training course was being held. I felt very embarrassed at having taken another person’s disability personally.

I assumed that this man’s lack of response was an act of rudeness he was directing specifically at me. But it wasn’t about me at all. His not acknowledging my hails was simply because he couldn’t hear me.

Not Reacting to Being Snubbed

In a contrasting example, the other day as I left the building where I live, a woman was heading in the opposite direction. I said “Good morning” to her as I passed. All I got in response was a startled gaze.

Now I could have taken this personally. And in fact I could sense that part of me wanted to. But I very quickly realized that she probably didn’t reply because I hadn’t greeted her until I was right in front of her. Quite possibly she was distracted and didn’t hear me. Or maybe she was startled and didn’t have time to reply before I’d gone by. Perhaps she was trying to work out if she was supposed to know me.

This brings us to the practice of “don’t-know mind.” Don’t know mind is when we accept that we don’t know something. Being comfortable with not knowing, we don’t rush to create a story that will fill the void.

I simply don’t know what was going on with the woman who didn’t say hello to me. But there’s no reason for me to make up a story that her behavior was about me personally. Her behavior was to do with what was going on in her life. It wasn’t about me at all.

It’s About Them, Not You

Even if someone directs anger or criticism against you, you don’t have to take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or a bad week.  Perhaps they are having a bad life!  It may be that you’re just the person who happened to be near them when they had an outburst.

So just reminding yourself of the phrase, “It’s about them, not about me.” This can help you to take things less personally. You can say those words to yourself when you realize you’re freaking out and becoming reactive. The words “It’s not personal” can also help.

Victims of Our Own Thoughts

Often, when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, we run through a very rapid set of thoughts, something like this:

  • That person treated me rudely.
  • Therefore they don’t respect me.
  • Therefore they don’t think I’m worthy of respect.
  • Therefore they think I’m worthless.
  • Therefore I don’t matter to others.

And so you feel unhappy, because believing you don’t matter is unpleasant. This process of generating narratives that make us feel inferior is called the hindrance of doubt. It’s also traditionally referred to in Buddhism as “inferiority conceit.” Normally we think of conceit as involving a belief in our superiority, but in Buddhism any belief that we are superior, inferior, or even equal to another person is called conceit.

Displacing Reactive Thoughts With Compassion

When someone behaves toward us in a way that triggers thoughts of our inferiority, one antidote is to consider that they are suffering. This is a constant factor in all bad behavior. If the other person is suffering, and doesn’t have the self-compassion or mindfulness to deal with that, then they’ll tend to act out in ways that hurt others.

By considering that the other person is suffering we’re directing our attention away from our own self-preoccupation. There’s less mental processing power available for us to run through our usual self-punishing thinking — the chain of rapid-fire thoughts (like those I outlined above) that end with us feeling miserable.

I mentioned that when someone didn’t reply to my “Good morning,” I could sense my reactive thought-patterns waiting to be activated. But in this case they stayed dormant, and so I didn’t cause myself unnecessary suffering. The reason was that I had diverted my attention to what was going on with her; I considered the possibility that she was suffering, because I had startled or confused her. Because that’s the direction my thoughts went in, they weren’t able to go in the direction of taking things personally.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion, then, help us to stop taking things personally so that we can stop freaking out and instead be calmer and happier.

This post is adapted from materials in Wildmind’s online course, “How to Stop Freaking Out.” You can learn more about how to access our courses here.

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Breaking the cycle of resentment

Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

When we call to mind some resentment from the past, we often assume that it’s the other person who’s making us suffer. And perhaps they did hurt us at some point. But unless they’re still in our lives doing the same thing that hurt us before, right now it’s our own thought processes that are causing us pain.

There’s a 5th century text by a monk called Buddhaghosa, “The Path of Purification,” that discusses reflecting on this very thing as a way of getting rid of resentment. He suggests we ask ourselves why, if another person has hurt us, should we then hurt ourselves?

So when resentful thoughts come into the mind, we can be aware that we’re causing ourselves pain. Now our problem with a person we have a grievance about is that they caused us pain, and yet here we are doing the same thing to ourselves!

Reflecting this way is probably not going to stop the whole process of resentment straight away. But it lessens the stream of resentful thoughts enough that we can start to think straight again.

Implicit in the practice that Buddhaghosa is suggesting is that we become aware of the way that feelings and thoughts affect each other. When we have resentful thoughts, this triggers feelings of pain, hurt, anxiety, etc. And those feelings in turn trigger further resentful thoughts. So our resentment becomes cyclical, which is one reason it becomes such a problem for us.

