We all deal with people or situations we dislike from time to time. In this podcast episode, I will talk about dealing with people we dislike. For me, the recognition of disliking someone is always an invitation to look inward and to learn something about myself.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 124. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about dealing with people that you don’t like. As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are.
So today’s podcast episode comes from the request of an email I received, someone asking me if I would be willing to do an episode where I discuss the idea or the concept, or give tips on, “How do we deal with people that we don’t like?” And I thought that would be a good idea, especially during this time where the way social media works, we’re all dealing with people that we don’t like, and perhaps if it’s not people that we don’t like, it’s ideas that we don’t like, but it seems to be a prevalent thing. And I’m trying to shift a little bit of the concepts of the podcast towards a little bit more of a, “How does all this apply in everyday, day to day scenarios?” So this is my approach at this specific topic. Like, “How do these concepts and ideas that we learn about in Buddhism apply to everyday scenarios like dealing with people that we don’t like?” So I thought that would be a fun way to start off this podcast episode.
So first of all, though, I want to go into the Zen koan that I left in the last podcast episode, and this is where a monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him, and Zhao Zhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?” The monk replied, “Yes, I have.” “Then go wash your bowl,” said Zhao Zhou. At that moment, the monk was enlightened. Now, this koan to me does a really good job of presenting the simple and profound way that Zen Buddhism tries to simplify the whole point of what we’re practicing and what we’re doing.
I want to share a couple of thoughts from people from the Patreon community, where we had a discussion around this koan in the last week or week and a half. The first thought comes from Nancy, who says, quote, “My understanding, enlightenment only happens when we are fully aware, in the present moment, no matter what we are doing. Even washing a dish,” close quote. I like that thought that Nancy shares, where enlightenment happens in the present moment, and no matter what we’re doing, even washing a dish. I do think that this definitely alludes to that, where it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you could be out walking the dog, you could be stuck at a traffic light, you could be in the middle of an argument with someone you dislike, and these are the moments where you could notice something that you hadn’t noticed before, and that moment of awareness can have a component of, I guess you could call, enlightenment. And that’s what this koan is trying to point at. I like that thought.
I like this additional thought from Michael who says, quote, “The bowl has served its purpose for the monk who used it for his lunch, but now the dirty bowl is of no use to the next hungry person that comes along. By washing the bowl after he has finished using it for his own purpose, he then gives someone else the opportunity to make use of the bowl to nourish themself. The monk could contemplate that someone before him had washed the bowl, which allowed him to enjoy its use,” close quote. I like that Michael kind of extrapolated out of this the nature of interdependence, and how indeed, if the bowl was there for me to use it, someone must have cleaned it before me, and if I’m cleaning it now, this will allow another monk at some point to also enjoy use of the bowl. And I like that line of thinking.
And remember, with all of these, I know I mention this a lot, but these koans are meant to get us to look inward, so it’s what you get out of the koan that really matters. It’s not about discovering the right answer. So it’s fun to see what other people extract out of these koans. That’s one of the things that I enjoy by reading the various descriptions and thoughts and feedback that come in on these discussions on the Patreon community.
So here’s another one from David. He says, quote, “This koan reminds me of something that ancient Greek philosophers such as Epictetus used to say to those who wanted to learn from them. Rather than reading many books and learning quotes, the students should practice making the good choices in their everyday lives. So when the monk asked Zhao Zhou about teaching him, he replied with the same kind of idea. Instead of reading more books or listening to Buddhist teachers about how to achieve enlightenment, go wash your bowl, as you should, and practice living mindfully.”
Now, of course, I really enjoyed the thought around this interpretation of the koan because I highly agree with that. You can read and you can listen, and you can devour the theory behind living more mindfully, or the theory behind all of these topics and concepts and ideas that we encounter in Buddhism, but nothing will substitute for the experiential understanding that you will gain when you’re just out doing whatever it that you’re doing. And I can’t overemphasize that whatever it is you’re doing, in the same way that the Nancy said, you could be even washing a dish, and that definitely gets to the heart of what this koan is talking about.
And then one more thought, this is from Brayden, who says, open quote, “For me, this koan makes me think of the way I go about enlightenment. Personally, I’ve delved wholeheartedly into enlightenment and forgotten about the world around me and the responsibilities I have outside the desire for enlightenment. The pursuit of that desire has gotten in the way of my other responsibilities, and I’ve neglected tasks and people in my life. This koan is a reminder to me to follow through with the things outside my journey, and that can help in setting up an environment that promotes enlightenment as I focus my whole attention on studying and learning,” close quote. And I really agree with what Brayden is emphasizing here in his understanding of the koan, that the koan is an invitation to remember to go back to washing the dishes rather than getting lost in the pursuit of enlightenment.
