Dr. Mark Westmoquette is an astrophysicist who became a student of Zen Buddhism. Now an author and meditation and yoga instructor, Mark has written a new book called Zen and the Art of Dealing with Difficult People.
In this podcast episode, we talk about this meaty topic of how to deal with difficult people who Mark calls “troublesome Buddhas,” from our boss to our partner to world leaders and that person who takes your parking space.
Zen and the Art of Dealing with Difficult People
[00:01:00] Scott Snibbe: So Mark, you and I have spoken a couple of times before and now you have a new book out called Zen and the Art of Dealing with Difficult People. Can you tell me a little bit about the book before we dive into the details?
[00:01:11] Mark Westmoquette: My Zen teacher, Daizan, says if we can’t take what we learn in our meditation practice and apply it to situations in life that we find quite challenging and difficult—the sharp end if you like—at best Zen is like an eccentric hobby.
We sit and meditate, but what does it do? This is about taking what we learned from our meditation cushion and applying it to those situations in life that really challenge us.
[00:01:42] Scott Snibbe: It’s quite powerful what you said about a hobby. I’ve heard that a few times before, especially in this term spiritual bypass, that’s become more popular lately. The term describes that dichotomy of feeling fantastic on the cushion and then getting up and getting in a fight with your wife, or something like that.
Can you a talk little bit more about that dichotomy? I have a feeling that we’re not the only ones who’ve experienced that.
[00:02:10] Mark Westmoquette: I suspect it’s something that everyone encounters as they start practicing. Especially if you have a meditation practice which takes you to those very calm, peaceful, content kind of places. Then it can be quite a shock at some level to go out from that place of contentment and meet your neighbor who’s trying to park in your parking space or whatever like that. Then getting quite frustrated in a sense like, I’m supposed to be practicing Buddhism here. How do I deal with this person? How do I relate to people I find difficult?
So the phrase that we look at in the book is a “troublesome Buddha.” It’s a fairly loose translation of a particular phrase in the Denkoroku, which is one of the transmission texts that discusses how we can perceive people that we find difficult to essentially be some of our best teachers. These are teachers that tell us when we’re feeling a bit blocked, stuck, or not really engaging with the situation or when we’re doing this kind of spiritual bypassing.
Setting boundaries as a Buddhist
[00:03:17] Scott Snibbe: When I first became a Buddhist, I think a couple of people maybe tried to take advantage of me a little bit. They asked me for things thinking that if you’re a Buddhist, you had to give anything anybody wants to them. Some people were a little surprised when I could still say no or disagree with somebody.
But what do you, as a Buddhist, say when someone parks in your parking spot? What do you think is a good approach?
[00:03:41] Mark Westmoquette: Well first of all, as soon a “should” comes up, it’s like an alarm bell and it tells us that we’re trying to shoehorn something into a thing we’ve theoretically learned. So there is no “should,” there is no correct way to approach someone that’s stealing your parking space.
I start the book with an example of when you’ve gone to the supermarket and you’re trying to park and you’re maneuvering and someone nips into the space just in front of you and you’re sort of raging at the steering wheel.
Normally, most of us would have this sort of contraction, right? You get a sense of frustration or anger rising up, and you’re feeling affronted as a person; they have not recognized you for being a person. That’s the worst case right there.
They’re not recognizing that you as a person have just as equal right to be there in life, just as much as they do. So we get this real contraction. Immediately we take up this stance of they’re wrong and I’m right. I’ve got this parking space, can’t they see that I’m trying to maneuver into it?
So then it’s our responsibility—our job—to start to inquire in that situation. Okay, is this the whole situation? This contraction around ‘I’m right and they’re wrong,’ is that the whole truth?
It very well maybe, but there may be other ways of seeing things. So then we apply our openness and our practice to that situation. Inquiring, So what’s going on in my body? When I’m feeling tense my shoulders are up, I’ve got my car key ready to slide down the side of his car, all of this stuff.
But also, maybe this person’s in a rush. Maybe they’re visiting someone in the hospital or maybe they’re late for a job interview. Maybe they are just that kind of person who has spent an entire life thinking about themselves and just doesn’t have that kind of view of other people.
So suddenly we get this softening in our stance so we can entertain other possibilities, and out of those possibilities may very well be a kind of setting of a boundary. “This is not helpful,” “It’s not kind,” or maybe just stating, “I am very angry at what happened here; it’s not you, but I feel angry. I feel affected, I feel unrecognized,” all that kind of stuff.
