Saturday, August 21, 2010

Challenging People

Lately I’ve been having dreams of flight. Not actual flying, but hurry-up-get-up-go-don’t-tell-anyone flight. It’s been the theme all week, and I have to wonder what it means.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what you might politely call “challenging people”. We have other words for these kinds of people, most of them probably not repeatable. They are some combination of stubborn, ignorant, angry, violent, obnoxious, and/or “entitled”. Not every challenging person has all of these characteristics—we can be challenged by very smart people. Ignorant people aren’t necessarily angry or violent. Sometimes such a person is merely passive-aggressive.

If you think about it, the real “challenge” is a reflection of your own challenges. Carl Jung has spoken about the basic phenomenon of “projection”. What we despise in others is often what we despise about ourselves, or what we are afraid might be an apparent characteristic of ourselves. (I say “apparent” because all of us have a “shadow” side that has all the qualities we don’t think we have). It’s waking up, not liking what we see in the mirror, and assuming the mirror is flawed. Which is sometimes the case—but often there’s at least a grain of truth to the mirror image.
For example—intellectual pursuits and learning are high on my to-do list, so I tend to value thinking and intellect very highly. I find myself deeply disturbed by people who accept things at face value, without checking facts. Now, we can’t check into everything we hear about—we don’t have time—but we can at least take stories with a grain of salt. Even more disturbing to me is when someone tries to make me feel stupid or ignorant. And I realize that it’s because I don’t know everything (who possibly could?), and perhaps after all of the degrees I’ve taken, I know even less than I think. I have a great dislike of “stupid” because I fear being stupid myself. Sometimes stupid is a relative phenomenon—the apparently stupid person may turn out to be the smart one. Probably most of you can relate to that experience. There is a deeper issue that has to do with responding to the unknown and unfamiliar, but I won’t go there now.

Most human beings are neither “good” nor “evil”—we just are what we are, and we respond to events based on our own experience. However, when someone really stands out as problematic, we tend to see that person as bad through and through—someone to be avoided. And more than likely the best tactic IS to avoid them, but that’s not always possible.

There is a story from Amma’s ashram about a resident who was so obnoxious, volatile, and disrespectful that everyone at the ashram hated him. One day this person got fed up and decided he was moving out, much to the relief of the residents. However, Amma ran after him and begged him to stay, something she does not usually do. Why? Everyone in the ashram is a spiritual aspirant. Any of them can declare themselves peaceful, or still, or patient—but how do they know unless that’s tested? “Challenging” people test the qualities that we believe we have. I also think of Aleister Crowley’s story about meditation—he was vexed at having to try to meditate in a London apartment, with all of the noise and distractions outside. But then it occurred to him that this was the ideal environment for meditation. One has to learn to tune out distractions.

No one really likes to be tested. Another friend of mine had told me about an Amma devotee who was always praying to be tested. Then one day, he realized how idiotic this was—just going through the world day to day and dealing with people can be enough of a test.

You might say, what’s the point? How can you enjoy life if you’re stressed out all the time from dealing with these “tests”? I am no exception to this frustration, though I can intellectualize the answer—it’s dispassion. I think I’m repeating myself here, but happiness in life doesn’t come from feeling what we characterize as “ecstatic”. It’s hard to get rid of the idea of “good” and “bad”, and also of “I” and “mine”. Sometimes you need to step back and get the perspective that life in and of itself is neither good nor bad—it just happens—and everything is temporal, so nothing is really “yours”. Real happiness is an internal state that is not dependent on external events of any kind. That’s the one we’re always searching for, but never find, because we’re looking in the wrong place.

Br. Dayamrita once said that you should look at life as though you were watching a movie. It might be more like a “choose your own adventure”, mainly because you’re not just watching the movie, you’re in it. The movie analogy is apt, because most of the time we’re just acting— we’re given a “scene”, and we improvise. Any number of factors can determine how we respond, though it largely centers around how we’re seeing ourselves. If we feel insecure, we can be defensive. If we’re relaxed and feeling “at home”, then we will be grounded in our responses to others.

So, what does one do when they’re faced with challenging people who actually cause harm to your environment? The influential politician who fights to suppress the rights of others in the name of protecting “values”, the administrator on a power trip who makes decisions “just because I can”, the clergyman who uses fear to take advantage of members of a congregation? The answer depends on how that person challenges you. You can’t respond properly until you can see the difference between your own challenges and that person.

One last thought—a lot of people ask about my interest in Hinduism. It has a lot to do with the relevance of their mythology, and it’s very relevant here. In Hindu myth, there are 3 worlds—the Heavens, the Earth, and the Hells. These are not like the Western ideas of the same terms—they all exist here, and all within our souls. The Heavens are the abode of the devas (gods), and the Hells are the abode of the asuras (demons). If you read the stories in the Vedas, you realize that sometimes demons can do noble things, and gods can do scandalous things. They represent the combination of qualities in ourselves, and it’s much more complex than simply “good” or “bad”. The goddess who creates these three worlds is called Lalita Tripurasundari. “Lalita” is “the goddess who plays”.

Well, enough philosophizing, it's back to watching late 1970s/early 1980s Halloween specials. And this seems like a good day for a shot of absinthe. Happy Mercury retrograde!

1 comment:

Lisa Sargese said...

This blog post was exactly what I needed today. It seems this summer has brought me some serious vexations. I thought I was a patient person who gets along with everyone. Then my father's illness made me feel insecure, angry, vulnerable and put upon. Suddenly all the vexatious people were flapping around me like bats. When we're calm, at home and centered in ourselves the bats don't bother us as much. Amma did a cool thing by bringing that vexatious bat back to the ashram!