The Buddhist Lens: Recognising that we can all be difficult people

By Jessica Warren

Spending my Friday evening listening to Ajahn Brahm couldn’t exactly be described as a wild night, however it was something I needed to do. I’d had a busy week, and I felt as though anything and everything was winding me up. I had reached peak stress level, not only in my workload, but in my personal and home life. Mid-sniffling over a box of chocolates and binging friends, I decided to turn to something more beneficial, and put on Ajahn Brahm’s ‘How to deal with difficult people’.

Buddhist thought is all about spreading love and kindness, a fact a friend of mine often reminds me. Yet, in my stress and frustration, all I had to say was negative things about those surrounding me. When listening to this hour-long video, there were a few things I picked up on.

We can learn a lot from difficult people, as they test the limits of our patience, which can only help us improve our tolerance. What was highlighted among the video was that although we may find people difficult in our lives, we can escape them. Whether that be for a minute, an hour, or even a week. We are not surrounded by them forever…this is where the compassion bit comes in. See, whilst we can escape them, difficult people are surrounded by themselves day and night. No doubt the aspects we find annoying; they are also not at peace with themselves. Compassion is something we should try and extend to everyone, even if they’re annoying us senseless because we’re all human, with a series of complex behaviours and thought patterns; none of us are flawless. When complaining about difficult people we fail to see our own downfall; many of us hold others to the same standard we hold ourselves. As a result, we become disappointed or angry when people don’t act the way we expect them to, whether that be in a work or social environment.

Yet if there is a need to call someone out on their behaviours, best done so in an empathetic way. Nobody likes to hear negative things about themselves, so the ‘criticism sandwich’ is the perfect way of getting around this. Suggested to me both by my father and by Ajahn Brahm, the idea involves delivering two pieces of positive feedback, acting as the metaphorical sandwich to the criticism filling. That way, the person we are delivering it to understands that the critique is coming from a kind place, and is not trying to condemn them as a person.

Another story shared by Ajahn Brahm was that of the donkey and the well. The donkey was walking along the path, not being mindful of his surroundings when he fell into a well. He called out for help, and the farmer found him. The farmer strongly disliked the donkey, as he used to eat all of his carrots, so the farmer saw this as an opportunity. He went to fetch a spade, and began shovelling dirt on top of the donkey, attempting to bury him alive. Instead of crying out, the donkey shook off the dirt, stomped it into the ground, and rose-up by a few centimetres. He continued to do this as the farmer shovelled dirt on top, and resultantly, he began to rise-up. Eventually, the donkey could jump out of the well, chased the farmer, and bit him (due to his bad karma). The message to take from the story about the donkey is that when negativity is thrown upon us, shake it off, stamp it into the ground, and you’ll rise up.

I’d like to argue that we should take more time to help uplift others, rather than trying to push people down in the shadow of our own success. The world already has enough negativity as it is, yet spreading love and kindness is something we should strive for. Sitting down and taking a breather from the chaotic and destructive way we view people is something we can all try. It’s a lot easier to listen to the ugly thoughts we worry about, than being a saint, but we can start somewhere. Not because we should, but because we are compassionate and empathetic people who understand the uniqueness of everyone’s experiences; annoying or not.

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