Healing the (subtle) division between monastic and lay communities

Venerable Tharchin once said, “a Dharma center is the collection of inner realizations of its members bound together by their mutual love and appreciation for one another.”  It seems to me the same is true at the level of a spiritual tradition.  Creating division within the Sangha is considered one of the five heinous actions of immediate retribution (translation:  one of the most negative things we can do), so it follows that healing such divisions is one of the most virtuous things we can do.  For hundreds, arguably thousands of years, the Kadampa tradition has primarily been a monastic one.  Geshe-la’s goal now is for the Kadam Dharma to penetrate into every aspect of human life.  The mission he has given us is “to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Dharma, we all have modern lives, our job is to attain the union of these two.  To accomplish this, the false duality between monastic (read center) life and lay life needs to be dissolved away.

All Kadampas agree there is no point doing anything with our life other than practice Dharma.  We are all trapped in a hallucinogenic karmic dream from which there is no escape other than to wake up.  We have a precious human life that we may lose at any moment, and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms from which it is nearly impossible to escape.  Our only enemies are delusions and we all have assumed the task of developing our realizations, skills and abilities (up to and including full enlightenment) so that we can, together, lead all beings in a great exodus out of samsaric realms and deliver them all to the eternal bliss of the pure lands.  This is our common project.  In short, our job is to gain realizations to be able to free others from the bondage of delusions.  Towards this end, our kind Spiritual Guide has organized for us festivals, retreats, temples, Dharma centers and study programs and he has inspired for us a worldwide Sangha of lay and ordained practitioners alike practicing a common path.  Geshe-la has encouraged us to deeply cherish these things as “the main gateways for those seeking liberation.”  Gen-la Losang calls Dharma centers “the Embassies of the pure lands” in this world.  Venerable Tharchin calls Dharma centers “beacons of light in a world of spiritual darkness.”

Historically, the Dharma community was divided into the monastic and lay communities.  While the Kadampa tradition no longer has monasteries per se, we do have their modern equivalents, namely our Dharma centers.  The spectrum of Kadampas is quite vast, but we can loosely make a distinction between those who primarily live in and work for Dharma centers, attend every teaching and festival, and those who don’t.  For simplicity, let’s call these center people and non-center people – the modern equivalent of the distinction between the monastic and lay communities.  We can no longer make a lay/ordained distinction because we have lay people living a modern monastic way of life in Dharma centers and we have ordained people living modern lay ways of life out in the world of work and family.

There exists, quite naturally in fact, a current of thought within the tradition that values participating in centers, retreats, teachings, festivals and the like as the most important priorities in our life.  We should organize our life around being able to participate in these things as opposed to participate in these things when our life allows it.  There is, however, a literal grasping at what this means.  There is a grasping at there being a highest way of participating in the tradition, namely living in and working for a center, attending every teaching and festival, keeping all the commitments of the study programs perfectly, and so forth.  Those who fail to be able to do these things are somehow “lesser” Kadampas – less committed, less realized, less Buddhist.

This type of grasping leads to a good deal of mental pain and unnecessary, albeit subtle, division within the Sangha.  This grasping also is one of the main impediments to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s wish for the Dharma to flourish into every aspect of human life.  Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s.  They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara.  They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish.  When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities.  Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.”  Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.

Since center people are supposedly closer to the sources of Dharma, non-center people can sometimes assent to the view that grasps at center life being inherently supreme.  As a result, they start to view their families, jobs and responsibilities in this world as somehow being obstacles to their Dharma practice.  This introduces conflict in the home over participation in Dharma activities, guilt at work feeling like one is wasting their precious human life, and resentment about having to meet responsibilities outside the center.  Viewing their daily life as somehow being inherently ordinary and worldly, they fail to bring the Dharma into every aspect of their modern lives.  When non-center people feel judged by center people for their supposedly non-Dharma activities, non-center people can become defensive and view center people as belonging to some “clique” or, worse, “cult.”  Non-center people can become resentful about the lack of understanding and pervasive judgment of center people, causing them to lose faith in their teachers, center managers, and fellow Sangha.  Thinking there is only one way of practicing the Kadampa path and being karmically incapable of doing so, people move on to other things and sometimes spend the rest of their life criticizing the family they felt forced to leave.  Some non-center people can likewise develop pride thinking their way of practice is supreme since they are having to deal with real problems in the real world, but this is less common.  Usually they develop some sort of inferiority complex about how they live their life, feeling the need to hide their going to the movies or make excuses for going on vacation with their families.

Grasping at center life being supreme is a serious impediment to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.  If the tradition is to gain the realizations the people of this world need, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to transform any life – center or otherwise – into a Kadampa quick path to enlightenment.  Our inability to conceive how to transform a non-center life into a quick path does not mean it is not possible, it just means we haven’t invested what it takes to realize how it can be.  The reality is this, there are far more people in this world who lead non-center lives than center ones.  This does not mean non-center life is more important than or superior to center life.  Both are equally good and precious, just in different ways.  Venerable Tharchin says, “we must each assume our place in the mandala.”  Rather, it means if the Dharma is to penetrate into every aspect of modern life, we must learn how to do this.  It is up to each of us to do what we can to heal these divisions and wrong understandings.

The question is how?  The answer is non-center people need to live their life as “their center life.”  And center people need to live their life as “their non-center life.”  How can this be done?  Fortunately, every life is equally empty, therefore every life is equally transformable.  Non-center people should impute “center” on their home, “retreat” on their work, “teachings” on their daily life, and “Sangha” on their loved ones.  Center people should impute “home” on their center, “work” on their retreat, “daily life” on their teachings, and “loved ones” on their Sangha.  Everyone needs to impute “festival” on whatever happens during festival time, whether we are in attendance or not.  If we each do our part, there is no doubt we can heal this subtle division within the Sangha, relieve the mental pain associated with this form of grasping, and unleash Kadampa wisdom into every aspect of human life, thereby fulfilling Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.

A Dharma center is where we practice Dharma in this world.  Home is the base from which we go out to engage in activities and the place we return to to recharge.  Non-center people need to make their home their “center” for practicing Dharma in their life.  We can correctly view everything that happens in a Dharma center as being emanated by the Buddhas for our spiritual training.  There is no reason why we cannot do the same with our homes, viewing them as the principal place where we put the Dharma into practice.  The home of any Dharma center is the gompa, the center of any Kadampa home is our meditation corner.  Every member of a Dharma center has a responsibility to the other members of the community, every member of a home has a responsibility to the other members of the home.  Whether in a home or a center, we have no control over whether others put the Dharma into practice, but we can choose to put the Dharma into practice ourselves with those we encounter.  Living with people is hard, accepting people who are deluded but not cooperating with their delusions is harder still.  Viewed in this way, those who live in a home can come to understand what it is like to live in a center, and those who live in a center can come to understand what it is like to live in a home.  Dharma centers can become more like homes, and homes can become more like Dharma centers.

Retreat is a time when we set aside our worldly activities to focus on our spiritual practice.  Work is when we do our jobs, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in this world.  Normally we mistakenly grasp at our work as somehow being an inherently worldly activity and retreat as somehow being inherently spiritual.  As a result, we grasp at a duality between our work and our retreat.  Just as it is possible to be on retreat but never forget our worldly activities, so too it is possible to be at work and never forget our “retreat.”  Being on retreat is a state of mind.  If we have a mind of retreat, we can be on retreat no matter what we are doing externally, including our normal work.  The situations we encounter at work are our opportunities to put the Dharma into practice with an aim of gaining the realizations necessary to transform our jobs into the quick path.  If our primary objective is to gain Dharma realizations at work, that is what we will do while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to our employers and customers.  Work, for us, will be “retreat time.”  Doing our jobs, or “working”, is also a state of mind.  It is the mental assuming of responsibility for what we need to do in this world.  When we are on retreat, our “job” is to gain deep experience and insight into the Dharma.  As Bodhisattva’s, our job is to gain the realizations the people of this world need so that we may lead them to enlightenment.  Retreat time is not vacation time, it is time to really get to work.  Work does not have to be a burden.  It is said if you enjoy what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life.  Effort is “taking delight” in virtue, in other words, enjoying engaging in virtue.  Viewed in this way, those who are working can better understand what it is like to be on retreat and those who are on retreat can come to understand what it is like to go to work.  Retreat can become more like work, work can become more like retreat.

A Dharma teaching occurs when the meaning of Dharma is transmitted from the teacher to the student.  Daily life is where we gain experience of how the world works.  When a teacher gives a teaching they should strive to explain everything in the context of applying it to the “daily lives” of the students.  They can only do this if they both understand the daily trials and tribulations of their students and they apply the Dharma themselves in their own daily lives.  Likewise, receiving a Dharma teaching depends upon listening in a particular way where we view what is being a taught as personal advice for how to overcome the sickness of delusions plaguing our daily life.  But there is no reason why we can only receive Dharma teachings in a Dharma center.  Milarepa said all of life teaches the truth of Dharma.  When we receive teachings we are advised to believe the living Lama Tsongkhapa enters into the heart of our teacher and through that teacher we receive Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings.  There is no reason why we cannot believe Lama Tsongkhapa has entered into the heart of everyone we encounter in daily life and through them he is giving us pure Dharma teachings.  Not everyone can attend every teaching, nor keep every commitment of every study program.  People shouldn’t be judged for this, rather reasonable accommodations should be made understanding that attending some teachings is better than attending none.  At the same time, not being able to attend the teachings at a center does not preclude Kadampas from receiving teachings every single day through their daily life.  Viewed in this way, teachings become advice for how to live daily life and daily life becomes our Dharma teaching.  Teachings can become more like daily life and daily life can become more like a teaching.

Sangha are those who inspire us to put the Dharma into practice.  Our loved ones are those we live and spend the most time with, usually our family and friends.  Our Sangha are our spiritual companions who we reunite with in life after life in pursuit of our common path and spiritual goals.  Geshe-la ends every festival telling us he prays for our families and friends, and he encourages us to love them first and foremost.  Venerable Tharchin says with every step we take towards enlightenment we bring all living beings with us in proportion to our karmic connection with them.  Dharma only finds its meaning when it is applied to the delusions that arise in our lives; and no one provokes our delusions more than our loved ones.  Put all of this together and it means for a Bodhisattva, the duality between their Sangha and their loved ones is false.  Sangha are not just the people who practice the same path as us, they are those who inspire us to put the teachings into practice.  Our loved ones do this, either through their good example or through their annoying quirks.  Our loved ones are not just our family and friends of this life, but also our vajra family (brothers, sisters, father and mother) who share with us the same lineage and view.  We do not have to be with our vajra family to be with “Sangha” and we do not have to be with our family and friends to be with our “loved ones.”  Viewed in this way, being with Sangha becomes more like being with family and friends, and being with our family and friends becomes more like being with our Sangha.  Sangha becomes more like family and family becomes more like Sangha.