The Buddha talked about this in terms of two arrows. He said that being hurt is like being shot by an arrow. That’s obviously painful, but the stream of thoughts that springs up in reaction to our pain hurts us even more. He said that it’s like being shot by yet another arrow. Actually, each thought is an arrow. And because we can have a thousand resentful thoughts in reaction to being hurt, we often fire many more arrows at ourselves than the other person ever did.

Buddhaghosa offers some other reflections as well. He points out that in your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness. So why, he says, should we not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable?

He also suggests that if another person has done something we disapprove of, then we should reflect on why we are doing something (like getting angry and resentful) that we would also disapprove of them doing? We should hold ourselves to the same standard we hold other people to. He’s suggesting that we practice integrity.

Buddhaghosa further points out that if someone wants to hurt you, why give them satisfaction by joining in? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself.

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

I find that a very useful and important practice is to notice where thoughts appear to come from, which you’ll probably find is up in your head, and where feelings arise, which is probably down in the body, mainly around the heart and the gut.

Once you’re aware of this separation, you can more easily see the dynamic that’s in operation between those two parts of our being. You can see how a thought affects how you feel — for example causing you to be afraid or feel hurt or despondent — and how those feelings can affect how you think — provoking you to have further resentful thoughts.

When we do this we can start to see the whole cycle in operation.

Now lovingkindness practice is very important here, because we can find ourselves becoming aware of the cycle of resentment, and start criticizing ourselves. In practicing lovingkindness, however, we’re learning how to be more supportive, gentle, and understanding toward ourselves. So we can recognize that we’ve been caught up in a cycle of resentment. We can recognize the pain of knowing that we cause ourselves suffering. And we can offer ourselves kindness: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be free from suffering.”

None of these practices I’ve mentioned is a quick fix, but they help us to soften around our resentment, and this in turn helps us to let go and be at peace.

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A day without complaining

Man placing finger over lips.

In Buddhist practice, we cultivate something called “mudita.” Mudita is most commonly translated as “sympathetic joy,” which can sound a bit odd since nowadays we think of sympathy as being concern about someone’s suffering. Being sympathetic about happiness might seem peculiar.

But in earlier days the word sympathy meant more like the current use of our word “empathy.” And in fact, you’ll often see mudita translated these days as “empathetic joy,” meaning that we feel happy when others are happy.

But I don’t think that’s what empathy is really about. In a very early meditation text, called the Vimuttimagga (Path to Liberation), we’re asked to cultivate mudita in the following way: “When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: ‘Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!'”

Sadhu means something like “Hurray!” The crucial thing here is the link between having good qualities and — as a consequence — experiencing peace and joy.

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Mudita is the third of a series of practices that begin with metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion). Kindness is wanting others to be happy, and behaving accordingly. Compassion is wanting beings to be happy, but recognizing that they’re often afflicted with suffering. Because we want beings to be happy, we therefore want them to be free of suffering, and (again) act accordingly. The “acting accordingly” thing is important. Kindness and compassion are not things that we simply feel, but that we do. They’re actions. They’re ways of relating to and interacting with the world.

Mudita recognizes that if we value beings’ happiness, and if we therefore want beings to be happy, then we must want them to have the causes of happiness.

So what are the causes of happiness? Lots of money, a beautiful/handsome partner, and a nice job, obviously. Just joking! Psychologists have put a lot of effort into studying what factors lead to happiness, and material wealth is pretty far down the list. Far more important are things like being involved in loving and supportive relationships, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, doing things for other people, expressing gratitude, being mindful, forgiveness, and optimism. So, mudita is: valuing, appreciating, and encouraging what is positive in others, and leads them to experience peace and joy. Since mudita is appreciation, and since practicing it is joyful, I translate it as “joyful appreciation.”

Mudita is appreciation; complaining is its opposite. The Vimuttimagga says that the “non-fulfillment” of mudita is both “resentment” (internal complaining) and “derisive action” (complaining that we do out loud).

Today I’m suggesting that we become more mindful of complaining, in particular. If you focus on noticing the “out-loud” complaining you do, that’s a good start. It’ll help you to become more aware of the internal complaining—resentment.

It’s been interesting, over the last week or two, to pay more attention to my tendency to complain. I can be a bit snarky about things that frustrate me, like computer programs or mobile apps that often don’t function as advertised (I’m talking about you, Siri!). And we have a running joke in the office about the amount of noise made by the trash and recycling trucks that visit not just our building but several adjacent ones, too. But one thing I’ve realized is that I don’t complain as much as I assumed I did, which is good news!