As a Buddhist in no sense do we need be a puddle and be splashed upon and taken advantage of; that is absolutely not the point at all. But if we can choose to respond to that situation from a place of a little bit more insight, presence, understanding, and that kind of softening of the view, then I think that something else can happen.
[00:06:36] Scott Snibbe: Especially with a slightly more minor situation like this—we can talk about more extreme ones in a little bit—but with a more minor situation like this it’s pretty fertile ground to try the entire spectrum of the path.
I remember going through this. I remember someone asked one of my earliest teachers, Venerable Robina Courtin, a wonderful Australian nun teacher, “I’m a Buddhist now, what do I do when someone parks in front of my house?” And Venerable Robina said, “Ask them to move.”
So there is a common sense there, of course, without getting angry. Like you said,
First feel it in your body and don’t let that emotion take over; your mind becomes a nightmare for you when you start letting those emotions take over.
Emotional regulation through mindfulness
[00:07:23] Mark Westmoquette: I think that’s the key. And I think people tend to call it emotional regulation. It’s about not suppressing the emotions. Because as a Buddhist you can think, I’m not supposed to get angry, I’ve said one of the preceptors is not to harbor anger. But if we do that, then we’re just as stuck as anyone else.
Allow the anger, notice anger, notice all the rest of know the grief. But at the same time trying your very best to stay on top of it so it’s not taking over our entire being and we end up reacting impulsively.
So in this case, to feel angry without being angry. It’s mindfulness, it’s such a powerful way to convey the message of mindfulness that you can allow this feeling to arise without letting it take over.
[00:08:29] Mark Westmoquette: That’s right. I think there’s a quote he says,
Who can see suffering is not themselves suffering.
[00:08:37] Scott Snibbe: That’s really beautiful. But then there are other levels, right? You talked about this one level of just letting the emotion take over. And then you talk about having some perspective; that person’s actions probably don’t have anything to do with you.
They have their own agenda and their own life; so realizing that it’s a bit silly to get angry when the other person’s not really angry at you or even thinking about you.
[00:09:01] Mark Westmoquette: I think almost all the time when there are people that are annoying you—although it’s so easy to take it personally—probably 99% of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously, they’re not doing it directed at you.
You just happen to be the wrong person in the wrong place. Just recently, I can think of myself, my wife is just about to give birth, we’re a couple of weeks off now, and I can feel this very low-level sense of anxiousness about the impending change of our situation, the arrival of the baby.
And I can just feel it bubbling over, into my interactions with my wife and people around. And I really do hope that I’ve not let it bubble over too much. But the fact that it does bubble over, and I can experience in myself, then I can then see other people and how they’re really annoyed at something in their life and it’s just bubbling over at me.
[00:09:54] Scott Snibbe: What you’re talking about from the Buddhist perspective is cause and effect, karma—which is a dangerous word if you don’t believe in Buddhist karma. In our tradition, we meditate on all the stages of the path every morning.
When I think about renouncing anger now in the morning, that’s mostly what I think about is just realizing that everything has a cause. Every person’s action is this huge chain of cause and effect that often has little or nothing to do with me. So anger is just miss-seeing that experience as being an affront to yourself, right?
[00:10:31] Mark Westmoquette: In a sense, it has nothing to do with us on a sort of individual level, but on a sort of nondual level. That’s the beautiful thing about the view of a troublesome Buddha.
We see this person who we’re getting frustrated with, and we get into that contracted state. And if we have a sufficient practice to bring to bear the situation, then that person’s suffering that they are playing out or acting out in that moment that you’re experiencing, it’s like we can embrace that as part of us as if it’s the whole universe. We are this one Buddha nature.
When we see this person as a Buddha expressing their Buddha nature or the universe expressing through them in that moment then it’s like, we can embrace it.
And I love it.
[00:11:20] Scott Snibbe: To a lot of people, this term troublesome Buddha, or the idea of seeing a person who’s annoying as a Buddha probably sounds pretty foreign.
Could you unpack that a little bit and explain the term and why someone who you’re annoyed by is a Buddha? A Buddha is a teacher or an enlightened being. So how is the person annoying you taking on that role?
[00:11:40] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, so it’s not the Buddha, as you say, it’s a Buddha—as in a teacher. So you could see anyone who teaches you something as a Buddha. What do we learn? Let’s go back to this example of the person nipping into the parking spot, just in front of you.
