Difficult Encounters

Quite possibly the only thing I and the guy sitting at the end of the bench agree on is that we don’t like each other. We think the other is a jerk. We think the other is a puck hog, a glory hound, gets praise they don’t deserve, and everyone would be better off if they were traded to a different team.

And it doesn’t matter even a little when we’re sent on the field together. We’re going to do our best to help each other score a goal, or defend against the opponent’s rush, because in the end we win or lose as a team.

This is the metta that I turn to when I need to find loving kindness for someone who I find annoying or worse, who just cut me off in traffic or is in my face looking for a fight, who received something I think should be mine or perhaps simply wish was mine.  I take a second to  picture that person sitting at the end of the bench, geared up and wearing the same team jersey I have on, and realize that we’re on the same team in the game of life.

A lifetime of habit kicks in, and invariably my anger calms, my outrage or sense of unfairness dissipates; its as if we were on the playing field together, where it doesn’t matter who scores because goals are credited to the whole team. And it becomes my job to figure out what play this person is trying to make, what goal they’re trying to score, and that we are standing on the sidewalk rather than on some playing field is an insignificant detail. It becomes my job as their teammate in humanity to listen to them, to see what goal they’re consciously or unconsciously trying to score, to sense what they need to get there. I may not succeed – in fact I probably won’t. Their lives are complex, and even in the much simpler world of a play in sport most attempts to score fail. That’s okay, its still my job to try my best.

Everyone finds the metta that works best for them when dealing with difficult encounters. I’ve tried a number, starting with the standard “May you be happy, may you be well”, to picturing the person as a child. Those I find work very well with people I’m close to, and over the last couple of years have begun to work even with those I feel neutral towards. But when dealing with strangers in a tense situation, what works for me is to remind myself, “We’re on the same team.”  This is especially true when I’ve been physically attacked (a not uncommon occurrence in some of the volunteer work I’ve done); restraining a team mate who’s lost their temper is a very different mental situation than defending myself against an aggressive stranger.

Life’s metaphors are very individual, very personal, and I’m sure mine won’t work for most others. But I’d bet a great deal that most can find their life at least one metta which instinctively leads to loving kindness towards strangers momentarily working against us or even trying to hurt us. Dealing with long term hostility is harder, but I’ve been told its a continuation of the same practice.

Luckily life is full of little chances to practice and get better.  We fail, we get up and try again.

What could be simpler?

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