The Presence of Challenging People In Our Lives

BY Parvati

We all meet people or experience circumstances in life that we find challenging. How we deal with those situations is a reflection of our rootedness in spiritual teachings. There are people in my life that I find challenging. Some friends have suggested that it seems a strange choice for me to maintain contact with these people, perhaps causing myself undue stress. I see things differently. Rather than seeing these people as doing something “to me” from a place of againstness, I choose to open to the experiences as a way to witness my own reactions, release painful habits, find inner space, and expand to meet the moment.
This story illustrates this well. There once was a great master who was leaving his village to meditate in isolation in the mountains for some time. The master said he would take someone with him to assist the journey. Many of his devoted students hoped that the saint would choose them for the special trip. But to everyone’s surprise, the master chose the most unlikely person in the village to accompany him: the pesky chai boy that ran the local tea stall. Due to his brusque manner and rough actions, the local community found this boy to be a difficult person. As the master and the boy prepared to leave for the trip, the baffled students approached their teacher to better understand his choice. “Master,” they asked, “why did you choose this annoying boy over all of us who have been devoted to you for so many years?” The master smiled and quietly answered: “This boy is my teacher. He teaches me humility, patience and compassion. Through him, I learn to see God everywhere.”
A traditional Tibetan shrine has an offering on it to feed hungry ghosts, the lost, roaming spirits of the universe, unable to meet the riches of this moment. This gesture is practiced as a sober reminder of what we could be, yet where we choose not to go.  When we align with our dharma through understanding righteous action and our soul purpose, we train ourselves to find spacious possibility when faced with dense constriction.
It is a natural, human reaction to experience stress, resistance and constriction when we are faced with people and situations that annoy us and push our buttons. We usually blame or judge another for their behaviour, making ourselves feel separate and even temporarily better than another. We distance ourselves from the circumstance, feeling somehow more clever than even Nature itself. Our ego, for the moment, has had an injection of self-serving, limited power that tells us we are good. Yet soon, we will experience a similar situation with a similarly irritating person and we will need to again, judge, blame and take a similar shot of a temporary ego-high to disconnect from the moment and find relief. Yet no lasting solution has been found to either free us from being in a challenging situation or free us from our buttons being pushed again.
Because we tend to experience life through the lens of our limited ego that only knows to divide, separate and categorize, we are conditioned to see things as happening “to” us until we learn otherwise. When we experience something we feel is bad, we tend to feel against it, as though it were an attack on our very being. We can feel, however unconsciously, that life is punishing us in some way, because we are unloved. These twisted roots of perception run deep in the human psyche. We fight what is rather than seeing the present moment as a consequence of our own karmic tendencies, lovingly offering us all we need to learn to evolve to the next stages in our unique soul journey.
From a yogic perspective, all that we experience is a result of our own state of consciousness. Painful experiences are the fruit of distorted perceptions and our own cloudy consciousness. As we refine our ability to truly perceive through the release of the lens of our ego-mind, our true, natural state, being one with pure consciousness, begins to expand. Actions then arise from clarity, releasing the experience of pain. Rather than our life being a consequence of distortions, which create more distortions, we begin to experience life an expansive opportunity for deeper awakening and joy. With openness and ease, we meet all of life as it is, rather than reacting to situations, seeing them as against us.
Take a moment to find your breath. Perhaps throughout the rush of this day, your awareness of this powerful life pulse has been masked by your attachment to the events of the day. Three deep breaths allows us to once again find inner space and begin to gain more perspective on what we are experiencing. One… deep… breath. Another… deep… breath. One more deep breath. Yes.
Then see if you can remember a situation or person that you found challenging. See if you can see this challenging situation or person from the vantage point that this moment is not happening “to” you. It simply is. Remind yourself that any sense of disconnection, separation from this moment, comes from a distorted sense of reality that only knows how to live through being separate. It continues, the more we feed it. So if you choose to feed it now, that suffering will just keep growing.
Instead, see if you can see this situation as the result of your own past actions. This may feel at first like a thought you want to resist. “What? This situation sucks! If I allow myself to see this as a reflection of my actions, then that would mean I suck!” This is a natural reaction, a way to protect our attachment to our ego and feeling separate. But remember, the notion of separation perpetuates suffering. So it is a good to soften here and let the grip of this kind of reaction loosen and ease.
Again, contemplate that this situation, all that you experience and see, is a result of your past actions. This ultimately is great news. If it is a result of your past, then you were part of co-creating it. Therefore, you can be part of co-creating change. The more alert and open you become, the more able you are to transform this experience of suffering into your natural state of spacious, pure consciousness.
What happens once you begin to expand your sense of awareness, rather than close? You gain greater insight. You see more. You experience more. You can begin to see into what really is. Say you remember an encounter with someone angrily yelling. You notice your immediate reaction to become tense and closed. You see what seems like danger. You want to shut down. Why do you see the angry person as danger? Perhaps they are yelling at you. This does not feel good, so you want to leave. Leaving is an option, but first, let us meet this moment.