Our Spiritual Guide, our Spiritual Father, has put in place a tradition of large spiritual gatherings, such as the various festivals and Dharma celebrations, where members from different centers come together as a large spiritual family to receive teachings and build spiritual bonds with one another.  Geshe-la calls these festivals our “spiritual holiday.”  They often feel like Kadampa “family reunions.”  Some people have the karma to attend ever festival and Dharma celebration, some only maybe one per year, others maybe only once in a lifetime.  Regardless of whether we are able to physically attend or not, all of us can “mentally” attend every festival.  How?  Anybody who has been to a festival can attest that there is a certain “magic” to them, where everything that happens seems “emanated” as part of our festival.  From the conversations we overhear to the cold water in the shower, it all somehow fits together in exactly the way we need it to.  It is a very special and blessed time.  But sometimes, for whatever karmic reason, we are not able to make it.  Those who are able to make it sometimes judge those who can’t.  Those who can’t make it sometimes become jealous (or even judgmental in a different way) of those who can.  This is completely unnecessary.  Those who can attend the festivals should make a point of “bringing along” those who can’t by carrying them around in their hearts as they go about the festival, attend the teachings and receive the empowerments.  In this way, those who can’t physically come are able to “be there” anyways.  Those who can’t make it to the festivals can adopt “the mind of a festival” during festival time, and view everything that happens to them during festival time as their personalized teachings emanated through whatever happens.  Buddhas pervade all things, so there is no reason why they cannot enter into our lives and transform whatever happens during this time into our own individualized festival.  People who can’t attend can also make a point of “tuning in” during the teachings and empowerments, mentally imagining they are receiving them at a distance through their meditation practices during teaching time.  They can also deeply rejoice in those who are able to make it, thereby creating the causes to perhaps one day be able to go back.  Whether we attend festivals or not, all of us from time to time will go on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits call it).  Whether we are on holiday at Manjushri or on the beaches of Bali, there is no reason why we cannot impute “spiritual holiday” on this time.  Viewed in this way, while we still try make it if we can, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically present at the festival or not, we can attend anyways.  While we still encourage people to come, it doesn’t matter if our Sangha friends make it to the festival or not, we bring them along anyways.  It doesn’t matter whether we are at a festival or on a regular vacation, both can equally be viewed as our “spiritual holidays.”

It is true “centers,” “retreats,” “teachings,” “Sangha” and “festivals” are the main gateways for those seeking liberation, and we should cherish these things as our Guru’s greatest gifts to us.  But we need the wisdom to know there are many different ways we can integrate these things into our lives.  Likewise non-center life is not an object of abandonment.  It is not something we need fear nor feel guilty about participating in.  If we are to fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing the Dharma into every aspect of human life we all need to work on eliminating the false duality between “center” and “non-center” life, between “home” and “center,” between “retreat” and “work,” between “teachings” and “daily life,” between “Sangha” and our “loved ones,” and between “physically attending festivals” and “not.”  In reality, whether we are a center person or a non-center person, we all have center and non-center aspects of our lives.  When we are engaging in center activities, we should never forget our non-center life; and when we are engaging in non-center activities, we should never forget our center life.  If we all in this way practice inclusion instead of exclusion we can “bind together in mutual love and appreciation” these two aspects of our spiritual community into one larger spiritual family.



My father never wants to speak with me again

As some of you may have gathered from my recent postings and tweets, I have been trying to navigate through a family conflict, in particular with my father.  Sadly, he told me (on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, no less) that he never wants to speak with me again.  I am not very good at discussing my personal problems (funny how much easier it is to discuss the Dharma when it is abstracted from daily life), but as a dear Sangha friend recently told me, “the raw emotion of real life is where the mind moves the most.”  So I am going to try share my feelings and thoughts about how I am trying to work through all of this in the hopes that it might prove helpful to others who may one day face a similar situation.  It’s probably all wrong, but it’s my honest best.  At the very least, I hope clarifying my own thinking by writing it down will prove therapeutic in bringing a little peace.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I am sure my explanation is biased in a number of ways, but I will try explain things as “objectively” as I can.  Please forgive me in advance for that.  This is also unfortunately a bit of a long story, but the spiritual lessons I have learned from all of this lie at the end and for me it has been worth the trouble.

My parents got divorced when I was one year old.  My father is (was) a Doctor and made a ton of money.  My mother was a beauty queen.  If truth be told, my mother left my father because she thought she could “do better,” and if she didn’t do so soon, she would lose her beauty and it would be too late.  My mother later started dating this high-powered lawyer, and he eventually proposed to her but said he didn’t want my brother and I around.  My mother couldn’t bring herself to do that, so she said no.  She then had to get a job as a secretary and basically spent the rest of her life deeply scarred by the whole experience.

My mother’s actions, quite understandably, upset my father quite a bit – that’s an understatement, he hated her for it.  As a result, he refused to pay anything more than the absolute, absolute minimum in child support.  He had good lawyers who made sure he didn’t have to.  Sometimes we didn’t have enough money even for heat.  Meanwhile, he is flying around in his private plane and cruising on his private yacht.  My mother hated him for that.  She was part jealous of all his money, part bitter that she found herself a poor, single mother working as a secretary (when she could have had it all), part guilty knowing it was her own mistakes that led her to this fate.  I spent my entire childhood with my parents hating each other, taking each other back to court fighting about money, and being made to feel like I had to choose between my two parents – my love of one viewed as a betrayal of the other.  For whatever reason, my brother always had a very close and loving relationship with my father (first son, and all that).  I looked like my mother, and thought more like her too.  The legacy of this has echoed throughout my life.

The big problems in my relationship with my father began over payment for my undergraduate studies.  The last time my mother took my father back to court was when I had just started high school.  Part of the settlement was my father would have to pay for our college expenses.  My father had only allocated enough money to send me to a middle of the road public university.  His logic was “I put myself through school and I went to a State college.  If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.”  But I managed to get into a very expensive (but very good) private college.  The money ran out after two years.  The problem was in the United States the financial aid rules are such that if your parents make money, you are not eligible for financial aid.  To get around this, my father had to write to the financial aid office basically saying he was disowning me (so I could take out student loans) and I had to graduate in three years instead of four.  None of my other classmates were going through similar problems.  The families that had money, paid; the families that didn’t, got financial aid.  I had to cut school short and, to be honest, I felt cheated.  My father could have easily paid, he just chose not to.  He said it was to teach me responsibility.  I was a straight-A student, succeeding in my every venture.

Like all recent graduates, I struggled financially at first.  My now wife’s family was there for us, and largely picked up the slack helping us stay on our feet.  They were incredibly generous.  But when my father sent her family a bill for some minor dental work he did on my wife, I blew a fuse.  I basically told him everything I thought about how I thought his behavior was wrong – what he did in terms of child support and his not paying for college.  My words had echoes of my mother’s, and basically ever since this time our relationship has been strained.  He never forgave me, I never changed my stand that what he did was wrong, but I regret many of my word choices which were bitter and sometimes spiteful.

We spent the next 20 years trying to rebuild.  While I still think he made a mistake when we were growing up, I forgave him and made the best of it.  I tried to learn the lessons about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that he wanted me to learn.  During this time, he basically disagreed with every career choice I made – leaving law school, working in investment banking, leaving banking to get a degree in economic policy, working for several years at a job beneath my educational attainment so that I had more time available to be Resident Teacher of a Dharma center, then becoming a Professor of economics.  He always felt I was making the wrong career choices and that I was irresponsible with money.

Seven years ago, there was a landslide at our house in Geneva, and as a result we had to use all of our savings for repairs, experts and lawyers.  I also had to borrow a substantial sum of money from my brother (who had taken over my Dad’s practice when he retired) to cover expenses until we received compensation from the insurance companies for our damages (the lawsuit continues to this day).  Five years ago, Dorje Shugden “arranged” for us to have twins when we weren’t planning on having any more children (we already had three at the time, bringing us up to a family with five kids).  This was yet another example to my father of our irresponsibility.  Shortly after the twins were born, while they were in the hospital with a bad infection that could have gone either way, he sent me an email accusing my wife and I of being “vagabonds” in life who are “living high on the hog on other people’s money (meaning my brother’s, who lent us the money to deal with the landslide lawsuit).”  He has since consistently expressed dismay about us “living beyond our means” (we’re not), and making us feel guilty anytime we spend money on anything, such as going on a family vacation.  Throughout all of this time, when he would make such accusations, I would spend many hours drafting respectful and carefully worded replies to try help him understand why his view of us was mistaken.  As his son, it hurt me greatly to have my father think all of these things about us when we were doing the best we could to get by.  In reality, I see now, I was very attached to both his approval and his understanding.  I mistakenly felt my happiness depended upon him approving of us and understanding our life choices.

Every year for the last eight years my wife has brought our kids back to my home town for the summer.  We would stay at my father’s place while he would go on his annual boating trip to Alaska.  He would then usually see us for a few days at either the beginning or end of the summer, depending on the timing of his trip.  We never once failed to express our sincere gratitude for him making his house available to us in the summer, explaining if he hadn’t done so we wouldn’t be able to come home and make connections with all of the family (I have about 40 members of my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, etc. – in my home town).  My father also owns a lake cabin which we enjoyed tremendously as kids growing up, and my father generously kept the cabin so that my brothers and I (and our kids) can continue to enjoy it.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had several years earlier began assuming the annual expenses of the cabin (maintenance, taxes, etc.) which ran into tens of thousands of dollars every year.  When I became a diplomat, and my salary improved considerably, my brother explained what he had been doing and asked if we could also contribute since our kids were enjoying it throughout the summer as well.  I explained that between the on-going lawsuit and the price of tickets to bring the family back every year we could only afford to contribute about 15% of the annual expenses.  It was simply all we could reasonably afford.  My brother said that was fine and he appreciated whatever we could do.

Two years ago, due to the timing of the school year, my wife and kids had to leave Spokane in mid-August.  In order for my father to see them, he had to cut his boat trip short.  He wanted to see them, but he also didn’t want to cut his trip short, and he wanted to make sure we knew how much he had to sacrifice “battling the elements to make it back quickly” to see us.  There were, unfortunately, three incidents that my father misunderstood to be us avoiding him.  He was quite upset (inside), asking himself, “why did I go through all that to come back, only to be avoided when I get here?”  When I saw my father last June, he confronted me about all of this (before I knew nothing, except some murmurings from my brother).  I found this difficult to accept.  Basically, for the last five to seven years, my father has been “absent.”  He has consistently forgotten our kids’ birthdays, never made any effort to invest in their lives and was often standing in judgment when he did engage with us.  Nothing we could ever do was good enough for him.  We had sacrificed tremendously, both financially and stress-wise, to come back every summer to invest in family.  To spend 48 weeks in town over the span of several years to see family and then be accused of avoiding my father when in fact he was the one who was never in town was a bit much to swallow.  I explained as such saying essentially he has been completely neglecting his role as a grandfather and we have said nothing about it, choosing to accept you as you are and to instead focus on the positive, but for you to then get upset at us for avoiding you is a bit hard to comprehend.