So we learned that immediately we contract, which already tells something about ourselves—that immediate instinctual contraction and then that arising of frustration. Because we see things from our very own perspective; this is me and I want that parking spot. This is gonna mess up my day. And just as much as that other person is perhaps not seeing us as an individual, we learn about the way that we contract and we take up this hardened stance.
So then we learn about how we can expand and soften. Perhaps I can be pretty calm and steady about everything, but when someone at work uses my coffee cup, I just explode. Then you inquire, why is this?
It might just be that when you were 16 your sister would always use your cup in the kitchen or something like that. And you got really annoyed over years and it carried on and is now playing out. And so you see these patterns, habits, and tendencies that you’ve developed over all of these decades. And I think that in sense, that’s really what the Buddha is teaching.
[00:13:05] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, this situation with the parking spot is quite a good one if you drive, because it does give you a chance to practice a lot. I remember over time, another teacher telling me, You should be happy for that person because they’re so happy that they just got a parking spot.
The topic that fits under is more compassion and rejoicing. But at first that was actually a little difficult, it was quite unnatural to start thinking that way. But over years it became quite natural. Now, when I’m with a friend or my 10-year-old daughter, it’s a nice thing to teach people. When you see someone takes your spot you say, Oh, fantastic, good for them. This is what the Dalai Lama says,
It turns out compassion is the way to be happy because just from a selfish perspective if you remain happy and sit, laugh, and rejoice at someone getting your parking spot, then your day’s not ruined. In fact, it’s quite nice.
[00:14:05] Mark Westmoquette: It can go completely the opposite. That situation you described is the end result of many, many, many years of practice. I think when someone asks, As a troublesome Buddha, how can they possibly teach me things?
There’s a long way between that point and what you just described about being happy that someone stole your parking space and that’s a part of the practice, isn’t it?
[00:14:26] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I don’t find it too difficult with parking. I still have trouble with my wife, but the parking spot isn’t that hard. When it gets more personal it is much more difficult.
[00:14:38] Mark Westmoquette: Well I divide the book a little bit and take it in a sort of sliding spectrum. We look at common difficult people like parking spot people or commuters. Here in London, I don’t have a car, so typically it’s all about when you’re cycling along and people doing silly things on the road, packed trains, and all that stuff.
And then we look at colleagues, work colleagues and situations, friends, family, and children. Then the big one, which is your parents. For most people, they’d say probably their biggest troublesome Buddhas are their parents.
Relationships are like rock tumblers
[00:15:15] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, maybe we could take on some of those more difficult ones. Work is a great situation to talk about, because how do you deal with those challenges? There is often a lot of unfairness and bias, especially if you’re a woman or if you’re Black and so on, there’s an ingrained bias in the situation already.
So if you’re looked over or if someone is promoted ahead of you or you’re yelled at for something that someone else doesn’t get yelled at for, how do you strike that balance? How do you apply this kind of humility and gentleness and also know when to apply justice and fighting for what is right?
[00:15:51] Mark Westmoquette: Great questions. There’s no easy answer to that. In Zen, we talk a lot about working with the hara, which is a Japanese word that means your guts. I think a lot of it comes down to the head mind, the intellectual mind, which gets very caught up in ideas and concepts and these “shoulds” we talked about. And this whirlwind of stuff and dropping attention down into a more kind of embodiment—into the belly, into the gut—and really deeply listening.
I think sometimes we know the response, but we’re too scared or stuck in a habit or tendency. This is me, I’m always quiet and I don’t want to make any kind of conflict. I don’t want to get on anyone’s wrong side. Or other people just go straight into blaming and fieriness and it’s all about anger and things like that.
So if we can come out of that tendency and just drop into the belly—maybe it requires us to spend quite a long time meditating and just contemplating and being with that—we might come to some kind of response or action which needs to be taken.
[00:17:06] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, you know the same teacher, Venerable Robina, she’s very good with these situations. And I remember someone saying, What do I do when I get angry? And she said, That’s like asking, what do you do when get into a car crash? It’s too late. You need to learn how to drive.
So that’s the bridge that we were talking about that in the beginning—the bridge between the cushion and real life. That’s the benefit.
What you’re saying is that the time on the cushion prepares and conditions you so that you can be aware of the feelings and let them pass through you without letting them take over your speech and your body. Then you can make a wiser decision on how to respond, right?