And the irony in that, especially with this koan, is that the moment the monk hears this, he is enlightened. It says, “At that moment, the monk was enlightened.” When he realizes he just has to go wash his bowl. And to me, that’s incredibly profound, because just like Brayden is talking about, we can get caught up in this pursuit of becoming enlightened, and it’s like, “Wow, I’m going to go become enlightened, so I don’t have time to wash the dishes. I’ve got to go sit on my meditation cushion and hit my one hour or two hour meditation goal for the day.” And in the process of pursuing this conceptual idea we have of enlightenment, we’re missing the whole point, because it was in the washing of the dish that you could have found it. And that to me is right at the heart of what Zen is. Constantly trying to do, is push us back to the everyday nature of this stuff.
So my thoughts on the koan, this is an invitation to go back to the simple understanding of the experiential nature of life. It’s important to emphasize here that enlightenment is a concept. It’s an idea, and we gain this idea from books, from people, from teachers, from all kinds of places, but an idea gets planted in your head that, “Hey, there’s this thing and it’s called enlightenment, and then here’s how you go obtain it.” And then we get caught up in that, and what we’re trying to get back to in a lot of ways with this practice is back to the present moment, and to live a life that’s a little bit more skillful and less reactive.
And since you just finished eating, perhaps the most skillful thing to do next is to wash the bowl, and that’s it. That’s how simple that was. But to understand that and to do that, because it’s a non-reactive thing, like, “I am washing the bowl because I understand that it makes sense at this moment in time to now wash the bowl,” that’s it. That’s enlightenment, and there’s nothing big and great and vast beyond that. And at the same time, that awareness that the skillful thing to do is to wash the bowl, that’s it. That’s the magic of awareness.
That’s how I understand this, I want to kind of continue on this discussion, but applying it to the topic that I wanted to share today, which is the answer for the email I received with, “How do we deal with people that we don’t like?” Well, awareness is going to play a role in this, and I’ll get to that in a second. But first of all, with the concept of dealing with people that you don’t like, again, just like with the koans, what we’re trying to learn to do as a practice is to look inward. So rather than thinking, “Okay, here’s so and so. I don’t like so and so. How do I deal with them?” Let’s look inward for a moment and say, “What is this really pointing to? What is it that I dislike? Where does the disliking come from?”
And I’ve been practicing this a little bit with my kids. For example, my son Ryko, he is a picky eater, and he has a lot of foods that he doesn’t like. And anytime he says, “Oh, I don’t like this or that,” I try to remind him and say, “Wait, is it you that doesn’t like it, or is it your taste buds that don’t like the food?” And that simple question helps him to understand it’s not him that dislikes the food. It’s how he is that prevents him from liking the food, and he can’t help that, right? All of us have this. Just think of something that you don’t like to eat and ask yourself that same question. “Is it you that doesn’t like it or is it your taste buds?”
I did the 23andMe genetic test that you can do that gives you not just your ancestry and genetic information, but it gives you your health traits, your genetic health reports, and something that stood out to me in there was there’s a variation on one of the genes that you can have that will determine whether you are likely to enjoy bitter tastes or not. And they use it as a marker to determine if you like brussel sprouts or not.
And it’s kind of fascinating to think that it’s just a matter of DNA that could determine if somebody likes brussel sprouts versus someone who doesn’t, which goes right back to the heart of what I’m discussing here. “Is it really me that likes the brussel sprouts or is it my genetic makeup that allows me to taste and enjoy that flavor when someone else will taste it and all they get is this bitter flavor that they can’t tolerate?” So they would think, “I don’t like brussel sprouts,” while I’m thinking, “I do like brussel sprouts.” And it’s neither one of us. It’s the genetic marker in our DNA that allows us to experience the world and brussel sprouts the way we’re experiencing them. And I think that’s a really profound understanding that you can take not just into how you taste food, but into the very question of dealing with people that you don’t like.
Now, this to me really alludes to one of the most profound koans that I’ve encountered, is what I would call a lifetime koan. This is one of those koans that you work with in an ongoing manner, day after day, and these are the powerful words of the koan that goes like this. Linji said, “There is nothing I dislike.” And that’s it. That’s the koan. “There is nothing I dislike.” Now, this is a koan that when I first came across and heard, I think I’ve mentioned in the podcast before this koan, but I thought, “Wow, there’s nothing that I dislike. How on earth do you ever arrive at that?”
Now, take that same sentiment and apply it to dealing with people that we dislike. Now, the implication here is if there is nothing I dislike, that also means there are no people that I dislike. And you might pause and be like, “Okay, now that’s just impossible. How on earth would you ever reach that?” Well, it’s quite simple if you apply it to the same line of thinking of me talking to Ryko and saying, “Well, wait a second. Is it you that doesn’t like the food, or is it your taste buds?”