This summer, when it was time to make plans, he asked when we were coming.  Due to changing countries and school systems, this summer we only have three weeks available right in the middle of when he is usually on his boat trip.  When we explained our timing, he started getting upset again basically saying we should try come earlier if we can.  I then sent him an email saying, “please don’t get upset, given the timing of the school year and movers, this is all we can do.”  He then sent an email titled “here it comes” in which he lambasted us for our lack of gratitude and appreciation for all that he does for us, accused us of having a “perverted sense of entitlement” and “misguided sense of my birthright” in my use of his house and lake cabin.  He accused us of being ungrateful, disrespectful and inconsiderate.  He completely fabricated out of thin air some story about us showing disrespect for his wife when she got cancer (never happened).  He said we were “mooching” off of him and my brother with our “token contributions” to the expenses of the lake.  He belittled my wife for what she does, and then concluded by threatening if we don’t start showing him “the respect he is due” there will be negative consequences (meaning we won’t be able to use his house, etc., any more.

This was emotionally devastating for both me and my wife to read, much less deal with given that we are currently on opposite sides of the planet (she is in France this year while I am in China).  Despite this, I really took my time to craft a reply in which I did not retaliate – at all – saying hurtful things in return.  I once again tried to clarify we weren’t avoiding him this was just his mis-reading of the situation, we were extremely grateful for everything he had done, we were sorry if he saw things in this way, we were financially contributing all that we could to the expenses of the lake, and that all of this was quite hard to take against the backdrop of him being the one who has been completely absent from our kids’ lives for the last five to seven years.  He then replied completely ignoring all of my clarifications, saying he was still “pissed” at us for mistreating him for the last 20 years.  He said all of the emails that I had previously sent during this 20 year period were just “meaningless words,” because our wrong behavior remained the same.  I felt like he had thrown away all of the work I had put in over the last 20 years to try rebuild our relationship after the college incident.  It was gone, out the window.  Again, I replied without retaliation, clarifying.  He replied he didn’t know how I could be so “dense” and engage in such “idiocy.”  I then sent a timeline, showing how things could have been different.  Once again, he responded with spite saying he gives up.

A week goes by and then he sent an email in which he communicated the exact same message saying he was angry at us for our mistreatment of him, expecting a change in our behavior.  But he did so with a decided change of tone, using nicer words.  This was a revelatory moment for me.  Every single example he had given us about our supposed mistreatment of him had been thoroughly refuted as being factually wrong, wildly exaggerated, completely misunderstood, etc.  None of our supposed wrong actions “objectively” (or should I say conventionally) could survive the scrutiny of a little light being shone on them.  Yet despite all of these clarifications, he simply couldn’t let go.  In his mind we had wronged him even though he couldn’t explain how or why, and by my constantly relating to his accusations as if they had a basis in truth I was actually feeding a dysfunctional dynamic.  I realized – quite vividly – that for the last 42 years of my life I have been chasing after his approval and understanding, and that my doing so was the source of all of my own mental pain with regards to this.  I also realized I wasn’t helping him by assenting to his simply wrong view of us nor trying to chase the rainbow of living up to his expectations when he couldn’t even articulate what needed to change.

So I sent back an email in which I essentially said, “what are you talking about?  None of what you are accusing me of actually happened, this is all your misperception of things.”  I then held up the mirror of what he had done and said that if he has a problem with me, it is his problem, not mine.  I will no longer chase after his approval or understanding.  Either he accepts me or he doesn’t.  I concluded by saying the solution here is simple – we both need to be happy with what does happen, not upset about what doesn’t happen.  This is what I am going to do, and I invite him to do the same.  But if he doesn’t, it is his choice.  His reply was “have a good life, I will no longer be a part of it.  Because of the way you mistreat me, I never want to hear from you again.”

When I received this, I quite clearly was struck with the understanding that his anger towards me is actually just, deep down inside far beyond any place he is emotionally or spiritually equipped to confront, his own guilt about his own failings and shortcomings as a father and grandfather.  His obsession with money and his attachment to the fulfillment of his own wishes have caused him to neglect his responsibilities to his family, and deep down inside he knows it – and feels guilty about it, but he can’t bring himself to change his own behavior.  When I refuse to assent to his narrative of what has supposedly happened between us, it forces him to confront this within himself.  Since he is incapable of doing so, he lashes out at me.  But what he is really lashing out at is his own reflection in the mirror which he is incapable of confronting.  I realized I no longer need to chase.  This actually has little to nothing to do with me (except, of course, it all being my karma).  These are his own inner demons he is wrestling with, and I can’t do it for him.  All I can do is understand what is going on, stop feeding the problem by assenting to his distorted view, explain to him that I love him anyways and leave the door open for him to come back once he has done this work within himself.  But to enter into this dynamic with him of trying to prove myself to him and conceding that there is some cosmic injustice I have inflicted upon him when I have done no such thing doesn’t actually help him.  And it certainly doesn’t help me, my wife or my kids to have to be subject to all of this unnecessary drama.

We sometimes take the Dharma teachings of “accepting defeat and offering the victory” or “not disturbing others” or “working to fulfill their wishes” too far, where in effect we are just feeding others’ delusions and wrong behavior.  If we love them and we care for them, sometimes we have to say “no, enough is enough.  I am not going to play this game anymore.”  Gen Lhamo explains that we often sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace, and we do so driven by our own attachment to not wanting to lose something in our relationship with the other person.  Of course we shouldn’t unnecessarily antagonize others and we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but when dynamics become fundamentally unhealthy and continuing with them is leading to an emotional black hole for all involved, we need to take a step back and take a stand.  Doing so is an act of compassion.  It is sometimes the only way to break the cycle of unhealthy dynamics.  Compassion without wisdom is not helpful.  Cooperating with and assenting to delusions – our own or others – always makes the situation worse.

It is hard when this happens with figures as important to us as our parents.  Of course we need to focus on the good, and appreciate our parents for all that they have done and not be upset about them for falling short of our expectations.  If I had a perfect realization of the kindness of my parents, this is what I would see.  I shouldn’t fault my father for what he didn’t do, I should just be grateful for what he did do.  We can always want and expect more, but when has that ever helped anything?  But at the same time, loving and respecting our parents does not mean we need to cooperate with their deluded behavior, nor does it mean we need to be attached to their approval and understanding.  Of course we need to be respectful, but ultimately our happiness does not depend upon what others think of us, including them.  The story of Buddha Shakyamuni also poignantly reveals this.  It is my attachment to his approval and understanding that prevented me for the last 20 years from realizing I had been trapped in an unhealthy dynamic with my father and I wasn’t willing to say, “Stop!  I am doing the best I can, if you have a problem with it, there is nothing I can do about it.  It is up to you to assume responsibility for your own feelings in the situation, as I have to assume responsibility for mine.”  He thinks his happiness depends upon me changing my behavior.  If I assent to that, then I disempower him from being happy on his own.  I don’t help him by agreeing with this premise.  While it can seem harsh, sometimes the best way to help somebody else is to tell them, “your feelings and your reactions are your responsibility.”

I don’t know where things go from here.  But I am grateful that all of this has happened.  I now understand his anger at me is actually coming from his own unacknowledged guilt and conflicting desires.  I can’t do his internal work for him, but I can do mine.  I can get myself to the mental space where I feel no animosity towards him at all, where I feel completely grateful for what he has done, not resentment for what he hasn’t.  I can forgive him, love him, but still not cooperate anymore with his wrong narrative.  I can also finally let go of my attachment to what he thinks of me and realize there is no contradiction between being a Dharma practitioner and saying, “if you have a problem with me, it is your problem, not mine.”  Sometimes, not often, this is the kindest thing we can do.  Even if saying so might mean the end of a treasured relationship.

Love someone unconditionally while not cooperating with their delusions.  Finding the middle way is never easy.

How to resolve conflict with your loved ones

Geshe-la said at a meeting with teachers at Manjushri once that we need people sharing on-line their positive experiences of using the Dharma to solve their daily problems.  He said this will help counter some of the false narratives against us.  I also think implicit in this is by sharing our experiences we can all learn from one another.  It is in this light that I share the following.  I hope my failures and struggles might in some way prove helpful to others who one day find themselves in similar situations.  At the very least, writing this will help me clarify my own thoughts and hopefully bring a little inner peace.

I am in the middle of the biggest fight I have ever had with my father.  It started over something trivial, namely making our plans for the summer, but it somehow tapped into deep-seated resentments that had been building up for years on both sides.  My job now, it seems, is to work through my own delusions and to use the Dharma to lay the foundation for what can in the future be some sort of honest reconciliation and stable resolution.  It seems to me all of us will one day encounter conflict with those closest to us.

In all conflict situations, there are two problems, an internal one of the delusions flaring up within our own mind and an external one of the actual conflict with the other person.  Since there are two different problems, we need two different solutions – an internal one and an external one.  While ideally, we should pursue our internal and external solutions in parallel, the reality is usually our external efforts will fail if internally we have not yet re-found peace within our mind.  As Geshe-la says, without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.

Internally, we need to work through all the delusions within our own mind and replace them with wisdom about the situation and compassion towards all affected by it.  Dharma practice is, for all practical purposes, a process of abandoning our habitual deluded reactions and replacing them with new and positive habits.  It seems to me, there are five deluded habits we often fall into during conflict with others.

The first is we lose our refuge and instead rely upon our own instincts.  It’s relatively easy to practice Dharma when the problems we face are not too bad, but when our problems become extreme we tend to forget our refuge and instead try solve our problems on our own.  Gen Lhamo once said we are spiritual people, so our first reaction should be to pray.  We need to pray for wisdom to know what to do and how to think about it.  We need to pray for love and compassion to fill our hearts towards the other person.  We need to pray that Dorje Shugden take control of the situation and arrange whatever is best for all concerned.  Finally, we pray that our conflicts become a powerful cause of enlightenment for all involved.

Our second habitual reaction is usually we wish these problems weren’t happening.  But actually, I think, we need to be grateful that there are these problems, because without big problems we quickly become lazy and fail to actually change our mind with the Dharma we have received.  It is very easy for our Dharma studies to become abstract, academic or philosophical.  For me at least, it is only when I am really smacked down by major problems in my life that I am actually forced to change the way I think.  It is when we are confronted with the truth of the sufferings of samsara that the Dharma finds its greatest utility.

Our third habitual reaction is to blame the other person for our troubles.  But actually we need to recognize all of this is the ripening of our own negative karma of having acted in harmful ways towards others in the past.  We need to accept all of the difficulties as purification for our own past wrong actions, actively purify whatever negative karma remains and resolve to not repeat ourselves again in the future whatever mistakes we perceive.  If we have a “problem” with something, it is our problem because we are relating to the situation in a deluded way.  We need to do the internal work to replace whatever delusions we may have with wisdom, love, patience and compassion.  If we don’t do this, even if the external situation changes, we will remain with our internal problem and it is just a question of time before it comes back to haunt us.

Our fourth habitual reaction is to retaliate in some way to the harm we have received.  No matter how much the other person hurts us, we should try find a way to forgive them.  We shouldn’t stop this internal work until we get to the point where we have no animosity or anger towards them at all.  This will take time, depending on the hurt, sometimes even decades.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes and it doesn’t matter whether the other person ever admits their own harmful acts.  If we want inner peace ourselves, we can’t escape this work.

