Through our practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation, we come to recognize the reality of our own pain and suffering. We see both the simple fact of the pain in our lives and also how we try to avoid recognizing it. The practice of tonglen is another powerful way to open to the pain in our own lives and that of others.
The Difficult Person exercise provides an additional tool for us to focus on one particular person with whom we are having a hard time. Although it was designed for working with therapy clients, it could be used in any kind of relationship.
The Difficult Person exercise makes use of our imagination.
Begin by sitting quietly for a little while. Then, with your eyes closed, imagine that the person you are having a hard time with (the “DP” for “difficult person”) is quietly sitting opposite you at eye level. Imagine all the details you can about how the DP looks. Try to let the image become vivid. Do this for a few minutes.
Now, imagine that you switch places and you become the DP. Notice first what it is like to be in this body. How old are you? How is your health? Do you have any physical discomforts as this person? What emotions do you feel? For what do you long? What kinds of thoughts are in your mind? Spend a few minutes identifying with the DP.
When we can more fully recognize the pain of the other person, we are likely to be less caught up in our own story about being good helpers, and we are more likely to stay present with a compassionate heart.
Now, look at the person sitting opposite you. (You are the DP looking at the you who began the exercise, i.e., yourself.) As you look at this person who is having such a difficult time with you, think about what it is you want from them. Imagine further that the person can actually give you what you want. Now imagine that the person you are looking at gives you whatever it was that you wanted. Notice how you feel having received what you were longing for. Take a little while to go through this whole process.
Now, switch back and become your ordinary self again. Look at the DP again. Notice how you feel as you look at him or her. Notice how you feel having given the DP what he or she wanted. Is it okay with you? Could you really do this?
When you are ready, open your eyes and sit quietly for a few more minutes.
What might come of it?
Many of us who have done this exercise have found that what the DP wanted was something much more simple than what we had thought. Often it is easy for us to imagine giving it to them, and we find that we become quite tender. Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work out that way, but even so, it might give us some deeper understanding of the DP’s pain. When we can more fully recognize the pain of the other person, we are better able to reconnect with our own hearts and be more present with the other person. We are likely to be less caught up in our own story about being good helpers, and we are more likely to stay present with a compassionate heart.
A number of years after the client I described above had stopped our work together, she called me on the phone. She asked if she could come to see me and buy me a cup of coffee. I met her and she told me she wanted to thank me for how much I had helped her. I was dumbfounded; I would not have guessed that she would have thought so.
Apparently, I had managed to set some boundaries that had been useful, and I had taught her some simple mindfulness skills. But, most importantly, she said, I had been willing to put up with her when she was going through a really hard time. In other words, what had been most valuable was not my ability to understand what she said or any suggestions that I had made, but my willingness, discontinuous though it was, to be present with a heart that was open to her and to her pain.