Grappling with the pure potential in others
When I was younger and first becoming interested in spirituality, I went to a talk on Buddhism where a nun gave a teaching about the Buddhist concept of seeing others as faultless. This teaching is based on the idea of relating to the ‘pure potential’ in others – which, in less Buddhist speak, is really about always seeing the good in others and treating them as if this is what you see.
In my naivety, and true to my perfectionist black-and-white thinking, I took this concept a bit too far. I set it in concrete and made it (and myself) inflexible. I took it too literally. It’s like I wouldn’t allow myself to think that others had faults – I saw the good in them to the extent that I denied any bad. And I saw the bad in me to the extent that I failed to see the good in others.
This is not a great way to be. Sure, it makes you a kind person (in a doormat kind of way). But it also makes you a heap of self-repressed emotion and it gives you a complex. It also makes you pretty deluded.
Recently I was reading a book about Buddhism and revisited this idea of seeing other’s as faultless. It got me thinking about what this means and why I struggled with it so much. And obviously, I want to say a few things about this. Because perhaps I am not the only one who grapples with this.
Firstly, let me just say:
People are not faultless. You know this. I know this.
They have more faults than a dung heap has flies. I include myself in this beautiful analogy.
People can be horrible and mean and cruel.
They can say and do awful things and they are often not even sorry about it.
Basically, people can be utter arseholes.
Worse still, some people actually enjoy being arseholes.
Also, a lot of people are just morons.
Okay, so this probably isn’t the most sacred thing to think. Or to say. But I think it and I’ve said it now and sure, I could just press backspace a few times but I’m not going to.
Because this is the crux of the issue. At least, it’s the crux of my issue. One of them, at least. But I know most of us are pressed for time and I shouldn’t push my luck. (I mean, I’m grateful you even made it this far when there is so much other stuff you could be reading or doing…Not that I’m suggesting you do any of those things, at least not right now anyway).
Now, if I’m totally honest with you, I like thinking that people can be arseholes. I like to think it because it’s true. I mean, just read a paper or scroll through your Facebook feed or look at Donald Trump.
To not think that people can be arseholes in spite of the clear evidence would make me a bit of an arsehole I think. Also, pretty stupid. And whilst there’s many things I don’t want to be – old, fat, ugly, bitter, spotty, depressed, lonely, saggy, poor – not being a stupid arsehole is definitely right up there.
So, how does one relate to the ‘pure potential’ in others – to see the good in them - when one thinks, knows, that others can be arseholes?
Well, I think there are a few levels to this.
I remember hearing someone wise once say that wisdom came from being able to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time and for neither one to dimish the truth of the other. That really struck me. What a thing that is. And how true. Because so much of life, the beauty and the understanding of it, lies in being able to do this. Life isn’t monochrome and neither are people. Each and every one of us is the embodiment of opposing principals, feelings, goals, ideas. This is okay. The times when it isn’t okay are the times when we forget that this is okay. Two contrasting things can exist at the same time without making anyone of them less true.
I am weak but I am strong.
I am delicate but I am powerful.
I am afraid but I am brave.
I am full of doubt but I am certain.
I am kind but I am mean.
And, people are arseholes and people are beautiful.
Or, people are full of faults and faultless too.
I don’t know about you but even as I say these things, a part of my brain has a little wobble, only replace 'little' with huge' and 'wobble' with 'meltdown'. It falls in line with the tendency of every human brain I know; the tendency to categorise, to define. It doesn’t like not being able to clearly delineate between two seemingly contradictory ideas; it either is, or is isn’t.
But the truth will always be; it is and it also isn’t.
Being able to see others as ‘faultless’ doesn’t mean that you have to think that they are faultless. We form opinions of others and judge people by their actions, so if someone behaves like a dick, we are quite entitled to an opinion that holds them as one. I’d say they are well deserving of their Dick Status in such an instance. But that doesn’t mean we have to relate to them from that place; The Place of Dickishness. Because then that gives us Dick Status too.
At the same time as it’s right and natural and sensible to judge people by their behaviour, being able to relate to the goodness in others requires that we develop the ability to look past their actions and grasp an inner core of potential for goodness in every person. It requires we understand that their angry, hurtful or violent actions are coming from a place of delusion. In particular, that they are coming from a place of fear, and this fear is guiding their actions. This doesn’t mean that we excuse these actions or that we ignore them or that we have to think ‘this person who just spat in my face is a lovely person’ – it simply means that we try to relate to the potential in others, instead of condemning them. It means that we try our best to hold the strong and firm perception that they are not their delusions, and in this we can gently and quietly wish them peace from suffering.
I can think that someone is behaving like an arsehole – even shout ‘ARSEHOLE’ at them (mostly under my breath, of course) if they decide it’s okay to heckle sexual obscenities at me as I run past them to catch the train…(just saying…I’m actually far too afraid most of the time to ever entertain actually shouting ARSEHOLE at an audible level but I dream about it) without thinking that they are 100% Complete and Utter Arsehole. Because when I think that, I relate to them from a place of cold-heartedness. I allow their behaviour to change me, for the worst. And I loose my ability to see their potential to be anything else.
Relating to the goodness in others doesn’t mean that we pigheadedly ignore their faults or treat them as if they don’t exist. If someone behaves horribly towards us, we can do what we need to do in that situation to assert ourselves. We can take action. It’s just that this action comes from a place of power inside of us and it comes from a colourful place – a place where we can see that someone is behaving like an arsehole but not a place where we have decided that this is all they are - all they have the potential to be. It means that we can come from a place of humanity.
Our thoughts have energy and energy has power. So in a magical but also really earthly way, I think that when we relate to the goodness in others we are actually changing them; we are not feeding into their delusions and strengthening them. We are cutting through them and - however subtly or gently - weakening the forces that keep people locked in these destructive ways of being. I think we have to believe this even though we will probably never see a huge change in people. We have to believe it because it’s too sad and depressing and dangerous not to. We have to believe it in order not to become cold and hard and consumed with doubt about others and the world.
It’s a learning curve. Like most good habits in life, it takes practice and persistence and many failed attempts. And sometimes, the difference between relating to the good in others and not isn’t something that we can see – it’s something we do inside. Often as an afterthought, because in real time it can feel almost impossible.
I was in the supermarket the other day standing in the queue by the self-checkout when a lady with a full basket bludgeoned her way over, pushed past me forcefully and inserted herself in the queue in front of me. I said to her, nicely, ever so Britishly, “excuse me, I’m actually waiting in the queue”. “Yeah?” she said, shooting me a look from her cocked head to tell me she utterly couldn’t give a sh*t.
What a total bitch, I thought. Bitch.
And then I remembered that she also might not be even though she is clearly doing a pretty good bitch impression right now. As I thought this I could feel tension leaving me. It felt good. Then I focused on my heart and tried my hardest to disperse my condemnation and send her goodwill instead. And then I did a little ego-check, because there’s nothing worse than Supercilious Spirituality; I’d rather just be an outright arsehole than wish people peace because it makes me feel superior.
And then I remember that sometimes I am an arsehole – because I am afraid or hurt or disappointed or frustrated. But also that I am kind and generous and loving and brave. And I think that this is exactly the point. If only I could remember this.