Our fifth habitual reaction is to jump from the extreme of anger to the other extreme of cooperating once again with the other person’s unhealthy behavior.  This one requires some additional explanation.  Many Dharma practitioners hear the teachings on the ripening of negative karma, how we are responsible for all of our problems and the need to fulfill others’ wishes and then misunderstand these instruction to mean we need to become a doormat and cooperate with the delusions of others.  Again, Gen Lhamo shows the way by pointing out that we are not helping others by cooperating with their delusions.  She says we need to recognize that it is our own attachment to outer peace and our own self-cherishing not wanting to lose what the other person might take away from us that causes us to allow others to abuse or mistreat us.  It doesn’t help them to allow them to mistreat us and it is soul-sapping to ourselves to remain in an avoidable unhealthy dynamic.  We should avoid the misguided view that we must suffer through unhealthy dynamics as atonement for our past sins.  Geshe-la says in the teachings on patient acceptance if we have a headache, we should take an aspirin, but then accept the pain until the aspirin takes effect.  In other words, we only accept the suffering we cannot avoid; we simply avoid the suffering we can avoid.  In the context of conflict with our loved ones, if we can get out and/or change the dynamic, we should do so.  We shouldn’t remain in an unhealthy dynamic if we can avoid or change it.

As with all situations which provoke delusions, as a dear Sangha friend recently reminded me, we need to remember none of it is real. There is no one there thinking anything about or doing anything against us.  The person we are fighting with that we normally see does not exist at all, they are just a construction of our own deluded mind. There are, in the final analysis, just various karmic appearances and how we respond to them, like a karmic video game.  None of it really matters because nothing is actually happening.  Our job is to respond to whatever arises with wisdom and compassion.  The more experience we have with remembering emptiness when conflict arises, the more powerful such wisdom will be at taking all of the sting out of such problems.

But we need to be careful.  Part of what causes us to cooperate with other’s delusions is misunderstanding the teachings on ultimate truth to mean conventionally everything that happens is all our fault so only we need to change for things to conventionally get better.  We need the wisdom to know the difference between what is conventionally “our” problem and what is conventionally “their” problem.  Our problem is our delusions, their problem is their delusions.  We need to do the internal work necessary to always stand ready to make peace (in other words work through whatever delusions we might have towards the other person), but we also need to accept that we can’t do others internal work for them.  If they are not willing to do their internal work, we can continue to pray for them but sometimes we may need to disengage from them, or at a minimum circumscribe our relationship to those situations in which conflict is unlikely to flare.

Having established a degree of inner peace towards the situation, we can then begin to think about how to solve our external problem of the conflict with the other person.  It seems there are four questions we need to answer:  When should we act?  How should we approach the other person?  What should we say?  And what are we aiming for?

When seeking to resolve a conflict with somebody else, the first thing we need to do is get our timing right. First, we need to get our own mind back to a space of wisdom, compassion and calm.  If we are still agitated and under the influence of delusion, we will no doubt make things worse if we approach the other person.  It is much better to wait until calm and clarity have returned to our mind.  Second, we should be patient and not rush others to a resolution before they are internally ready to embrace it.  We are fortunate to have the Dharma and so mentally we might be able to bounce back to a non-deluded space more quickly than the other person (or not!).  But just because we are mentally ready to make peace does not mean others are.  In the same way, those affected by our conflicts with our loved ones (such as our other family members or close friends) might also have a wide variety of different delusions troubling their minds.  If we impose our internal solution on others before they are ready to embrace it, one of two things will happen:  they will either reject it, thus we burn the opportunity for this solution to work; or they will feel like they have to repress their delusions before they have actually resolved them.  Repression doesn’t work, it just sows the seeds for future problems while leaving others miserable in the interim.  Instead, we need to give all those around us affected by the conflict the time they need to get to a mental space where they are ready to positively receive our overtures.

The second question we need to answer is how do we approach the other person to make peace?  Sometimes people can get into a juvenile dynamic of “who will make the first move towards peace,” as if making such a move somehow concedes that the other person is right and they win.  Everybody loses from conflict, everybody wins from peace.  The longer we take to make peace, the more entrenched the other’s hateful views become, making it harder later.  So, unless there is some overriding reason, we shouldn’t wait for the other person to make the first move, even if they are the one primarily at fault for the conflict.  Rather it is best for us to make the first move.  We should approach them with respect and appreciation for all that they do, and make clear to them that our intention is to come to an honest resolution of our differences.  We then begin by apologizing for whatever mistakes we may have made and harm we may have caused.  We then, without attacking the other person, explain to them how their actions have made us feel, but we have moved past those feelings by realizing XYZ.  Then, we can ask the person whether they are ready to work towards a solution?  It is entirely possible that the other person may reject our efforts, but it doesn’t matter if they do.  We will have done the right thing by trying.  We can tell them, “I see you are not yet ready to move beyond this.  When you are ready, let me know.  I am not going anywhere.”  Then, the ball will be firmly in the other person’s court, and you practice patience until they are ready.

Once they are ready to work towards a solution, when it comes to the substance of the discussions, I recommend proceeding in two stages.  First, agree on common principles for resolving the dispute that apply equally to both sides, then, once those principles are agreed to, get into the substance of applying those principles to the situation at hand.  You shouldn’t discuss the application of the principles to the situation until the other person has agreed to a common framework for resolving the dispute (namely the principles).  Make sure that whatever principles you propose apply more or less equally to both sides, otherwise the person will think you are trying to set them up.  When you do get to the stage of discussing the application of the principles to the present conflict, you should apply them fairly explaining how both sides are guilty of violating the principle and how everything would be better if both sides adhered to the principle.

What follows are some principles which are generally useful in any conflict situation and only the most unreasonable of people would disagree with:

  • We should each make an effort to understand the other’s perspective. We each feel justified in our view of the situation, so there must be some truth to each of our perspectives.  It is only our pride, anger and attachment to our own view that blind us to our own faults and mistakes, but make us keenly aware of others’ faults and mistakes.
  • Our differences are not so great as to make it worth it to throw away all the good in our relationship. It’s worth it to work towards a solution.
  • Small things we should treat like “water off a duck’s back” (falls right off without leaving a trace). Big things have to be addressed.  It’s not healthy to shove big things under the carpet and pretend they didn’t happen.  If there is to be a reconciliation, it has to be an honest one that takes both our perspectives into account.
  • Exaggeration makes everything worse. Both sides need to not exaggerate the supposed actions or negative thoughts of the other, relate to those exaggerations as if they were actually true, and then feel justified in being upset at the other person for something they did not in fact say or do.
  • We should recall that hurtful things said out of anger are not what we really think, whereas constructive things said out of love are what we really think. So we should dismiss the hurtful things as just the other person’s anger talking and embrace the constructive things as their love talking.
  • We each need to assume ownership and responsibility for our own problem. If we have a problem with something, it is our problem; if the other person has a problem with something, it is their problem.  We both need to get over our own problem by changing our view and letting go.
  • We need to avoid inappropriate attention. If we focus 99% of our attention on the 1% bad of the relationship, it will seem like 99% of the relationship is bad.  Instead we should focus on the good and forgive the bad.
  • We both need to accept the other as they are, not be upset at them for not living up to our expectations.  In fact, it is best to have no expectations of the other person at all.  We need to be grateful for what others do do, not resentful for what they don’t.

The final question is what are we aiming for as the final resolution of the conflict?  Once again, the resolution has to be fair and balanced, applying more or less equally to both sides.  It should take the legitimate views and interests of both sides fully into account.  The foundation of any lasting solution is both sides need to genuinely appreciate what the other person does do, not get upset about what they don’t do.  Each side should respect and be appreciative of the constraints the other is operating under, and not judge them for it.  To avoid future problems, both sides should agree if they make a mistake, they should honestly admit it and change.  If they harm the other person, they should apologize and make sincere amends. When apologies are offered, they should graciously be accepted and reciprocated in kind. If the other person does not apologize, they should be forgiven anyways.  Likewise, both sides should agree if the other person is not asking for our advice or perspective, we shouldn’t give it; but if unsolicited advice is given it should be received graciously.  In this light, both sides should agree to not be hyper-sensitive, where providing constructive feedback on how the other person can do better is blown completely out of proportion and is responded to with unhelpful defensiveness.  Finally, when we are with the other person, we should be vigilant to not create problems ourselves and to be forgiving if the other person is falling short of our expectations (with the mutual understanding that it is best to have zero expectations so we never become upset).  And when we are not with the other person, we should be mindful to not dwell on the supposed faults of the other person, instead we should try recollect their many qualities and develop appreciation for them.  In short, both sides should avoid inappropriate attention on the bad and instead focus on the good.  A solution grounded in these impossible to argue with principles is manifestly fair and can produce a lasting solution.

Conflict, even extreme conflict, between loved ones is inevitable, but it does not need to be a problem.  With Dharma wisdom, we can transform such conflicts into opportunities to identify and overcome our delusions and to learn how to apply wisdom to our daily circumstances.  Doing so will enable us to gain the realizations that the people of this world need.  Kadam Bjorn said the only things we can effectively pass on to others are those things we have personal experience of.  Life will give us challenges, our job is to apply the Dharma.  When we do, we gain direct experience of their truth.  Finally, we can share our experience with others in the hope that they might find something useful.  In this way, the inner lineage of realization gets passed down from generation to generation until eventually we all are permanently free.

On dealing with conflict within a family

I have had my fair share of problems and conflict within my family, especially with my parents.  I have probably made every mistake there is to make.  What follows are the lessons I have learned from these mistakes.  I share them in the hope that others do not make the same mistakes I have.  All of us have parents and all of us have families.  Even those who have no family have Sangha, and Sangha is our spiritual family.  Everything presented below is equally applicable to our spiritual families as to our biological families

As a parent I don’t help my kids if I shelter them from the reality of the world as it is, including conflicts within the family.  Rather I should view the inevitable problems that arise as a “teaching moment” to explain how one deals with such problems when they do arise.  Our job as parents is to prepare our kids to operate in the world (professionally and emotionally) on their own.  If they never learn how to deal with things as a kid, it will be even harder for them to deal with conflict as an adult.  If we do not prepare our kid now, they will lack the emotional maturity necessary to deal with life.  It is true, nobody wants problems and all of us wish no problems ever occured, but running away from problems or pretending they are not there does not make them go away.  Problems are like cancer, if we don’t treat them, they will fester, spread and become even worse.

The central lesson I think I have learned so far in life is this:  “when you see qualities in others, emulate them; when you see faults in others, learn from their mistakes.”  If one adopts such an outlook, then it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, we grow as a person regardless.  As we go through life and observe other people doing all sorts of different things, our job is to do exactly this.

We should take the time to consider how fortunate we are to have many good examples of people in our family with many good qualities.  It is wrong to let our anger about perceived harm blind us to seeing the many good qualities others possess.  Sure, none of the people in our family are perfect and all of them have their own little foibles.  None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes.  But we shouldn’t let people’s mistakes blind us to their many good qualities.  Rather, we should take the time to appreciate their good qualities and resolve to emulate their good qualities ourselves.

But despite all of this, the reality is conflict will sometimes occur, even within the best families.  Our job is to learn how to deal with it and respond to it in a constructive way.

So what are some of the main causes of conflict within a family?