Mostly this complaining is pretty good-humored, which actually makes it hard to know sometimes whether I’m complaining or not! Commenting that the recycling truck is particularly noisy today — is that a simple observation, or is it a complaint? I guess it depends on the tone of voice, motivation, etc. This may not be an easy practice!

In the past, trying not to complain would have been challenging in another way — I used to do so much of it! When I was younger, I complained all the time. I guess I thought it made me look smart. I remember when I was at university, my girlfriend’s best friend once gave me a ride back to their home town. Afterward she commented to my girlfriend that I kept up a constant stream of complaints about one thing or another for the entire 90 minute journey. When my girlfriend told me of this, I was mystified. Apparently, complaining was something I did so habitually that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it! That’s a completely different kind of difficulty from what I face today.

Over the years I’ve been practicing, I’ve worked on complaining less. This is the result of applying the Buddhist speech precepts—ethical guidelines that encourage us not to 1) be untruthful, 2) speak harshly, 3) indulge in trivial and distracting conversation (still working on that one!), or 4) sow disharmony. I’ve gotten better at training myself not to lie, not to exaggerate others’ faults, not to present a skewed and misleading picture when I’m talking about others, not to gossip maliciously, not to indulge in blame, and so forth. All of this was a big challenge when I was going through a divorce just a couple of years back! But it’s a good practice!

While appreciation makes us happier, complaining makes us unhappy. While appreciation makes us feel open and free, complaining makes us feel kind of bitter and tight inside. Look and see for yourself!

Of course, wanting to complain but restraining yourself feels unpleasant, like trying to hold in a fart at a dinner party. It’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a comfortable feeling! It can be a relief when you give up the effort and just let out your snarky comment. But that relief is temporary. Complaining really doesn’t makes us feel good. And the discomfort of holding in our complaints is temporary too. As we get used to complaining less, we’ll start to experience the benefits. And so will those around us!

So I suggest that you give this a go. See if you can become more aware of your complaining. The point is not to notice how often other people complain! (Strangely, this is often an early response to practicing ethics.) Nor is the point to give yourself a hard time when you catch yourself in the middle of a rant. When you do notice that you’ve been complaining, or are about to complain, just take a breath and let go. Maybe you’ll think of something skillful to say, maybe not. But each time you do this at least you’ll be taking a small but important step toward living with joy and appreciation.

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Mindfulness at work can reduce retaliation after unfair treatment

PRWEB: Practicing mindfulness at work can reduce retaliation by employees who feel treated unfairly.

Mindful employees are less angry, less likely to dwell on the mistreatment and less likely to retaliate, according to a new study by PhD student Erin Cooke Long and Professor Michael S. Christian of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School,

“When employees think they have an unfair boss or colleague or the organization is unfair, they might be tempted to seek retribution or act in ways to ‘even the score,’” said Cooke Long. “Mindfulness helps them short-circuits emotions and negative thoughts so that they can respond more constructively.”

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Their study is the first to test the role of mindfulness in the relationship between workplace injustice and retaliation.

“It demonstrates that a trainable mindset helps diffuse negative reactions by employees, said Christian. “We also show that both emotions and thoughts affect our behaviors when we believe we’ve been treated unfairly at work.”
Mindfulness – nonjudgmental attention and awareness of what is happening in present-moment experiences – has important workplace implications.

“It helps employees to overcome knee-jerk reactions to unfairness at work, said Cooke Long. “When treated unfairly, people tend to feel angry and dwell on the unfair treatment, which can trigger acts of retaliation or attempts to even the score. More mindful people are less likely to ‘take things personally’ and therefore less likely to retaliate.”

“Our work introduces mindfulness as a malleable psychological factor – one that managers and employers can cultivate in their employees to reduce unproductive reactions when they feel unjustly treated,” said Christian. “Delivering mindfulness training can help employees control their thoughts, emotions and, ultimately, behavior at work.”
Their findings are based on two studies: An intervention study using brief mindfulness training in the lab and with a diverse sample of employees who recounted experiences with unfairness at work. Their paper “Mindfulness Buffers Retaliatory Responses to Injustice: A Regulatory Approach” will be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and is available online.

Mindfulness matters at work in more ways than we think,” said Cooke Long. “It is not just a skill that promotes health – it also helps us behave positively and helps us avoid behaviors that are short-sighted and can damage relationships, reputations and career.”