Now, when it comes to people, it’s a little bit harder to take that step back, but we can do it and say, “Well, wait a second. Is it me that doesn’t like so and so? Or is it the ideas that I hold that clash with the ideas that they hold, and that friction is uncomfortable, and that discomfort makes it so that I don’t want to be around that person?” And there you go. That is a more realistic picture. But that doesn’t mean I dislike so-and-so. I barely know myself. How do I know everything there is to know about so and so to decide I dislike them?
So I think that allows us to take a step back and be like, “Okay, well, so and so might espouse a certain view or certain beliefs or certain ideas that are uncomfortable for me to be around, because they clash with the ones that I have.” But again, take another step back and be like, “I am not my ideas. I am not my beliefs. I am not my views, and neither is so and so. So there’s nothing, there’s no fundamental permanent, independent part of me that dislikes the permanent independent part of so and so, because both of those are an illusion, right?”
So I hope you get what I’m trying to say with that, and I’m not trying to minimize the unpleasantness that we may deal with with people that we really don’t like to be around. You may not like being around someone because they say really mean things, or they take advantage of you, or maybe they’re abusive or something. I’m not trying to minimize that in any way. All I’m trying to understand, or all I’m trying to emphasize here is the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence applied directly to the concept of not liking things. And with this specific koan, “There is nothing I dislike,” for me the secret of understanding that entire phrase, that is a really powerful phrase, is “I.” He says, “There’s nothing I dislike.” Because there is no “I” the way that I think that I exist, right? There’s the interdependent and permanent part of me, but that implies that there may be a version of me that does like so and so.
Maybe if I am in a good mood or if I just got an offer for a new position at work, or I just ate a good meal so I’m not hungry, or I was raised in conditions where I don’t have to worry about this or that circumstance or factor in my life, just change the variables a bit, and suddenly I would like this person. That to me is a really profound understanding that helps me to recognize it’s not me that dislikes anyone. It’s not me that dislikes anything. And to me that’s a really profound koan to work with, and like I said, you work with this every day, right? Every day you can analyze the things that you don’t like and then say, “Well, is it really me that doesn’t like it?” And break that down, and get into the causes and conditions, and see the interdependent impermanent nature of things, and suddenly the way you view that changes, and what that changes is the relationship you have with the feelings that you’re experiencing while you’re going through whatever circumstances you’re in.
So that would be a kind of a roundabout way, long story short, answer to the email that I received that says, “How do we deal with people that we don’t like?” Now, sure, on the surface I could give tips or hints of, “Well, one obvious thing is try to not be around people that you don’t like,” but it’s not that simple, right? The people that you don’t like might be people in your family. It might be your in-laws, or your cousins, or your crazy aunt or uncle, or it can be muddy to the point where you can’t just avoid these people. You can’t ignore them and not have them be a part of your life. It may be your neighbor, right? And you can’t just move away. It may not be so simple.
So in these complex situations where you’re dealing with people that you dislike, my invitation is always to stop looking at the people and start looking inward at you. “What is it I dislike about this person?” And what you’ll learn about yourself in that process, that’s what really matters, because you can gain a lot of insight and wisdom about you, right? Remember, the whole thing we’re trying to accomplish here is to step away from the more reactive life, where you just go about from one chain of reactivity to another, breaking that chain of reactivity and living a more skillful life where you are more deliberate and skillful with each action.
So the moment I encounter someone I dislike, that’s an invitation to me to go inward. To say, “Huh, why do I dislike this person? What part of me dislikes the part of them? Where exactly does that happen? Is it that I dislike their look? Is it that I dislike their words? Is it that I dislike their ideas, their views, their beliefs? What is it that I dislike?” Right? And I go inward and I tried to understand that about me, and when I can identify what the thing is, then I have to identify exactly, “What part of me doesn’t like that? Is it my thoughts? Is it my ideas? Is it my beliefs?” Then I do the same thing inward that I was doing to pinpoint what I dislike about them. “What part of me dislikes that part about them?”
And that deconstruction or that separation into layers, into causes and conditions, essentially what I’m doing is trying to look through the lens of impermanence and interdependence, and that changes the dynamic, and then suddenly I realize, “Okay, all right, I realize I don’t dislike this person. Sure, my views don’t match their views, but that’s different. I can still like them in spite of their views, and in spite of my views. Where on earth that I get my views?” Right? I got them from the same place they probably got theirs. All these causes and conditions that I almost can’t help. I can’t help that I read a book and it made me start thinking this way or I was raised in a household that made me think that way, and I’m the result at this specific moment in time of all these past causes and conditions that make me the way that I am. But so is that person I dislike. So at what point in that chain do I say, “Oh, that’s what I dislike,” right?