[00:17:41] Mark Westmoquette: So we might start when we engage with our Buddhist practice, just doing meditation—maybe 10 minutes or whatever it is—and then we build a meditation and then we say, Okay, I would like to apply that out. And then we do some very simple, sweeping cleaning kind of tasks that is very meditative and gradually we build it into maybe writing an email.
We might go shopping, we might do a difficult recipe, cooking in the kitchen. So can we maintain that presence and awareness whilst doing something more complex. And it’s just like that with relationships. We start with this very distraction-free, almost ideal situation of sitting on our cushion, where we can just relate to ourselves.
So that’s the point of Sangha, we go to our meditation group and we have a set of people who are engaged in the same kind of practice where we can try out, Can I be present with this person? What happens when I get annoyed at that person?
I remember early on in my practice, one person in our group was really quite difficult. It was very frustrating. And I went to see Diazan, my teacher, and I said, This person, she’s not a practicing Buddhist yet. She’s doing this and this and she can’t stay. She’s a bad Buddhist. Can’t you do something about it?
And that’s when he first described to me this rock tumbler analogy.
Being in a relationship is just like being in a rock tumbler. In a rock tumbler, you get these jagged, rough stones and you stick them in the tumbler, turn the wheel, and they bang around for a while. Then eventually, they come out polished and very beautiful.
Ideally, that’s how it goes in Sangha. All these people come in, they’re a bit rough and then they bang off each other. But they bang off each other in such a way that’s awake and present and they’re really dealing with stuff. Then hopefully you end up coming up a polished jewel. One day that might happen.
[00:19:42] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and if you read relationship books they say that we subconsciously choose a partner who deliberately pushes our worst buttons because they’re the areas we need to grow. In your language, that’s our sharp edge, right? Someone who’s deliberately bouncing against our sharp edges to help us smooth them down.
[00:20:03] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, that is interesting. I’ve also met people—it seemed like to me—who have deliberately chosen a partner who doesn’t bang off their edges. You can go for a long time basically not rubbing each other at all. Then suddenly one of the spikes comes into view and it can cause all sorts of suffering.
[00:20:23] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, maybe people are more polite in the UK, I don’t know.
I wonder if you can talk more about relationships because it’s complicated with your partner. On one hand, it’s the person you love most and you both chose each other out of everyone in the world to spend your whole life together and even make vows to do so. But I think for most of us, it’s also our most annoying relationship sometimes.
Can you talk about that when in our intimate relationships, how to see the difficulties as a way to practice?
[00:20:55] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, Daizan spent 20 years in a monastery and he talks about how the monastery was a situation where you live very on top of each other. You have a very small space and it’s almost designed so that you get on each other’s wic the whole time, giving lots of material to deal with. And so he said to me on many occasions, Mark,
Living in a marriage is like a two-person monastery. You’ve chosen to put your lot in with each other and live together on a very intimate and close basis. And necessarily you will start to rub against each other and it’s part of that commitment.
Living with each other is the commitment to look at this stuff and to learn and deal with the difficulty. So it’s a huge source of gratitude for me. And it has been over the years.
One example is not long after my wife and I got together, before we married, we were living together and she’d gone off for a weekend with our friends. Then she got back from the weekend and we were talking about how it was and what she’d been up to. And she described something that she did over the weekend which was very outside of my view of the kind of things that she might do.
I remember getting extremely upset and then spending a bit of time apart, looking at what was going on. I realized that I had basically “thingified” her into a concept of what I thought that she was. I’d made a fantasy of the kind of person she was and the kind of things that she might do and think. So when she did something which was outside of that it upset me terribly.
But in the end it was such an important lesson in how we do this all the time with the people that we love. We like to think that we know them, that’s them and we’ve got this very definite idea about them.
[00:22:59] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I think that’s extraordinary to realize. I’ve been married with my wife for 14 years; I’ve known her for 20, but in a way, I still don’t really know her. A lot of it is because of my own projection because I project these ideas about who I want her to be.
But it’s also because of change. There’s a beautiful phrase, “Every moment is new,” that I often think about when I get stuck in relationship problems. Especially if I say, “She always” but then I remember that every moment is new.
Every moment is really new.
I recently had this epiphany to sit down and ask my wife a bunch of obvious yet profound questions. Like the first one was, What matters to you? What matters to you in life, in our relationship? And I was so surprised by the answer. I actually was very surprised. And I made a list of five or six pretty foundational questions like this. And it was really profound.
