Stop trying to change others

Before I found the Dharma, I believed others were the source of my problems, thus to solve my problems I felt like I needed to change others around me.  I especially did with my partner and family.  After I found the Dharma, I believed it was my spiritual duty to lead each and every being to enlightenment, so I still felt like I needed to change others.  Very often, if I am honest, my real motivation for wanting to change others continues to be my core believe that they are the source of my problems, but I fool myself into thinking my wanting to change others now is motivated by great compassion and bodhichitta.

Another reason why I seek to change others is doubt and insecurity about my own views.  Perhaps I am doing something wrong but don’t want to admit it to myself, so I will try try get others to share my view so that they don’t force me to confront that I am doing something wrong.  Or perhaps I am not sure if I am right, and so if I can convince others of my view then if enough people view things the same way I do it will help reassure me that I am right.  Of course this is a flawed reasoning, since a majority of people believing something doesn’t make it right.  Everyone believes in an inherently existent world, but that doesn’t make the view correct!

Trying to change others is, from a pragmatic point of view, self-defeating.  People are not stupid, and they know when we are trying to change them motivated by our own attachments and aversions, and so they naturally resist the change we are trying to bring about in them.  So instead of helping them change, our trying to change them actually just causes them to cling more tightly to how they are.  If we try change others through overwhelming them with force, we may bring about the external appearance of them changing, but internally they just harbor resentment towards us and the change we want, and as soon as our threat of force subsides, they will revert back to how they were.  Trying to change people in this way also creates the causes for others to try change us in this way in the future, so we just set ourselves up for being manipulated and controlled in the future.

I am gradually learning that the best way to get people to change for the better is to leave them completely free to change themselves.  We just focus on changing ourselves – honestly identifying our faults and applying effort to overcome them.  We can seek to change ourselves to gain the realizations necessary to help others who seek to change themselves, but we must wait for them to come to us asking for advice and help.  Offering unsolicited and unwanted advice rarely, if ever, works unless the person already has a lot of faith in us.  Generally speaking, we try to change others because we see faults in them, so when we see faults in others we make them defensive, they feel judged by us, and then they seek to internally justify why we are wrong.  So trying to change others actually causes them to lose faith in us, not increase it.

Even though intellectually I know I should just focus on changing myself and how trying to change others is counter-productive, what I now often times find myself doing is talking indirectly where it is not immediately obvious from a literal and direct reading of my words that I am directing them against somebody, but anybody with knowledge of the context knows who and what I am talking about.  So externally, I maintain plausible deniability, but internally I am really saying somebody else is wrong and I am trying to change them by trying to be all skilful by talking indirectly.  This rarely fools anybody, and just results in them talking indirectly back.

It is a very fine mental balance to write a blog and not have it be trying to change others.  I see faults in others and in my tradition, and my motivation is often a mix of wanting to genuinely cherish others by helping them do better and good old fashioned attachment or aversion.  I could fall into the extreme of not doing a blog at all until my motivation is completely pure, but how will I ever be able to do things perfectly unless I do things imperfectly and learn from my mistakes?  So while I know I am doing things imperfectly, I try nonetheless to do better each day.

I think the middle way between trying to change others and doing nothing for others is to do our best to change ourselves with the intention of gaining the realizations necessary to help others who seek to change themselves.  We then share what we are learning and hope others find it helpful in their own demarche.  If they don’t, then we keep trying, and at a minimum our sharing helps us clarify our own understanding by forcing us to express it in words.  This is how Shantideva began his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.  I always read it as a false humility, but actually, like everything else in his Guide, it is profound advice and an immaculate sincere example.

Your turn:  Describe some (funny?) failure you have had trying to change others?  What did you learn from the experience?  

2 thoughts on “Stop trying to change others

  1. I have failed abysmally at helping others on too many occasions! Interestingly, I have drafted a similar post a few days ago on a very similar topic which i will publish soon. It’s on helping styles.

    As a trainee psychotherapist I am aware that in conversations with clients I habitually try to control what others say without listening for understanding. I am too eager with my own imputations of where we should go with the client’s discussion instead of allowing the client to fulfill their needs. When I listen to someone who is expressing inner feelings and thoughts sometimes out of noseyness or to fill-in the gaps my questions are for my own benefit and not the client’s. When I get it right though a true spiritual transformation takes place. Along this path though, inevitably there will be a ton of failures.

    I once tried to give my daughter some advice and suggested to her that she should listen to what i say. She said, “Dad, i would but you are so old and boring,besides I’m smart enough to make my own decisions” all said with a stroppy teenager look.

    Oh and don’t forget those preacher days where i used to over-emphasize the importance of Dharma to everyone I met. Ridiculously unskillful but good for learning.

    Nice post.

  2. We never see actual faults of others we merely see reflections and echoes of our own karma rippening. No one exists outside our mind for us the change – they do not exist from their own side at all! We like them, dislike them or are neutral because of our own karmic tendencies and habits. To make matters more profound with a non- dual view of our presently manifesting world realm,we project positive and negative on others and say you are! We are – that is it. As Ghandi said, be the change you want to see in other!

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