Last year I discovered the writings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh from The Marginalian, the blog of Maria Popova. The first book of his that I read is called How To Love, and it’s a very easy read. Each page is essentially its own subject, so it’s easy to read for a short time or a long time. Although the layout is simple, the lessons and the messages are profound. I think the idea of “practicing” how to love is interesting, and we do this whether we realize it or not. I love how he opens the book, the very first page is such an amazing word picture, it sets up the rest of the book nicely.
If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and capacity are limited and we suffer (emphasis mine). We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform. So the big question is: how do we help our hearts to grow?-Thich Nhat Hahn, “How to Love”, p.8
Hanh talks about something I have struggled with for most of my life: accepting others as they are. Don’t bristle, it’s true with me, and it’s probably true with you as well. Sure, I can accept people as they are as long as it doesn’t negatively affect me, but when it’s somebody close to me and their actions or attitudes hurt me, it’s hard for me to accept.
I’m not talking about grossly different attitudes that I think most people would agree are wrong, like racism or misogyny, I’m talking about approaches to interpersonal connections and relationships. As somebody that feels very deeply, in alignment with Dabrowki’s Theory of Positive Disintegration and the accompanying Overexcitability (more on that down the road), my empathy can (and has been) used against me. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, but suffice it to say that when a friend or family members hurts me, it hurts deeply, and this can turn into a real resentment. What I love about Hanh’s book, and the way he so beautiful opens it, is the idea of learning to expand my heart by understanding others’ suffering… for suffering, he says, really is the genesis of so many problems that we create, or are pulled into.
Last year, a family member said some things to me that hurt me very badly. The words hurt my heart, almost to the point of being physically pained. It felt so wrong, so offensive, and my extreme sense of justice (another nod to Dabrowski’s theory) was thrown into chaos. How could this person say such things? Do they actually believe this to be true? How could they when the truth is right out there in the open for everyone (including them) to see? My virtue, my soul, was deeply offended and hurt.
Later in the year, I read How to Love, and it helped me see things differently. In fact, the moment I read the final page, I flipped back to the beginning and started to re-read it. I ended up reading it in its entirety three times in the last couple of months of 2021. What I came to see, through Hanh’s words, was that the person who hurt me was suffering very much, and their pain and anger was trying to find an outlet. That outlet ended up being me. And while the words still hurt, I started to feel a sense of compassion for this person, not resentment, and not anger. “They are so sad,” I remember thinking, “and their pain is so great that they cannot hold it in. Their focus on me is an attempt to release the pain.” The thing is, I know without even asking them that the pain did not get released. If anything, it likely made it worse.
As of this writing, I still have not resolved the issue with this person, but they know that I am here and ready to talk when they are. It doesn’t create dark space in my heart and head anymore; instead when I think about this interaction, I feel compassion. When they are ready to talk, I know that I can approach our time together with patience and understanding, focusing on hearing everything they have to say about how they feel… I don’t need to keep a wall up and prepare to defend myself. That is what we do, isn’t it? We don’t listen to what the other person is really trying to say, we focus on the words and examples they use that affect us, so that we can defend ourselves. That’s not how it has to be though.
I am going to continue to work on expanding my heart, so that when salt it poured on it, even heaped, I do not become unbearable. Instead, I want my heart to be like the river… vast and strong and able to take on the salt that is thrown at me, so that I can still love, comfort and understand.
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer them is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” – Thich Nhat Hanh