It took a couple of hours to go through them all but I couldn’t believe how much I learned about her. And it was actually surprising and humbling. They were all about, What’s really important to you? What do you want? What don’t you want in life? They were totally open-ended questions. And it was really different than what I had thought or projected.
[00:24:24] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah that’s right. Because we think, Oh, we don’t need to ask that question because I kind of know.
[00:24:30] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and then, even if you did know, just ask those questions. If I ask them in a year, they might be different too.
It’s quite humbling being in a relationship. I read about a celibate Buddhist nun who quit and became a wife and then a mother. And she said, Now I really understand, this is a really hard practice, being in a relationship and being a mother. This is the most difficult practice.
[00:24:57] Mark Westmoquette: And that’s the choice, we’re lay practicing Buddhists. And although I understand the situation, a monastery may be set to be a little bit more ideal. We choose to do it in life, you’re in a householder life with household problems.
Dealing with a “troublesome ogre” like Vladimir Putin
[00:25:14] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so here’s a really difficult question, because I think this is one even longtime Buddhists bump up against, how do you rectify thinking of someone like Vladimir Putin as your troublesome Buddha? This goes beyond parking spots and marital squabbles, this is bombing and murder and oppression and so on.
What are the ways to apply these ideas in a situation like that?
[00:25:40] Mark Westmoquette: So I wanted to add to the book troublesome politicians because I think for a lot of people this is really tricky; and I asked people, How do you deal with difficult politicians? Almost everyone said, I just turn the news off. I don’t watch it anymore. And I thought, Well that’s not quite what I hoped for.
But basically, I have absolutely no clue who Vladimir Putin is. I have a very distorted, narrow view of this person. And we don’t even know who our wife is, let alone someone who’s across the other side of the world.
I can only sit and try to see him as a Buddha, as this person who has something to teach me about where do I get stuck, where do I hold on, and where am I not accepting? And he’s also somewhat a product of his background and society and all that kind of stuff.
And although I have not a clue how to understand what is going on and I don’t really know how to start—I can’t really go to him and ask, How do I understand you? All I can do is just see that sort of karma. He’s a human, he’s like my left hand to my right hand, just as much as anyone else on this planet.
[00:27:02] Scott Snibbe: So to see it through the lens of cause and effect. Of course, there’s some giant stream of cause and effect in his family and his country and his culture and so on that’s led him to think and behave that way. Is that what you’re saying?
[00:27:14] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah and it makes me feel very, very sad. I feel deep sadness for someone is in that situation. And I can presume perhaps that deep down he is very deeply suffering.
[00:27:27] Scott Snibbe: That’s certainly what they say. And even from our own small experience of getting very slightly angry, it feels awful. So I would assume that he’s miserable, like many angry, powerful people, which certainly you could try and have compassion for; yet he’s so powerful and harming so many people.
[00:27:47] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, it has certainly put him in the sort of troublesome ogre category, up the very far end of the spectrum.
[00:27:54] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I know in our tradition you do make certain aspirations, you put that person actually in a special place in your practice every morning, wish for their heart to heal and for them to become gentle. And not out of any necessary superstition; I wouldn’t say I believe that has some magical power to transform Vladimir Putin’s but it does have an effect on our own mind.
I remember a few times I’ve seen the Dalai Lama and people asked him, What do we do to end war? And he always said the same thing, Resolve all the arguments in your own life; make-up with all the people you have problems with.
That sounds a little confusing, I think. But if you look at cause and effect, it does make sense. Everything’s made out of individual people making individual decisions. So if you did create a sphere of resolved conflict around you, it would continue to ripple out. It wouldn’t end with your conflicts.
[00:28:57] Mark Westmoquette: Well that’s right, there are a number of koans about this. One of them is how many stars are there in the sky? And you think there are so many stars, how can I possibly count them all? But you just start, and that’s the point, you start from where you are and what we can influence in ourselves.
Choosing to see the positive
[00:29:16] Scott Snibbe: That’s a good one for you, right? Because you’re an astrophysicist. You actually know how many stars there are in the sky. You can cheat.
But what you say is very nice, just to start step-by-step is a good lesson. I think a lot of people get discouraged thinking their influence is too small. But it’s extraordinary if you can make even one small positive change in life; and they do ripple out.
You’ve talked to a lot of people both for the book and then for the podcast. Are there any stories that stand out for you as successful or maybe entertaining ways in which we can learn?
[00:29:50] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, we can go back to the driving situation. I don’t know if there is a similar situation in the U.S. but sometimes you have three lanes on the road which then merge into two. And in the merging process, there’s an area of road which is hatched before it actually disappears.