First is childhood rebellion taken too far.  Every child’s identity is shaped in part by a rejection or rebellion against the perceived failings and mistakes of their parents. This is entirely normal and there is nothing wrong with it.  Parents may not like it because they don’t like to admit their mistakes, but one of the first things we realize when we become a parent ourself is just how hard it is to be a good parent.  Nothing in life prepares us for it.  So yes, our parents will make mistakes – many mistakes.  And our job as kids is to learn from their mistakes and to not repeat them when you become parents ourselves.  If we all do this, generation after generation, there is hope that our family will grow stronger and stronger and we will become a great family.  But as children (even as adult children) we need to be careful to not take this rebellion too far where we also reject all of the good qualities our parents embody.  It is true, we need to develop our own opinion and views about life, but our views cannot just be a rejection of everything our parents think.  If it is, then we actually haven’t developed our own views at all, rather we are still allowing our parents to define our views in our rejection of them.  Our parents do get some things right, in fact, they generally get most things right.  Our job as kids is to take the good, learn from their mistakes and keep an open mind that we might just be wrong in thinking what they have done is mistaken.  Some things that were seen to be mistakes when we were a kid are not seen that way when we ourselves become a parent.  Same is no doubt true when we make the transition to being grandparents.  But some other things do continue to be seen as mistakes and when we are parents (or grandparents), we should try to not repeat those same mistakes ourselves.

Second, we should be grateful for what those in our family do do for us, not be resentful about what they don’t do.  Virtually all family conflicts stem from projecting expectations onto the other person about what they should be doing, then getting upset at them when they fail to live up to our expectations.  Only problems come from approaching family relations in this way.  We need to accept others for who they are, not judge them for all of the different ways we feel they fall short.  When we are not grateful for what people do give, then they come to resent their giving and they give less.  If we get upset at them for not living up to our expectations, then even if they start doing so they will not be doing so from their own side because they want to, but will instead be doing so out of some feeling of obligation, guilt or to avoid us getting angry at them.  So their extra action never leaves us feeling satisfied.  If truth be told, it is much better to expect absolutely nothing from others.  If we expect a lot and they give a little, we will feel disappointed.  If we expect nothing and they give a little, we will be extremely grateful.  It all depends on our expectations.  Nobody owes us anything.  We should be grateful for everything.

Third is exaggeration and inappropriate attention.  Every problem between any two people involves lots and lots of exaggeration.  There might be some small problem, but our mind quickly exaggerates the perceived harm completely out of proportion until it becomes this giant and awful thing which bears no resemblance to what actually happened.  We do this towards others, others do this towards us.  Until we stop exaggerating, we will never deal with the problem as it is.  Likewise, we need to be careful to not have inappropriate attention.  If we focus 99% of our attention on 1% of the problem, it will seem like there are 99% problems between us.  Our inappropriate attention will crowd out seeing all of the good, and we will quickly lose it.  We need to keep things in perspective, otherwise we risk losing it all over insignificant problems.

Fourth, don’t accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  Doing so just breeds resentment.  Sometimes people give not because they want to, but because they feel like they have to (for whatever reason).  Externally, they might not show the slightest trace that they are unhappy to give, but internally they are bitter about the fact they are having to do so and then they become resentful against those they perceive to be mooching off of them.  If somebody perceives us as mooching off of them for taking what they offer, they will grow increasingly bitter about it over time and it introduces all sorts of problems in the relationship.  That is why it is much better to not accept something from somebody who is not happy to give that thing.  In such a case, if w have the financial means of affording the thing ourself, we should provide it for ourself.  If we can’t afford to provide it for ourself, then we quite simply go without that thing.  My grandfather said, “if you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.”  I fully agree.

Fifth, we shouldn’t be jealous of our siblings for what we perceive to be a better relationship with the parent.  If truth be told, I have spent my whole life jealous of the relationship my father has with my brother.  It has always been better than the one I have had with him.  There is no end to how much I have resented my and brother for this.  Even now, I see the investment my father puts into his relationship with my brother’s children compared to what he invests in his relationship with my children, and I likewise become jealous.  This was/is 100% wrong of me.  The correct reaction is to be happy for others and for the relationship they are able to forge together.  Being jealous always makes things worse and leaves us miserable.  It is the most useless emotion there is.

So how should we deal with the mistakes of people within the family?  First, it must be said that unlike friends, family is forever.  Permanent breakdown of the relationship is not an option.  Even in the biggest fights, we should always work towards a resolution, but it has to be an honest one.  We can’t shove things under the carpet (more on that below).  We should always try keep the door open, but we shouldn’t do other people’s work for them.  If they don’t do their own work from their own side, there won’t be any real resolution of the issues, there will just be everyone pretending they are not there.  If the other person chooses to not do their work to love us despite our mistakes, at least from our side we do our work to love them despite their mistakes.  But loving them despite their mistakes and cooperating with their dysfunction are two different things.  We can love them and not cooperate with their dysfunction.  This is the fundamental lesson Ghandi taught in this world.

When dealing with people who make mistakes, we need to make a distinction between those who are trying to change and those who are not.  There is a fundamental difference between somebody who refuses to admit their mistakes and always blames others and somebody who admits their mistakes, apologizes for them and tries to do better.  The first person will never change.  With such a person, if their faults are minor, we should overlook them in order to preserve the good.  With such a person, if the dynamic between us and them has become poisonous, it is better to walk away and pray.  Continuing to try engage in an unhealthy dynamic just feeds it and makes it harder to get out of it later.  If somebody is not interested in making peace, but instead will just use every exchange as another opportunity to express their anger and say hurtful things, it is better to walk away, pray and hope time heals all wounds.  Oftentimes, our only choice with such people is to redefine the parameters of the relationship, usually making it confined to those areas where problems are unlikely to occur.  If they are not capable of doing so, but insist on allowing the problems to spill over into the good parts of the relationship, then there is nothing we can do but walk away and pray.  It goes without saying, if the situation is abusive, such as my cousin whose ex-husband beat her, then the only solution is to get out.  We do not help other people by allowing them to abuse us.  But we also shouldn’t cry abuse when it is not actually abusive.  Doing so cheapens the term.  It is like when people compare current behavior to Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were singularly evil and their acts unmatched in their awfulness.  We don’t make such claims unless they are warranted.

The second type of person is someone who is trying to change.  With them, we should show patience and acceptance.  When their faults are minor, we should overlook them as before with the person unwilling to change.  When their faults or mistakes are major, we shouldn’t cooperate with the dysfunction (for example giving into threats or shoving things under the carpet just to pretend everything is OK), but we should say despite their mistakes we love them anyways.  If somebody is genuinely trying to get better, they apologize when they do make mistakes, they honestly admit their mistakes, etc., then we should give such people the time to get better.  We cannot change others, only they can change themselves.  But we shouldn’t expect others to be perfect and we should give them the space to get better.  It takes time.  Changing ourself is hard.

What is the correct way of dealing with others when they are expressing their anger at us?  This is not easy to deal with, but it is also part of life.  If we can learn how to deal constructively with it, then we will save ourselves no end of grief and suffering in the future.  Here are eleven things we can do:

  1. Don’t allow people’s words said out of anger hurt us. It is their anger talking, not them. What they say when they have love and understanding in their hearts is what they really think. This is critical to understand and deeply internalize, otherwise we will never be able to let go of the hurtful things they have said.
  2. If we have made mistakes, we should admit them and apologize for them at the earliest possible opportunity. Otherwise the anger of the other person quickly turns to resentment which is much harder to uproot.
  3. Don’t give in to threats and blackmail. If we do, the threats and blackmail will never stop and we will always live in fear. The only way to stop a bully is to not give in anymore. Yes, they will impose their consequences on us, but when we show we are not afraid and we will not give in, they lose all power over us and we break free.
  4. Don’t retaliate to the harm we receive.  The more angry and unreasonable they are, the more calm and reasonable we need to be.  Retaliation (responding with anger and harm to their anger and harm) creates a vicious cycle that gets worse and worse.  Non-retaliation, however, provides an opening for things to de-escalate and get better.  And even if the other person continues to be upset, at a minimum we retain the high ground because we have not retaliated in kind.
  5. Don’t sacrifice inner peace on the altar of outer peace.  Nobody likes conflict in the family and the immediate reaction of everyone is to shove things under the carpet and pretend that nothing is wrong as quickly as possible to try get back to normal.  Shoving things under the carpet may temporarily create some outer peace, but inwardly it leads to resentment and the anger festers like a cancer until it blows in some dramatic fashion. When people repress their anger (as opposed to genuinely let go of it), the anger builds and builds like a volcano in their mind, and then the slightest thing causes it to blow.
  6. Once things have come to the surface, we should use our love and wisdom to work through the differences in a calm, reasonable, and fair way.  95% of the time in any dispute, both sides are making theexact same mistake just in different ways.  For example, usually both people are upset at the other person not living up to their expectations.  To find a solution, we should apply equal standards to both sides. Only that will lead to a fair and lasting resolution.  Both sides should appreciate the other person for what they do do, not be upset about what they don’t.
  7. Accept that some things are details and should be set aside.  Usually what happens when a fight starts is both sides bring out all of their past grievances against the other person – revisiting every harm that has ever occurred and bringing up many small issues.  We should not become distracted by this.  Instead, we should focus on the core of the dispute.  If we can resolve the core issue, usually the smaller things will resolve themselves.
  8. Don’t fight about fighting.  Once a conflict starts, people will usually spend most of their time fighting about fighting and all the hurtful things said during the fight.  Instead, we should see past this and strive to resolve the fundamental issue. Even if the other person doesn’t apologize for the hurtful things they say, we should apologize for the hurtful things we said.
  9. When we have been attacked,we shouldn’t respond until we are calm.  We shouldn’t respond out of anger.  We should wait until calm and reason have returned to our own mind.  We should be careful to not say or do anything that will make the conflict worse and that we will later regret.  It is better to do nothing than something that makes everything worse.  Sometimes we should also give the other person the time they need to calm down before we respond.  Even if we are calm, if the other person hasn’t calmed down yet, then they will reply to our peaceful overtures with further venom.  We should almost always wait at least 24 hours to respond.  If after 24 hours we are not calm, then we should tell the other person that we are waiting until we calm down before we reply.  Tell them we will reply, but we want to do so once we are calm and are ready to respond in a constructive way.  They will respect us for that, and it prevents their anger transforming into resentment because they think we are ignoring them.
  10. The reality is most people have no idea how to actually resolve conflicts. All they know how to do is bury their head in the sand and pretend it’s not there. While we don’t deal with things that way, forcing people to confront things they are not capable of confronting usually just makes things worse. So we also need to accept that different people will deal with conflict in different ways, and we shouldn’t impose our way of resolving conflict onto others.  But internally, even if we have no contact with the other person, we should do the internal work necessary to get to the point where we forgive the other person (even if they never apologize); we accept the other person as they are, warts and all; and we feel nothing but love, gratitude and compassion for them.  Even if the other person doesn’t do the same, we do this because it is the right thing to do.
  11. When the other person does apologize, we should accept it sincerely and apologize ourself.  Yes, its true, when we apologize people sometimes then lash out at us.  Fine, let them.  Apologize again.  But when they apologize to us, we accept it.  Trust is not reestablished overnight, some wounds are very deep and will take a long time to heal.  We should strive to build on the positive, work towards a constructive resolution of the rest. But we should resist the temptation to shove things back under the carpet. If we are to have reconciliation with others, it has to be an honest one where both sides genuinely let go.  If the other person isn’t able or willing to let go, we let go ourselves anyways because again, that is the right thing to do.

