Someone calls you an idiot. Then you start thinking, “How can they call me an idiot? They’ve got no right to call me an idiot! How rude to call me an idiot! I’ll get them back for calling me an idiot.” And you suddenly realize that you have just let them call you an idiot another four times.
Every time you remember what they said, you allow them to call you an idiot yet again. Therein lies the problem.
If someone calls you an idiot and you immediately let it go, then it doesn’t bother you. There is the solution.
Why allow other people to control your inner happiness?
(Ajahn Brahm, ‘Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?’ p.226)
Ajahn Brahmavamso – ‘Brahm’ for short – has a lovely down-to-earth way of presenting the Dharma. The above is typical of his method of teaching, with a simple, direct story, organized into a neat framework. (Note how, as an ex-scientist, he first illustrates the problem, clinging to an insult, and then shows us the solution, letting go of it. And what’s the result of this simple formula? We retain our inner happiness.)
How to put the above into practice may not be quite so simple, however. If insulted, the natural human response is not to say, “Oh well, never mind,” and immediately forget all about it. That’s not the way most minds work, anyway. Elsewhere in his books and collected talks, Ajahn Brahm discusses various ways that we can counter this normal reaction to other’s criticisms of us. Indeed, Buddhism at large is full of techniques to assist in the letting go of such negative feelings. Let’s explore some here.
Okay, so your neighbor has called you an idiot, or a work colleague said that you’re really useless – what are you going to do? Slug them? Gush out a torrent of abuse? Nah – you’re Buddhist for heathen’s sake! So, what’s your first option, from the Buddhist perspective? You could try some metta-bhavana (goodwill meditation), generating positive, warm feelings towards them. Here’s a brief description of how to cultivate a bit of ‘loving-kindness’ as it’s called:
This can be done sitting in meditation position, or just in a comfy chair. Picture a cuddly, helpless puppy or kitten, or some similar creature that evokes sympathy in you. Really focus your attention on the little being, maybe it’s hungry or in pain, perhaps it’s missing its mother, with tears rolling down its cute face. Aaahhh! When feelings of goodwill have built up towards your small companion, turn your attention to those emotions themselves. Really dive into that metta/goodwill. Swim in it, and feel it fill your mind. Next, pick someone that you respect, perhaps a spiritual teacher such as…Ajahn Brahm! Generate goodwill towards this person, really wishing them all the best. Spend a few minutes doing this. Now, think of a friend, sending loving-kindness in their direction, taking the time to really feel positive emotions for them. Following on from this, do the same with someone you know a bit, like the guy who drives the bus, or the women that lives opposite. Wish them only good things, sending positive feelings to them, just as you did previously. Next, pick the person that called you something horrible. Picture their face, their humanity. Think of them as a vulnerable and imperfect being, just like that helpless little dog or cat, like Ajahn Brahm, the good friend, and the vague acquaintance. This person that insulted you is a suffering being just like any other. Maybe their bad attitude is due to their own particular problems and is something that they really can’t help right now. Whatever the reason for their rudeness, they’re deserving of your goodwill, and your sympathy. Give them some now, as you reflect on them.
Now, did that hurt? It certainly won’t have hurt the person that insulted you, and it won’t have done you any harm in the long run, either. Perhaps next time you meet them, this feeling of metta will rise in you again, and, if it’s strong enough, lighting up your face, that person might just pay you a compliment rather than call you an idiot!
The above cultivation of goodwill is really a long term answer to dealing with negative reactions to other people’s faults and insults. If you haven’t had the time for it, or someone else calls you dumb, you’re stuck! (Not unless you’ve become so good at meta-production that you can generate such emotions on demand, or are in a constant state of metta-production.) So, with that in mind, here’s an alternative strategy to dealing with a potential hate figure:
Really observe them. Notice the little things about them: the shape of their fingers, the color of their skin, their hair, and their eyes. See the wrinkles – or lack of – lining their face, the shape of their torso. What are their shoes like, and do their clothes fit nicely, or are they too loose or tight? Listen to that voice as it insinuates you’re the lowest of the low: is it a deep, resonate sound, or is it lighter in tone, perhaps even wavering in a kind of vulnerable way? Using acute observation skills this way – a form of mindfulness – can take your focus away from what they’re saying to who they are, what they’re like. It can also lead to becoming more aware of the person’s humanity, and their imperfect state that produces such impolite words. Awareness is a liberating force; it’s the heart of the
Another technique that helps not clinging to the nasty things people sometimes throw at you is more radical than the previous two examples. Put simply, it is to see that the other person is you, that there’s nothing separating the two of you, and that whatever insults they’re coming up with are directed as much at themselves as they are you. This might seem somewhat odd at first, but give it a try: its results can be startling effective:
Looking at the person opposite you, really look – are they opposite you, or do they (and ‘you’ as an ego) exist in the awareness that’s at the center of your being? This awareness is impersonal, it’s neither belongs to you nor to anyone else, and it’s the same awareness in us all. The details that occur in it can differ immensely, but if they are seen in the context of this knowing, they are revealed to be interconnected processes arising in this spacious awareness. Your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations all exist as an expression of this naked heart, as does everything and everyone else that you are aware of. Even the harsh words that can occur in this emptiness-full-of-the-world are seen as the way things are right now, neither good or bad in themselves, just phenomena arising and falling away in the knowing. Despite the detachment that can come out of this kind of observation, there’s a touching connectedness to everything experienced. So, although you may discover a certain detached attitude to your egotistical self and all that happens to it, a sense of the underlying unity of all separate things is also known. You are liberated from the self-identity that causes the clinging to insults that come may your way.
Lastly, you might want to try this one. It involves something called compassion:
The person with you has just told you that you’re an idiot. Rather than responding to these unfriendly words, reflect on the suffering state of the person before you. And, be assured that they are suffering. For, unless they’re enlightened, that is, they’ve let go of the causes of suffering, they do experience an underlying unsatisfactory quality to existence, even if they’re not conscious of the fact. And the offending words that spew forth from their lips are the direct result of their suffering state. They are subject to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal conditions of the universe that we all are. Identifying with the person that they think themselves to be, they react against the world in the only way that they know how, which at the present time takes the shape of distasteful diction. They are truly a pitiable being, and feeling compassion for them will result in immediate forgiveness for anything done that wasn’t nice. The compassionate one simply wants to help others escape their self-made, self-perpetuating prisons. Seeing them in this light, it’s hard to hang on to the stuff that they said to you, since you are more concerned with their well being than what they say.
There you have it: four ways to counter that natural, but ultimately unwise and uncompassionate, response to being called an idiot that results in suffering. They all involve a certain level of mindfulness, meditation, and time. Cultivate them at home, when the going’s good, and then, when next someone implies that you’re the dumbest of the dumb, you can respond with wisdom, goodwill, and compassion. What a wonderful way to put Ajahn Brahm’s advice into practice.