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  • Kelly Prentice

Embracing Compassionate Mindfulness—Even When It's Hard

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

The Stone in Your Shoe

Most of us have experienced a difficult relationship. You know the kind. It’s like a sharp stone stuck in your shoe that won’t come out, no matter how hard you shake it.

When this person came into my life, there was tension from the beginning. We were both headstrong career women, wives, and mothers. We had opposite political views, radically different ideas about raising children, even divergent astrological charts. She began to show up, a lot.

It’s always difficult to sit in that tension of opposites. She wanted things this way; I wanted it the opposite. In my mind, her choices created a trail of emotional turmoil. I didn’t know how to handle her method of direct confrontation. Growing up, I was taught to walk away from conflict.

Like many relationships, this one came into my life because we both had a hell of a lot to learn from each other.

Mindful Approach

How do you spend time with a person who feels like a stone in your shoe or a thorn in your side—whose presence you find difficult to be around? It’s often easier said than done.

Around the time I met this woman, I had just begun a mindfulness and meditation practice. It helped. I could breathe, recognize my rising emotions, identify what was irritating me, then step away to collect myself before the emotion bubbled over. Or exploded. I was glad I could keep my composure when her presence often brought strain; even when it was pushing my boundaries.

I’d return to the party more composed, quieter and more withdrawn. Then, I began to disappear even before she could push my buttons. As I was stepping away more and more, my absence became an issue.

It nagged at me, that we weren’t getting along, even if I hadn’t seen her for a year. When I saw her, I’d replay a disagreement we had 10 years ago, in my mind. I considered setting a stronger boundary and I struggled with that for decades. Then I read something from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that helped me shift my perspective:

“Often times, we may suffer from a person’s actions. Not only can it be difficult to forgive them, it can be tempting to want to withdraw or walk away to protect ourselves. We may not realize that the other person could be seeking our love in unskillful ways.”

Woah! This made me stop in my tracks—Was she seeking my love? I thought her insults were meant to devalue my belief systems or my way of life, but were they simply meant to get my attention? It had never occurred to me that this could be her way of seeking love or connection.

Until I added in the practice of compassion.

Not Abandoning Anyone

Did I understand what she needed or wanted from me? Could I stop and consider that she might be looking for love and understanding from me—and from others too? I wasn’t sure I was ready to tackle this kind of compassion, but I was tired of feeling stuck in the mud. Thich Nhat Hanh also said:

"Even if we step away from a relationship, we will be left with a feeling of helplessness that we have somehow failed to help another person. If we withdraw, we can still continue to think about that relationship and how to help the other person."

In Buddhism this is referred to as, “not abandoning anyone.” I came to recognize that I was lacking in the arena of compassion, and this person was my true test. Could I cultivate enough wisdom to not abandon her and to sit with her, even in suffering? Could I walk in her shoes for a little while? Maybe even enough to help her?

Then, I did a training as part of a requirement for a new job. It helped me to recognize that, for so many of us, our number one need is to be seen and heard—and I was failing at both in this relationship. I had to look at my part; how was I contributing to the rift between us, and the pain she carried, too?

Not until I could sit with my own discomfort and make sure she was seen and heard, was I freed of the hold this relationship had on me.

Acceptance: Changing the Dynamic Within

A young person in Plum Village once asked Thich Nhat Hanh whether he should keep seeing his father, when his father caused him so much suffering. He also asked whether he should try to change him. Thich Nhat Hanh’s answer focused on the ideas that the man could change his father without seeing him, because he can change his father within him.

Whether it is your father, your partner, your president; they are not outside of you, they are inside of you. Look in the mirror.

“If we change ourselves first, change the father inside of us, and then the transformation of the father ‘outside’ can happen. We begin by accepting the other first.”

Finally, I was ready for acceptance, and I stepped into the room, with my whole heart, rather than running away.

When I look up at this painting by Deborah Ames Miller, it reminds me of the importance of cultivating relationships both near and far, both easeful and difficult—even with the full spectrum of humanity from greed, envy, and anger to love, light, and compassion. It reminds me of how dedicating myself to my practice brings more ease to relationships.

In loving memory of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist who died on Jan. 22, 2022. He was 95 years old.

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