If we are in a dispute, how should you relate to other people who are not party to your dispute, but who are nonetheless affected by it.  For example, imagine a big conflict between yourself and your parents, what should we do with our siblings, kids and so forth?

First and foremost, we should not put other people in the middle.  We put other people in the middle when we force them to take sides.  We put people in the middle when we get upset at them for liking the other person.  For example, my mother would make us feel like we were betraying her if we loved my father.  Many divorced couples make the same mistake with their kids.  This is completely wrong.   Instead, we should tell everyone that we don’t want our conflict with the one person in any way to interfere with their relationship with the person we are in conflict with.  We say we want everyone to continue to have a good relationship with everyone else.  We don’t just say this, we actively defend this as a principle and do what we can to make sure others do not suffer adverse consequences for the problems in our relationship.

Second, we do, however, need to keep others informed of what is going on if the fallout of the conflict affects them.  If it is small dispute or the outcome of that dispute doesn’t affect anybody else, there is no reason to inform them what is going on.  But if the fallout of the dispute does affect others, then it is a different story.  In such a situation, we have two choices:  we either try make up some lie as to why these changes are happening or we tell the truth.  Since we don’t lie, we tell the truth.  We have no choice but to inform people what is going on because the fallout impacts them. But when we do so, we need to be 100% clear with them that the conflict we are having with the other person has NOTHING to do with them, and that we do NOT want them to feel like they have to take sides, in fact we are asking them to NOT get involved.  But we are informing them because they are affected by the conflict and we don’t believe in lying to them.  When we inform other people of our dispute, there is a natural tendency to want them to take our side, even if we tell them we don’t want them to take sides.  There are all sorts of reasons why we would want this, some valid, some not, but we should resist this within ourselves.  People don’t want to get in the middle.  Sometimes they also simply don’t know what to say.  We should not get upset at others if they do not respond in the way we would want them to.  Likewise we should not internally sit in expectation that they take our side and then feel betrayed or let down when they don’t.  If we do, we just cause the problem with one relationship to spill over into our other relationships.  That turns a problem into a tragedy.  In sum, we shouldn’t let our problem with one person spill over into problems with other people who are also connected to that person.  We should instead try keep the problem isolated to the person we are in a dispute with and reassure everyone else that we have no problem with them.

If we ourselves are not party to a dispute between two people we love, for example we observe a conflict between our sibling and our parent, what should we do?  We should stay 100% out of it.   In a situation like this, there are no winners, only losers.  But if we put ourselves in the middle, we put ourselves in a no-win situation.  If we take one person’s side, we ruin our relationship with the other.  Therefore, it is almost always best to not take sides at all and stay out of it.  The only exception to this is if both sides are asking us to mediate the dispute for them because they both respect us.  But if they are not asking us to mediate their dispute, we should not get involved.  I have made this mistake many times in life, viewing myself as the hero who comes to save the day and resolve everyone’s conflicts.  The result of all such attempts has been to make things worse – sometimes much worse.  Since we love both people and it hurts us to see them fighting, its normal for us to want to do something to try make it better.  But almost always, the best thing we can do is stay out of it and let the other people work it out.  When we put ourselves in the middle, we often just make it harder to resolve the dispute.

Likewise, we should also not let other people’s problem become our problem.  For example, the fact that there is a problem between two people in our family is NOT your problem.  Just because they have a problem with each other does not mean we should have a problem with either of them.  We should take the position that we love everyone and refuse to be put in a position where we have to make a false choice between the two sides.  This is very important.

In summary, when we are in a dispute with others we should admit our own mistakes, apologize for whatever harm we may have done, not retaliate, not put other people in the middle nor make them feel they have to choose sides.  We should work towards an honest, reasonable and fair solution that doesn’t shove the core issues under the carpet while letting the details and minor issues fall away.  When observing others behavior, we should stop exaggerating the supposed harm, not let our anger or pride blind us to the other persons good qualities, we should emulate the good we see in them and learn from their mistakes so we don’t repeat them ourselves.

Dealing with conflict is not easy, but it is part of life.  It is important for us to learn how to deal with it so we have the emotional maturity necessary to navigate through the inevitable conflicts we will face as we go through life.

I don’t claim to have done myself all of the above perfectly.  I have made many mistakes and I will no doubt continue to make many mistakes.  But I am trying to honestly examine my behavior and do better.  What is described above are the ideals I am striving, however imperfectly, to put into practice.


May all conflict within all families be peaceably resolved, and may all such conflict become a powerful teacher of the truth of Dharma.


Cultivating healthy relationships: How to bring out the best in yourself and others

I have saved this topic for the last, because normally what we want is to learn methods for changing the other person because we think it is they who need to change.  What I have tried to communicate during this series of posts is that it is actually we ourselves who need to change, not the other person.

But how can we get others to change?  As Bodhisattvas, don’t we want all beings to change themselves into Buddhas?  So while in general we say we don’t try change others, we nonetheless want others to change for the better.  The key condition for being able to help anyone is we ourselves need to have absolutely no need whatsoever for the other person to change.  The fact that they are a deluded mess serves us just fine because we know how to transform everything.  If we are attached to them changing, the more we try to change them, the more they will resist our advice, even if it is exactly the advice they need to hear.  But when they know we accept them just as they are and we have no hidden agenda why we want them to change, then they are open to listening to us.  We present them the alternatives, but leave them completely free to decide what to do.  In that space, they can make their own decision to change, and when they do so, they will own that decision as their own.

We need to make sure our motivation is pure.  We shouldn’t want others to change for ourselves, for example, so we no longer have to deal with their problems anymore.  We need to stop trying to change them.  We need to leave people to be completely free to change from their own side.  If we pressure people to change then even if they do it is not from their own side, and so it will not stick and not be meaningful.  We need to create an atmosphere of total respect and freedom for them to make their own decisions.  This is true even if they don’t do this for you.  In this space, we try set a good example.  The only real way to change others is to show a good example.  When people see our good example, and they see how it works better than what they are doing, they will naturally from their own side want to change.  We should only explicitly offer people advice if they ask for it, or if they are open to receiving it.  If they are not asking for it, then they will reject what we have to say as if we are shoving it down their throats.

A really great way of doing this is to ‘own others’ faults as your own.’  We see others as mirror-like Buddhas who reflect back to us our own faults.  We then find that fault inside of ourselves, and purge it like bad blood.  There are several benefits of practicing like this.  We will be able to show the best possible example for the other person.  We will learn what you need to learn about how to overcome their biggest faults.  And, at the very least, we will have one less fault.

I know there are those who will think that it is a misuse of the Dharma to explain how we can use it to make our relationships more healthy, stable and rewarding.  But this is wrong.  First, most people come into the Dharma with the intention of fixing their lives.  If we do not respond to this need, they will turn to something else.  First we show them how they can fix the problems of this life with the Dharma, and on the basis of that experience we show them that they can also solve the problems of their future lives with the Dharma.  Second, this view grasps at our modern relationships as being inherently worldly.  All things are equally empty, so therefore all things are equally transformable.  It is our ignorance grasping at some things being intrinsically worldly that prevents us from bringing the Dharma into every aspect of our life.  This ignorance is actually quite common among many people, and they transmit this ignorance to other new people coming into the tradition.  This creates all sorts of inner turmoil for people.  They want to practice Dharma, but they don’t want to abandon their modern life, so they view the two as competitive with one another.  If they stick with the Dharma, they will have an extreme view and continue to transmit it to others, making them miserable in the process.  If they abandon the Dharma because “it asks too much of them”, then they lose everything.  Nobody wins from such a view.  Third, the primary task of our tradition right now is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.  How can we do that if we are not allowed to bring the Dharma into our normal relationships and try use it to deal with our modern-day relationship challenges?

When Venerable Tharchin was on his long retreat, near the end he went to Geshe-la and said, “I am very close to enlightenment.  I know if I continue a bit longer I will make it.”  Geshe-la then told him that it was time to leave his retreat.  Venerable Tharchin was in shock because it was not the answer he was expecting!  Geshe-la then said, “If you stay up here, you will attain enlightenment, but you will become a ‘worthless Buddha’ because you will have no relationships with living beings.”  Our ability to help others depends upon the realizations in our heart and the quality of our relationships with others.  Eventually, we need to lead all beings to enlightenment.  We won’t even be able to begin to do so if we don’t first know how to have healthy, stable and rewarding relationships with others.  A Bodhisattva is a friend of the world.  This starts with the people in our lives.

Cultivating healthy relationships: Knowing when and how to get out of a dysfunctional relationship

If you recall from the first post in this series, a healthy relationship is one where we are able to increase our own good qualities in the relationship.

So with this understanding, under what conditions should we get out of a relationship?  It depends on what we want.  If what we want is good external conditions, the answer may be different than if what we want is to develop ourselves internally.  Historically, what we want is good external conditions, so we jump from one situation to another depending on the external rewards of the situation.  As we start to want internal growth and development, an entirely new level of justification for remaining in a relationship arises.  It is entirely possible that from an external perspective, there is nothing keeping us in a relationship, but from an internal perspective, we are still growing so we want to stick around.  Whether we remain in a relationship depends on many factors:

It depends on our capacity to use/transform the situation into an opportunity to increase our inner qualities.  If the situation we are in is so extreme that it is functioning to destroy us internally, then the situation is beyond our capacity and we need to get out.  This does not mean that there won’t be difficult times and situations where we are knocked on our butt.  The question is do we have the capacity to pick ourselves back up again and be better for it.  In this context, it depends upon our motivation.  If our motivation is thinking that we can run away from our problems by running away from the relationship, then we will be disappointed.  We cannot escape from our karma.  If we moved to a cave to get away from it all, we would start to prefer some parts of the cave to others.

It depends on whether we have tried everything.  Before we leave a situation we need to make sure that we have tried everything we can think of, plus some, to make it work.  Only then can we leave with a clean conscience.

It depends on whether the other person has the intention to change.  If somebody doesn’t have the intention to change, then no matter what you do, they won’t change.  People often think if they get married or have a kid then the person will change, but then they are disappointed when it doesn’t happen.  If the other person doesn’t have a sincere interest in changing, then they won’t.  So we should stop holding out for that, and move on to help somebody else.

It depends on our sense of self-worth.  We tend to undervalue ourselves and allow ourselves to remain in an unhealthy situation.  In the eyes of the Buddhas, we are all perfectly good and extremely precious.  Because we lack confidence in ourselves we think it is better to be with somebody even if it is bad than it is to be alone.  This is not true.  It is better to be alone than to be in a destructive relationship.