Promoting mindfulness is a proactive option for organizations to reduce retaliation at work, said Christian. “Mindfulness training is not difficult for novices to learn and use.”

“Employers can enhance employee mindfulness through mindfulness education,” said Cooke Long, “by creating an organizational culture that recognizes the merits of mindfulness and by conducting large-scale interventions.”

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Is your marriage on the rocks? Mindfulness could be the key to saving your relationship

wildmind meditation newsSophie Donnelly, Express: It has been used to combat depression, stress and over-eating. Now a new book says this meditation technique could give your relationship a lift.

Politicians have practiced it in Parliament, the NHS employs it to treat stress and it is thought to be so good for mental health that it has been dubbed “bicep curls for the brain”.

However, now it appears practicing mindfulness techniques could have another benefit – it could help to save your relationship.

Mindfulness originated as a type of Buddhist meditation but in recent years has gained popularity as a way to combat stress. Being mindful …

Read the original article »

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Aversion: the far enemy of joyful appreciation (Day 59)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’m sure you can think of days when you’ve been driven crazy by someone else’s good mood. They’re happy, and smiling, and bopping around with a spring in their step, and you’re inwardly grumbling; “What’s he so happy about!” That’s what Buddhism calls arati.

Sometimes we’re resentful of others’ good fortune. I remember to my shame being with some friends when I was in my twenties, when they won the main prize in a raffle — a flight to Paris for the weekend, plus hotel accommodation. Susie, who was one of the people who won the prize, came dancing up to me with her eyes sparkling and a huge smile on her face. “I won a weekend in Paris!” she said, almost exploding with joy. I was so jealous and resentful I couldn’t even smile back. That’s also what Buddhism calls arati.

And there’s the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seems there’s always someone willing to criticize when you volunteer to do something that benefits others. That’s arati too.

Arati is what’s called the “far enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation. The “far enemy” is a term meaning “the quality that is the direct opposite of the quality being considered.”

I’ve been referring to from time to time to a first century meditation manual called the Path of Liberation (the Vimuttimagga) as we explore lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joyful appreciation (mudita) — the first three of the so-called “immeasurables” or “divine abodes” (the fourth being equanimity, which we haven’t reached yet).

The Path of Liberation, which may be Buddhism’s most ancient meditation manual, says that the manifestation of joyful appreciation is “destruction of dislike.” So dislike (arati) is the opposite of joyful appreciation.

A later commentarial text, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) says something similar, namely that aversion (arati) is joyful appreciation’s far enemy. Aversion is an enemy in that it destroys joyful appreciation. And therefore joyful appreciation destroys aversion.

Arati is a Pāli word with a gramatically negative construction: it combines the negative prefix a- (not, or un-, or dis-) with the word “rati” which means love, attachment, pleasure, liking for, fondness, or even delight. (The Pāli expression “ratiṃ karoti” means “to make love”!) So we’re talking about the lack of all those qualities.

The far enemy of joyful appreciation isn’t as strong an emotion as ill will or hatred, which is the far enemy of lovingkindness. Arati is milder. It’s more like discontent, or even just a lack of engagement. It’s an inability to take pleasure in something wholesome, a lack of interest in it, or a turning away from it.

This becomes clear in a comment that the Path of Purification makes about arati:

So gladness should be practiced free from fear of [aversion]; for it is not possible to practice gladness [joyful appreciation] and be discontented with remote abodes and things connected with the higher profitableness simultaneously.

What the Path of Purification is getting at here is that we can’t have joyful appreciation if we can’t enjoy simple things (“remote abodes”) and if we don’t value and appreciate the good (“things connected with the higher profitableness”).

But arati can be more subtle than this. It can be any kind of resistance or aversion to beneficial things. When you can’t be bothered meditating, even though you know it’s good for you and makes your life better, that’s arati.

When we’re in a state of arati beneficial things are perceived as dull, or as an annoyance, or as a source of painful boredom. The Path of Purification talks of an inability to enjoy “remote abodes”; our modern-day equivalent might be a day retreat at our local Dharma center, which seems like a great idea when you reserve your place in advance, but as the day approaches your heart sinks. Going on retreat now seems like a dull chore. And yet, if you overcome your resistance and go to the event, you find that a day hanging out with cool, interesting, emotionally positive people is a delight. You find that practicing and talking about the Dharma is engaging and inspiring.

One thing you can do to overcome aversion is simply experience the resistance with mindfulness, letting go of and choosing not to believe all the stories you generate about why you’re tired, and it’s going to be boring, and you really need to catch up on your laundry, and you just do the good thing you know is best for you; feel the aversion and do it anyway!