This is like that story of the stick, it’s a koan as well, the father who’s pointing out to his son, “What is it that you dislike?” As he’s poking him with a stick, and the son gets mad. He’s like, “Are you mad at the stick, or are you mad at my hand, or are you mad at my arm? Are you mad at my mind for this idea, or mad at my dad who taught me this lesson?” Right? It’s like, at what point do you say, “Oh, that’s the thing I’m mad at”?
And when we’re dealing with people that we dislike, you can do the same thing. Do you really dislike them, or do you dislike their parents who raised them that way? Or this society or neighborhood they grew up in that made them think this way? Or is it that you dislike their religion that taught them to think what they think? At what point do you say, “That’s the thing I dislike”? And you might say, “I dislike all of it,” but that’s helpful still more than just pinning it on this one person, because who is the person to be disliked and who is the person that does the disliking? Neither one of those are really there the way that we think they’re there.
And that is how I tackle this concept of dealing with people that I don’t like. I invoke the wise words of Linji, who said, “There is nothing I dislike.” And I take that to heart in my own life. I really do. I try to remind myself that in a very real way, there is nothing I dislike. There isn’t. There are a lot of unpleasant things. Just as kind of a dumb example, my irrational fear of snakes, but I do not dislike snakes. I don’t even dislike my irrational fear of snakes, because I know that I can’t help that I have that. I don’t even know where it came from. I kind of have vague understanding of maybe circumstances or memories that may have spurred that on at some point in my life, but I can’t help it, and what I can do is slowly work to be better and better with it. I have held snakes and I have worked with it.
But anyway, what I’m trying to get at is, another way to encounter this is to say, “What am I not seeing?” When we talk about the concept of awareness, the magic of awareness, so to speak, for me, that’s the invitation to say, “There’s something here that I’m not seeing.” And if I dislike someone, that could very well be that there’s something in them that I’m just not seeing, and it doesn’t require any change on their part. What it requires is more attention or more focus on my part to say, “What am I not seeing?” And sometimes that mental exploration will allow me to start changing the feeling or the attitude that I have towards another person, because I start to see something in them that I didn’t see before. And that’s work that’s done on my part. That’s not work that needs to be done on their part. And I think sometimes we’re caught mixed up there where we’re thinking, “Well, I will like them more when they stop doing this or when they start doing that,” and we put it on them to change.
And the truth is, it’s on me. If I want to like someone, all I have to do is look harder. The more I understand someone, the more natural it is to like that person. And again, this is not forced, and I’m not saying all this because you should like everyone. You don’t have to like anybody. If you’re uncomfortable with how you’re dealing with people that you dislike, then yes, listen to all of this. If you don’t care and you’re fine with disliking people, then fine. Keep disliking people. Again, this is like the hamster in the wheel that’s just running. If you’re that mouse that’s running in the wheel and you’re comfortable with that, fine. But when that mouse gets tired and says, “Why am I in here running, spinning on this wheel?” Well, maybe let’s look into that. Maybe it’s wise now at this point in your life to hop off the wheel.
That’s what I want to emphasize in this lesson. I’m not saying these things with the idea that, “Hey, you need to go out there and start working to like the people you dislike.” I’m not saying that. You don’t have to do that. But if it’s bothering you enough that you’re saying, “I don’t like how I deal with the people that I dislike,” well then sure. Listen to all this, and maybe spend the time to look inward and see what you can learn about yourself and exactly what part of you is it that dislikes, and what part of them is it that you actually dislike? And the same way that with Ryko, like, “Is it your taste buds that dislike the food?” Because that’s very different than saying, “I dislike the food.” And I think that’s a skillful way to start, with the introspective questioning of, “How do I deal with someone that I don’t like?”
So that’s it. That’s my invitation. That’s the topic that I have. And rather than sharing a new koan at the end, I think I’d like to leave you with the koan that Linji said, “There is nothing I dislike.” I’d like to leave that with you with an exercise between now and the next podcast episode, whenever you listen to it, and in fact beyond that. Make this a daily one, one of those daily koans that every now and then you remind yourself, “There is nothing I dislike,” and analyze, how does it feel to even say that? “Are there things I dislike?” “Yeah, yeah, there are.” “Okay, well what are those things? And what part of you dislikes them?” And really work with it through the lens of interdependence and impermanence, and what you should start to see, if you really look through those two lenses of impermanence and interdependence, especially in the context of what that implies about you, then revisit this question. “There is nothing I dislike.” And when that rings true to you, it’s going to be a really powerful experience to understand that, just as Linji said, “There is, indeed, nothing I dislike.”
And that’s what I want to leave with you. That’s all I have for the podcast episode today. As always, thank you for listening. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a Patron and joining our online community where we discuss these koans, where we discuss the podcast episodes, and I’m getting ready to add a lot more weekly content there every day, taking these concepts into everyday life and situations. And you can learn more about that by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for taking the time to listen, and until next time.