It depends on our relevant alternatives.  In general we say that our task is to learn how to respond to the situations we find ourselves in without delusion.  If we cannot yet do this, but we still have the capacity to grow, then we should stay.  However, this depends on our alternatives.  It doesn’t make sense to exaggerate the importance of a few people at the expense of the many.  We may be able to remain in a situation and have a small effect on somebody else, but if our alternative is to bring about greater benefit to a greater number of people, then it may make sense for us to get out.

So assuming we have examined carefully these points, and we have decided that we need to get out, the question is how.  We need to generate a pure motivation concerned for the other person.  We need to try to leave for their sake, and understand how our leaving is best for them in the long-run (even if it means in the short-run they suffer more from losing us).  If we are genuine with this, then when we explain to them why we are leaving for their sake, they will be able to accept it easier.  If we are not at the point of leaving yet, we need to set terms under which we are willing to stay and leave it up to the other person to decide if they can meet those terms or not.  We need to come to a clear understanding of what is a functional relationship and under what conditions we are willing to stay.  Then we have an honest conversation with the other person communicating the conditions under which we can remain.  Then if the relationship does break it is because they decided that they can’t stay under our terms.  So it is them who is leaving, not us.  We should not let things linger on.  If we know it is going nowhere, it is better to end it and move on than to let things linger for years.  If it is just not going to work, it is better to come to this understanding early and make a clean break than it is to allow things to linger on in a goofy way.

When things are really dysfunctional, what do we do?  Usually the thing that prevents us from getting out is emotional blackmail of an extreme sense.  We get out in such circumstances by gradually breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail, as described in an earlier post.  It is quite possible that the other person will not want to remain with us when they realize that they can no longer emotionally blackmail us.  In abuse situations, we need to realize that we are harming the other person by allowing them to abuse us, and we need to get out.  If it is really extreme threats either of suicide or real harm, then we need to be very careful, but we need to know that staying in such a situation will not make it go away.  We need to get out, it is just an issue of how.  In such cases, we should seek professional advice.

Cultivating healthy relationships: How to break the cycle of emotional blackmail

The purpose of the next couple of posts is to explain how to deal with the more difficult cases.  In this post we will talk about how to break the cycle of emotional blackmail, and in the following posts we will discuss knowing how and when to get out of dysfunctional relationships and how to bring out the best in ourselves and others.

Emotional blackmail is when somebody applies an emotional penalty against us when we don’t do what they want us to do.  It is only a problem if we are inclined to change our behavior as a result of the emotional penalty they apply.  In other words, if we were planning on acting in the way the other person wants us to regardless of the emotional penalty they are threatening, then it is a non-issue and not worth responding to.  Better to just ignore it and do our thing.

The most important thing to know about blackmail is when somebody emotionally blackmails us and we give in to their threats we guarantee that they will attempt to blackmail us again in the future.  The other person knows they can control and manipulate us.  This is why it is a cycle.

So how do we break this cycle?  The starting point is we need to acknowledge that the only reason why people can emotionally blackmail us is because we let them.  At the end of the day we have choice over our actions.  We can choose not to give in to their threats.  The reason why we usually do give in is because we think it is not worth the hassle – the other person will make a bigger problem for us if we don’t go along than the benefit we otherwise would receive if we did what we think is best absent their threats.  So we decide that it is not worth the fight.  The flaw in this logic is that while it may be true on any given instance, the fact that this destructive pattern will be repeated again and again reverses the costs and benefits.  It is not just this one issue, but the blackmail will happen again and again on issue after issue until we finally break the cycle.

Before we take a stand against somebody blackmailing us we need to make sure that we are right.  It is not advisable to take a stand on issues where we are wrong because that just makes us stubborn and unreasonable.  To break the cycle we need to be willing to accept whatever penalty they throw at us and still not change our behavior.  This will demonstrate to them that their emotional weapon of choice is powerless over us.  We will not change as a result.  This eliminates the power of that particular emotional weapon forever.  They will know that it no longer works.  Even if they try to use that same emotional weapon again, it will be easier for us to again not give in.  Eventually they will no longer try using it because they know it doesn’t work anymore.

Please note when we do not give in to their first level of threats, they will most likely escalate the emotional penalty they throw at us to something worse.  We have to be willing to take that as well.  The point at which we give in is the point at which they have control over us.  They will seek out the point we are the most vulnerable on and attack that.  So in parallel we need to train in non-attachment to the things that they can threaten to take away from us.  We need to get to the point where mentally we don’t need these things anymore.  We need to get to the point where we don’t fear what they can do to us anymore.  Our happiness does not depend on having what they can take away from us nor does it depend on avoiding what harm they can throw at us (if they are abusive, then we often need to get out.  See the next couple of posts).

Cultivating this non-attachment can sometimes be very hard to do, especially when it comes to losing the love of those who are very close to us, such as our spouse, children or parents.  But as Saint Francis said, “ask that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love.”  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether they love us, it only matters whether we love them.  Our happiness does not depend on them loving us, rather our happiness depends on us being able to love others – something entirely within our control.  It is our attachment to things that others can take away from us which enables them to blackmail us.  If we didn’t have this attachment, it wouldn’t be possible to blackmail us.

We need to work gradually with this.  We often can’t break free from their systems of control too quickly because the other person won’t be able to take it and may do something really stupid.  We should start by not giving in on small things at first, and then when we think it is becoming too much (for them or for us), we strategically give in.  Then next time we push it a little bit further.  Eventually we absorb everything they have to throw at us, and none of it works, so they stop trying.

How do we deal with particularly difficult cases of others threatening to harm us or to harm themselves?  We need to be very careful here to assess how credible the threat is.  If it is truly credible, then we need to know at what point to stop.  Usually people who threaten things like harming us or harming themselves also employ a vast arsenal of smaller threats and emotional blackmail weapons.  By gradually wearing away at these smaller threats through the method described above, we can erode the foundation for them to call in their ultimate trump card.  Since we don’t give in on the smaller threats, they are forced to escalate until they reach their trump card.  But then they will have to threaten the ultimate on smaller and smaller things.  In such a situation, they are more likely themselves to not think it is worth it, for example, to kill themselves if we don’t go to the movie of their choice!  By eroding the smaller threats we make the ultimate threats less likely and less credible.  Sometimes we may need to call their bluff; and if we are right that they are bluffing, they become highly unlikely to employ that particular threat again.  This helps us because then we are not threatened in this way again and it helps them because they are forced to learn new ways of dealing with others.  If, however, the situation is really extreme, and we have done everything we can think of, then we might need to get them help and get ourself out.  We will talk about this in a later post.

How can we do all of this with a compassionate motivation?  Our motivation for breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail should be as compassionate as possible.  By allowing somebody to emotionally blackmail us we are enabling them to accumulate all sorts of negative karma for themselves which will result in them being similarly emotionally blackmailed in the future.  They blackmail us because they think their happiness depends on us doing particular things.  By giving in, we feed their attachment and therefore make them dependent.  This doesn’t help them.  We also need to help them realize that their happiness does not depend on what we do.

The bottom line is we don’t help people by indulging them in their delusions.  This doesn’t mean we jump to the extreme of never doing so in one go, but it does mean we have a general direction of our relationship with them.  With an intention to save others from all of the negative consequences described above, as an act of love towards them, we simply stop giving in.

It will be hard, and sometimes people may conclude it is not worth having a relationship with us if they can no longer manipulate us.  So be it – the relationship was doomed anyways.  But most of the time, we can bring about a change in the dynamic between us and others by engaging in Ghandi-style non-cooperation with wrong behavior.  If we succeed in doing so, after the long ordeal, our relationship will then be put on a healthy foundation and we can begin to enjoy the fruits of mutual love and respect.

Cultivating healthy relationships: How to make peace instead of retaliate

When somebody harms us our first reaction is to retaliate.  We usually do this out of anger, with the wish to get the person back or teach them a lesson not to do this to us again in the future.  But in general, retaliation only makes the situation worse.  To understand this we need to examine who really benefits and who is really harmed when someone acts towards us in a way that would normally harm us.  If we check, we realize we actually benefit.  We have now paid off a long-standing karmic debt.  If we practice patience, our inner qualities are improved.  The other person loses – they create the causes to experience suffering in the future, and were miserable in the experience because they got angry.  It was our fault they did what they did to us anyway, since we created the cause for them to do it to us.  So actually it is we who should feel sorry towards the other person.

But non-retaliation does not mean that we become everyone’s favourite doormat, or that there aren’t circumstances where we need to be firm.  Here we make a distinction between wrathful actions and angry actions.  Anger is necessarily an uncontrolled deluded mind, whereas wrathful actions are engaged in with total control, knowing exactly what we are doing.  Anger is necessarily motivated by self-cherishing, whereas wrathful actions are necessarily motivated by compassion and the wish to help the other person.  We need to be honest with ourselves and check if it is sincerely for the sake of the other person that we are wrathful with them or are we just using Dharma to rationalize the conclusions of our self-cherishing and angry mind.  Anger is directed towards the another person, whereas wrathful actions are necessarily directed towards delusions.  Anger is directed towards anyone who harms us, whereas wrathful actions are generally directed towards those who have sufficient faith in us.  So we need to check how much faith the person has in us.  Anger is necessarily a reckless action, whereas wrathful actions require tremendous skill.  In general, they almost always backfire unless you have extreme skill.

How to resolve conflicts with others

What follows is some step-by-step advice we can follow for resolving conflicts with others:

  1. Face up to your own mistakes and faults.  The first step is admitting that you have done something wrong.  Normally we blame the other person for all conflicts, and then we come up with a million reasons justifying why we are faultless and they are to blame.  This just causes things to degenerate into a blame game, increasing defensiveness and the problems.  It is totally useless to do this because it leaves the solution to the problem in the court of the other person.  It is much better to take the responsibility all into our court, so that the solution is all in our court.  It is particularly useful to look at ourself from the perspective of the other person.  Try see yourself the way the other person sees you.  This will help you identify where you have made mistakes and will make your facing up to your faults more effective with the other person.  The key to wisdom is being able to view the world from the perspective of others.  By facing up to your own faults, and apologizing for what you have done wrong creates the space for the other person to do the same.  The key here is you need to be sincere.  It doesn’t work to just say, ‘it was all me’, when you don’t really believe that.  The key here is not to expect anything in return.  We can get mighty upset when we apologize for what we did wrong, and then the other person doesn’t reciprocate.  We should do the right thing, regardless of what the other person does.
  2. We need to relate to the other person’s pure intentions.  Nobody is evil in their own mind, even Stalin, Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden thought they were good.  So you need to put yourself into the mind of the other person and understand what their good intentions are, and relate to that.  A good example is those family members who care so much about you that they smother and control you because they cannot stand to see you suffer.  Of course, their controlling behaviour makes things worse, but it is coming from a good place.  Likewise, we all know people who want all the right things but they use all the wrong means to attain them.  By relating to the person’s pure potential, it functions to draw it out, and shows them that you understand their position.
  3. Start first by establishing common ground.  When we are in a conflict we tend to focus so much on the differences that we lose sight of the much more significant commonalities.  In most conflict situations, it is inappropriate attention to focus on the minor differences and neglect the vast swaths of commonality.  It is from the space of common ground that differences can be resolved.
  4. In working through the differences try the following approach:  For those issues which are not important, or you are wrong, graciously practice accepting defeat and offering the victory.  There are so many things that we fight for that are really irrelevant.  For those issues that are important and that there are differences on, stand your ground without getting angry and clarify your intention.