Arati is a state of suffering, so you can notice this suffering, being aware of where it’s located in the body, and send it thoughts of compassion: “May you be well, may you be happy.” This can help soften and dissolve the closed off tight feeling that comes with arati, and open us up to feeling genuine joy for the other person.

Or you can reconnect with gratitude and appreciation in order to counteract your disengagment. You can consciously call to mind the positive. I’ve talked of various ways we can do this. We can name the positive qualities of other people and wish that those qualities, and the happiness that comes from them, grow and develop. We can count our blessings, saying an inward “Thank you” for all the things we normally take for granted, ignore, or even grumble about. We can bear in mind people with positive qualities and allow ourselves to be inspired by their example. Even just wishing ourselves well, reminding ourselves that we want to be happy and want to avoid suffering can help.

This is all work that we need to do to overcome the mind’s negativity bias. But it’s noble work. And it’s necessary if we’re to live joyfully.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Dealing with resentment (Day 47)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler of and commentator on Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

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4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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In case of resentment, drop the “case”

Lately I’ve been thinking about a kind of “case” that’s been running in my mind about someone in my extended family. The case is a combination of feeling hurt and mistreated, critique of the other person, irritation with others who haven’t supported me, views about what should happen that hasn’t, and implicit taking-things-personally.

In other words, the usual mess.

It’s not that I have not been mistreated – actually, I have been – nor that my analysis of things is inaccurate (others agree that what I see does in fact exist). The problem is that my case is saturated with negative emotions like anger, biased toward my own viewpoint, and full of me-me-me. Every time I think of it I start getting worked up, adding to the bad effects of chronic stress. It creates awkwardness with others, since even though they support me, they’re naturally leery of getting sucked into my strong feelings or into my conflict with the other person. It makes me look bad, too cranked up about things in the past. And it primes me for overreactions when I see the person in question. Yes, I practice with this stuff arising in my mind and generally don’t act it out, but it’s still a burden.

I think my own experience of case-making – and its costs – are true in general. In couples in trouble, one or both people usually have a detailed Bill of Particulars against the other person. At larger scales, different social or political groups have scathing indictments of the other side.

How about you? Think of someone you feel wronged by: can you find case against that person in your mind? What’s it feel like to go into that case? What does it cost you? And others?

The key – often not easy – is to be open to your feelings (e.g., hurt, anger), to see the truth of things, and to take appropriate action . . . while not getting caught up in your case about it all.

How do we drop “the case”?

  • Bring to awareness a case about someone – probably related to a grievance, resentment, or conflict. It could be from your present or your past, resolved or still grinding. Explore this case, including: the version of events in it, other beliefs and opinions, emotions, body sensations, and wants; notice how you see the other person, and yourself; notice what you want from others (sometimes their seeming failings are a related case). For a moment or two, in your mind or out loud, get into the case: really make it! Then notice what that’s like, to get revved up into your case.
  • Mentally or on paper, list some of the costs to you and others of making this particular case. Next, list the payoffs to you; on other words, what do you get out of making this case? For example, making a case typically makes us feel in the right, is energizing, and helps cover over softer vulnerable emotions like hurt or disappointment. Then ask yourself: are the payoffs worth the costs?
  • With this understanding, see if you can stay with the difficult feelings involved in the situation (the basis for the case) without slipping into a reproachful or righteous case about them. To do this, it could help to start by resourcing yourself by bringing to mind the felt sense of being cared about by others, and by opening to self-compassion. And try to hold those difficult feelings in a big space of awareness.
  • Open to a wider, more impersonal, big picture view of the situation – so it’s less about you and more about lots of swirling causes coming together in unfortunate ways. See if any kind of deeper insight about the other person, yourself, or the situation altogether comes to you.
  • Listen to your heart: are there any skillful actions to take? Including naming the truth of things, disengaging from tunnels with no cheese, or the action of there-is-nothing-that-can-be-done.
  • Watch how a case starts forming in your mind, trying to get its hooks into you. Then see if you can interrupt the process. Literally set down the case, like plopping down a heavy suitcase when you finally get home after a long trip. What a relief!
  • Enjoy the good feelings, the spaciousness of mind, the openness of heart, the inner freedom, and other rewards of dropping your case.
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How to get rid of resentment

Ann Lamott, in her novel Crooked Little Heart, says that holding onto resentment is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler and commenter of Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

Read More
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