Attachment to what other people think is, in my view, one of the biggest problems in the modern world. We basically think our happiness depends upon what others are thinking, and when they think something we don’t want them to think, we become unhappy. This is ridiculous self-torture!
First, we can’t really say with any certainty what they are actually thinking becasue we cannot read their minds. More often than not, we simply project what they are supposedly thinking and then get upset about that. Second, what they think does not in any way harm us, it harms them. If somebody thinks I am great or somebody thinks I am a jerk, it has no power whatsoever to affect me, so why become upset by it? We all know the phrase, “sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But with what people are thinking, they are not even verbal words! So how can it affect us? Third, what other people are thinking is nothing more than a karmic echo of what we ourselves have thought about other people in the past. So if you want people to stop thinking bad things about you, stop thinking bad things about others. Additionally, their thinking bad things gives you a chance to purify your past negative thoughts towards others, so by learning how to accept and transform it, we set the stage for a much better future.
For me, one of my biggest problems is I do not worry so much about what other people think of me (well, I do, but I am also so arrogant that I often don’t care what other people think – but that is a different problem). Rather, what really bothers me is when people are angry around me. This takes three forms: they are angry at me, they are angry at those I love or they are just angry at the world.
In all of these cases of other’s anger, there are two things in particular I need to focus on. First, a doctor does not get upset about the fact that her patients are sick, rather helping heal them of their sicknesses is what gives meaning to her life. Anger is a mental illness, the victims of which I need to develop compassion for. Second, I need to accept that the very nature of samsaric life is to be surrounded by deluded people. Why would it be any other way? To expect otherwise is to not understand and truly accept the nature of samsara. How can I pretend to be an aspiring bodhisattva, wishing to lead all beings to freedom from their delusions, if I can’t handle or stand being around deluded people? That’s absurd!
If they are angry at me, I need to accept this as purification, use it as an opportunity to identify and overcome my own faults, and realize their anger is not my problem. When they are angry at those I love, I need to do what I can to protect the person who is the victim of the other’s anger while accepting that it is also their karma and there is very little I can do about it. I do what I can, but accept the rest. When the other person is just angry at the world (or some annoyance in life), I need to view the other person as a mirror showing me the faults of anger, encouraging me to overcome it within my own mind. It is particularly hypocritical to get angry at those who are angry simply because they are getting angry!
Overcoming our attachment to what other people think is not easy, but it is one of our principal trainings as a practitioner in this modern world.
Your turn: Describe how you are attached to what other people think of you, and how this creates problems for you.