You go deeper, and you see that this person yelling makes you feel unloved. It is this feeling unloved that signaled danger. We have primal wiring that tells us that we are dependent on our parents love to sustain us. We also have primal wiring that tells us to run when we meet a lion in the jungle. But is either of these situations true in this moment? Is this person a dangerous lion threatening our existence? Is this person a parent upon whom we are dependent? Is this person the source of love or of life? Likely this person is not a lion. So we can check that one off. If we go deeper, we see that no one person is the source of our love, no matter how close we may be to that person. Love comes from all, through all, in all. It is everywhere, always, even in the midst of an angry, emotional storm. Go deeper and you will find connection to that love that is so much bigger than this one, temporary experience. Maintain this big picture.
Breathing, allow tension to soften. More rooted in the big picture, you open more to also notice how the angry person is emitting more than anger, but deep, painful feelings. You know painful feelings. You can relate. No longer something foreign that you need to eject, you can understand more where this person is at and why they may be reacting this way. At the very least, you can see pain, and you understand the helpless feeling when you are faced with overwhelming pain. Within the sphere of mindful witnessing, you feel closer, less separate from what is. You have touched the heart, human connection.
Looking closer, you see how tense this person’s body has become. You see how much pain they are in. You see the disconnected state they are in. You then begin to realize that if you disconnect and react to their anger, you are adding fuel to a painful fire. You realize that would not cease the pain but only create more pain. Like reacting to a drowning person by jumping in with them, you would be two drowning people.
Going deeper, you see that this person’s expression of pain is a call for love. In this moment, this person does not feel connected to love. This person does not feel loved. You know this place. You know this pain. You also know that you are not the source of their love, just as they are not the source of yours. Quietly, you watch, breathing, feeling spacious. Quietly you witness this push-pull within them, this grasping at the notion of not being loved, and the pain it causes. You understand. You witness. You feel connected. But you are on the shore, rooted in the dharma of witness consciousness.
A feeling of spacious compassion arises, and you are present. You are not the source of love, but by being present, you can rest in the source of love, pure consciousness arising. When one is attached to the feeling of personal lack, the way one feels when they are taken over by such active pain, the greatest healing you can offer is presence. No one can fill the hole of deep pain, but the loving consciousness found in the energy of life itself can heal it. As you choose to rest here, you offer the other the greatest healing possible. You are a portal for transformation. You rest in who you are. You offer a quiet, humble reminder of what is. It is up to the other to choose to step out of the whirlwind they are creating and open. Presence is the healing you bring. By acting consciously, not only do you help to release the tendency to meet painful situations such as these that are the result of your own cloudy conscious behaviour from the past, but also you help to ease suffering in another by not adding unconscious fuel to their unconscious fire. In this, everyone wins.
Even broader still, by meeting this moment as it is, you send out a deep state of receptivity for peace and harmony that goes beyond this one incident. You signal to the universe that you are open, ready and willing to release all limited states of consciousness in you that perpetuate these kinds of painful situations. By learning to be present when faced with challenging people, you become a peaceful warrior, and a transformative alchemist of light and love in the midst of pain.
Practicing presence will ease most challenging situations. It is essential, however, to note that being present does not mean being roadkill, passively taking on hurtful behaviour. If you find that, despite your being present, another’s painful expressions continues, leaving the situation may be expansive. No one benefits if you find yourself exhausted or energetically depleted by a challenging circumstance. Sometimes people can become so attached to pain they can be addicted to drama and the erroneous perception of being disconnected. When faced with such deep pain, being present may lead us to removing ourselves from the immediate vicinity of these people, until they have become more balanced. There is no benefit to anyone when we sacrifice our own well-being to “help” another. This is no help at all. When we lose consciousness of our inner spaciousness in the moment, we too are in pain. We have become like the rescuer on the shore who has jumped in to save the person, jeopardizing our own safety. One must practice staying present.
In my life, meeting challenging experiences with presence is a test of my spiritual progress. Though I don’t welcome the painful behaviour in people in my life that can push my buttons, I do practice receiving the moment just as it is. When I do that, I find that there is room within this moment for it all: my feelings, my response and understand the other. I can see in the other, just like on the Tibetan shrine, the hungry ghost howling and human pain expressed. I know these places in myself. Through understanding our similar human tendencies, separation subsides. I rest within a broad knowing that all that is is held within a vast expanse of pure consciousness. And all this is teaching me, showing me how to evolve. Maintaining that big picture is essential to being present when faced with challenging people or circumstances. Like being around a drowning person, we need to maintain both feet solidly on the shore, lest we get pulled in. That shore is the rootedness of the teachings that show us that all human emotions and distorted states of consciousness are temporary. Any kind of perceived attack or sense of abandonment is an illusion. All that is in this present moment is absolute perfection. Rooted in this knowing, witnessing and true service can take place. In this state, I can see that deep aggregates from the human psyche have come to the surface to be released, both in the other, and in myself. The gift of presence, in all circumstances, offers all beings an opportunity to find lasting freedom from the painful cycle of suffering.
May all beings everywhere be free.
Lokah samastha sukhino bhavantu.
Jai Ma,