These steps will help lay the groundwork for de-escalating the conflict in your life.  The other person will see you are trying to make things better and you are trying to act constructively.  It is much harder to act unreasonably in response to somebody who is being reasonable and constructive.  This helps not only you, but it also helps them.

Finally, if we want to eliminate even the possibility of being harmed, we need to surrender our lives and our karma completely to our Dharma protector Dorje Shugden.  We get angry because we wish things were different than they are.  When we rely on Dorje Shugden, everything is perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  The situation may be uncomfortable and even painful, but we will know it is good for us.  We will know it is by working through this emotional challenge that we will grow spiritually and move closer to enlightenment.  We will gain the realizations we need to help others in the future who are suffering from similar problems.  In short, our difficulties will have a clear spiritual purpose.  If we genuinely feel that things are indeed “perfect”, then there is no basis for us wishing things were different than they are.  Therefore, there will be no basis for an angry response to arise in our mind when we are harmed.  Conflict may still occur, but we will not experience that conflict as a problem.  Through our not adding fuel to the fires of anger in the world, gradually the relationships around us will become increasingly harmonious, peaceful and rewarding.

Cultivating healthy relationships: How to resolve conflicts in our relationships

For most people, conflict is the main problem they have in their relationships.  There is virtually no one who does not have conflict in their relationships.  In this post I will try explain what are the causes of conflict in our relationships, how to overcome our own anger and how to resolve conflicts with others

What are the causes of conflict in our relationships

Self-cherishing is the root cause of all problems in our relationships.  It is because we are pursuing our own interests, often at the expense of others, that our relationships have difficulties and conflict.  From self-cherishing comes attachment – where we view other people as a cause of our happiness.  They are there to make us happy.  From self-cherishing also comes anger – the mind that things that other people are the cause of our suffering.

So how does attachment cause problems in our relationships:  mostly through our expectations of others.  We expect so many things of others, and then when they don’t live up to our expectations of them, we feel like they have failed us, and we are unhappy or angry.  We have expectations that others treat us in a certain way, for example talking to us in a certain way or treating us with respect. We have expectations that others do or not do certain things for us, for example our parents paying for our university or our partner bringing us flowers on Valentine’s day.  We have expectations that others behave in a particular way, for example of wanting our kids to go to bed. But others did not ask us to have these expectations of them, so it is mighty unfair to judge them when they don’t live up to them.

So how does anger create problems in our relationships?  We can get angry about anything and anger always makes the situation worse.  It always escalates the conflict or harm.  Even if we deter the other person from doing what we don’t want with our anger, we just create resentment which provokes other problems, it leaves us miserable and from a spiritual perspective, it destroys all our merit.

How do we overcome our own anger in our relationships?

In the final analysis, it is better to have zero expectations of anyone or anything.  Then we are never disappointed.  Take the example of how we are all taught to manage the expectations of our boss.  If he gives us some project to do and asks us how long do we think it will take to complete it, we always give ourselves a little more time than we will actually need.  Why do we do this?  If we think the project is going to take us 1.5 weeks to complete and we say that, then if we turn it in in 1.5 weeks it will be expected and if it takes longer than 1.5 weeks we are late.  If instead we say 2 weeks, then if we turn it in after 1.5 weeks we are a hero, whereas if we turn it in in 2 weeks it is not a problem.  We manage our boss’ expectations.  But we need to manage our own expectations of others.  If we expect great things – or for that matter, if we expect anything – from others, then we set ourselves up for disappointment.  If they meet our expectations, we are not happy because it was expected.  If they fall short of our expectations, we are unhappy.  Either way we lose.  If instead we expect absolutely nothing from others, then even the smallest thing they do will exceed our expectations and we will be happy and grateful.  Ironically, by expecting nothing of others we can become grateful for everything.

In every situation if we check carefully we will see there are two possibilities:  We can do something about it or we can’t.  If we can do something about it, we should do so.  Then no problem.  No need to make a big drama out of it (which we usually do).  If we can’t do something about it, then we practice patient acceptance.  This is a mind that happily and wholeheartedly accepts difficult situations.  It is not just bear with it, but genuinely welcome the situation.  Since there is nothing you can do about it, you have a choice of either be upset about the unavoidable or transform the experience into something meaningful.  If with two cancer patients, one accepts their illness and the other does not, surely the latter suffers far more.

How do we practice patient acceptance?  We find ways of transforming the situation into an opportunity to increase our own inner qualities. We consider the situation a lesson in the law of karma.  We created the cause to experience whatever is happening to us.  So we are paying off a long-standing debt – like paying off the last mortgage payment.  We can use the situation to increase our determination to treat others as we would want to be treated:  kindly.  It is important to not feel any guilt here.  Guilt differs from regret in two ways:  (1) regret is forward looking, and (2) regret blames our delusions (not ourselves).  We can consider it a lesson in the need to overcome our delusions.  The only reason why we suffer in a situation is because we respond to it in a deluded way, and because motivated by delusions we created the karmic cause to experience this problem.  So we can identify what delusions are present in our mind, and try to overcome them.  We can consider it a lesson in compassion for others.  Others are suffering from far worse, and so instead of thinking about ourselves, we can think about others and generate the compassionate wish to actively dedicate ourselves to helping relieve others of their suffering.

In the next post we will talk about how to not-retaliate, and instead to make peace.


Cultivating healthy relationships: What is a healthy relationship?

With the background of the previous post in mind, we can now turn to what exactly is a healthy relationship.  A healthy relationship is one where we grow internally as a result of the relationship.  Where within the context of the relationship we are able to increase our own inner qualities and abandon our own inner faults.  It is worth noting that this definition is strictly internal.  We can’t judge whether our relationships are healthy or not by external appearance, but only by the effect they are having on our mind.  Whether we grow or not grow internally in our relationships depends entirely upon ourselves, and not the other person.  If we relate to our relationships with others in a constructive, beneficial way, we can grow from them, no matter how difficult they may be.  Thus what externally may seem like a non-healthy relationship, for us can be extremely rewarding and beneficial.  Remember whether we are happy or not has nothing to do with our external circumstance, but instead depends entirely upon our mind.

This is important because it means whether we have healthy relationships or not is completely and utterly in our control.  The extent to which we hold on to the notion that the health of our relationships is outside of our control is the extent to which we deny ourselves the possibility to have all our relationships be healthy and rewarding.  A mutually healthy relationship would be one where two or more people grow internally as a result of the relationship.

So what is the difference between true love and dependency or attachment? We all want loving relationships, but unfortunately we have no idea what they really are. Society says love says, “I love you because you make me happy.”  We love other people for what they bring us, such as good food, company, support when we need it, etc.  I am not just talking about in relationships with our partners, but also with our friends, families, etc.  Here the object of concern is oneself.  At best, this can be called self-love, but more accurately, it is a contract.  Conditioning our happiness on something the other person is doing is called dependency, or attachment.  When both people are doing it, it is called co-dependency.  The principal motivation for relationships like this is ‘self-cherishing’, the mind that thinks one’s own happiness is supremely important, or the mind that values one’s own happiness over others.  Others derive their importance from their relation to us.  This attachment and self-cherishing are the root causes of ALL dysfunctional relationships.  It is a very useful exercise to identify how behind every problem we have in our relationships, we find attachment and self-cherishing.

True love, in contrast, says ‘I love you, how can I make you happy?’  Here the object of concern is the other person.  It is this distinction that makes our feelings towards others true love.  The mind of true love is what we call a ‘virtuous state of mind’, where it’s very presence in our mind makes our mind more peaceful and controlled and happy.  A loving mind is a happy mind.  True love doesn’t expect anything in return.  It just thinks about the other person and works to secure their happiness.   The principal motivation for relationships like this is the mind of ‘cherishing others’, which is a mind that values others’ happiness as important.  True love and cherishing others are the root causes of all functional relationships.  It is a very useful exercise to identify how a pure heart of cherishing others is present in all functional, healthy, and rewarding relationships.

So how do we generate true love for others?  There are three different levels of love.  Affectionate love is where we are delighted to see or think about the other person.  Like a mother when she is reunited with her child.  Cherishing love is a love that values, or considers to be precious and importance, the happiness of others.  Wishing love is a love that wishes the other person to be happy, and actively works towards accomplishing that goal.  This is the highest form of love.

At the end of the day, love is a daily choice.  To generate true love, or the mind that values and works for others happiness, all we need to do is understand why we need to do so, and then make the decision to do it.  The more we familiarize ourselves with this determination, the more we naturally change our heart until we naturally feel pure warm hearted love for everyone we meet.

There are two main valid reasons for generating the good heart of love for others.  First, they are so kind.  If we check carefully everything we have comes from the kindness of others.  Cars, roads, our body, our mind, our language, etc.  It does not matter that others don’t intend to be kind to us, from our perspective we still receive benefit and thus they are kind to us.  So what appears is the various things, but what we understand is the kindness of everyone.  We live in a web of kindness.  It is so beneficial to do.  All problems and all suffering come from self-cherishing, and all happiness and all good fortune come from the mind of cherishing others.  When we sincerely cherish others, we are liked by everyone, we easily establish rewarding relationships, and we are able to keep a positive attitude all the time.  Ultimately, all spiritual realizations flow from this mind as well.  It is like the first domino on the way to enlightenment.  Love is the opponent to all jealousy.  Jealousy is a mind that is unhappy at others good fortune.  Love, or rejoicing, is happy that others are happy.  With rejoicing we can enjoy all the happiness that exists in the world.  Love is the opponent to all loneliness.  Loneliness comes from thinking of oneself and from viewing others as objects for our own happiness.  With love we think about others, not ourselves, and we view ourselves as there to help others be happy, not the other way around.

The inner mechanism of self-cherishing, attachment, and anger is inappropriate attention.  We focus all our attention on our own good qualities and on other’s faults.  We need to examine whether this is a beneficial thing to do or not.  What are the disadvantages of ignoring our faults and focusing on the faults of others?  We develop a highly distorted, self-important view of ourself, and an arrogant, disrespectful attitude towards others. We perform many negative actions resulting in lower rebirth.  It prevents us from overcoming our faults.  If we can’t identify them we can’t get rid of them.  If we can’t get rid of them they will continue to cause us problems.  It is no different than someone pretending that they don’t have cancer.  It is a useless mind because it neither increases our qualities nor reduces our faults, and it does not cause others to share our exalted opinion of ourself.

What are the advantages of facing up to our faults and focusing on others good qualities?  It decreases our deluded pride.  Pride prevents us from learning anything.  Water does not collect at the top of a mountain.  Cherishing love flows naturally from focusing on other’s qualities.  The inner mechanism for being able to develop cherishing love for others is changing our attention.  If we do this, cherishing love comes easily and effortlessly.  We shall gain the respect and friendship of many people.  Understanding it is more beneficial to put our attention on our own faults and focus on other’s good qualities we make the determination to do so.