So I had a friend who would be driving along and he’d get really annoyed when people would race up the outside lane to try and nip in and make the maximum use of all the hatched area before it disappeared.
He would say, Why can’t you just wait your turn? What are you in such a rush for? He’d get really angry about that. Then he watched a program on TV about optimal traffic flow. It turned out that making maximum use of the road was most efficient; so if you use all three lanes, even the hatched area until there was no space, you could actually maximize traffic flow on the road.
Just by learning that, he said that the next time he went on the road and someone drove up on the outside and in the hatched area, his attitude was completely different. He’d say, Oh great, you’re actually helping by maximizing the use of the road.
And it’s these kind of little tiny pieces of wisdom which can flip everything right around. You suddenly see your attitude change completely and you can be thankful and gratitude arises.
[00:31:18] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, this is one of the things about Buddhism, its strong position that the way you think about something is very powerful. That you have some beneficial interpretation that helps everybody. It is better to be biased towards a beneficial interpretation.
[00:31:34] Mark Westmoquette: Better to be optimistic.
Other people are mirrors
[00:31:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, because it happens all time and another perspective that Venerable Sangye Khadro—who’s another one of my teachers, she’s an incredible nun and Buddhist teacher—shared. When I asked her about problems with other people like that she said,
Other people are mostly a mirror, when you have problems with someone, sometimes the best thing to do is to look at how it reflects on your own behavior.
Can you talk about that a little bit?
[00:32:02] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, there’s an example I wrote about in the book about a lady who some years ago in her workplace found another lady very irritating and frustrating. And she inquired about why she was feeling so irritated for a long time, until she met one day with her mother.
Then the next day she realized straight away, Oh my gosh I’m getting so irritated because this person is reflecting a trait of my mother that I would get really annoyed with. And now I’m aware that trait is arising in me. I really disliked it in my mother and I really wished that I didn’t have it, but now I see that it’s coming out and this person is just bringing it out.
I think we can be so resistant to seeing that because we don’t want to see it. But another person can just lift it out of us, and it’s not their fault, but it’s just arising in this situation. So yeah, seeing that is a wonderful mirror.
[00:33:01] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and that’s looking at cause and effect from your own perspective, seeing how your actions are conditioned—sometimes unconsciously—by what came before.
[00:33:09] Mark Westmoquette: Oh more than sometimes.
[00:33:11] Scott Snibbe: The other aspect of mirroring is to deliberately mirror others. They say our consciousness is like a mirror. In a lot of Buddhist traditions they say at its fundamental level, consciousness is just a holographic mirror which reflects what appears to it.
There’s a technique called nonviolent communication, where that’s almost all you do; they say something and you just say it back to them. “What I hear you saying is. . . ” and it’s amazing how much people like that, just to hear back whatever they said to you. Even if it’s quite angry.
I have gotten into some work conflicts—I worked at a very high-powered place for a little while and there were some huge egos and conflicts. And I actually had a guy who was a kind of nonviolent communication coach who had helped me through some of these issues and he said, When someone’s really angry, just start reflecting back. “Oh, it looks like you’re really angry,” “Oh, you’re saying that it’s because I took your headcount or whatever,” something like that.
[00:34:10] Mark Westmoquette: Because you’re not responding from a place of “You’re making me,” you are responding from a place of, “This is my truth,” but it’s also recognizing them and where they are at.
[00:34:21] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, even without saying anything about yourself. It just really shocked me how well it worked when I started doing it. Like someone would come in fuming, and I would say, Okay, I can see you’re angry right now. And they’re like, You bet I’m angry! But even then you could see it actually deescalating.
Have you seen that in any of your studies and examples of that from a Buddhist perspective?
[00:34:42] Mark Westmoquette: There’s a seminar example—a slightly different situation—let’s say you’re the boss and you’re coming in really angry and you’ve got to give a presentation and you’re just so stressed out and you look around the room and see everyone is bored and disconnected, and all that does is just ratch it up.
Now, if you have someone in the audience who is able to be present and just sit there with that kind of openness and meet you eye-to-eye, a sense of not getting drawn into that emotion, then that can help. We can regulate with the use of another person, not just by ourselves.
So you might take yourself out and sort of calm down. But also when we meet someone who is grounded and opened, then you can deescalate together.
[00:35:32] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s nice. Especially with a smile or a joke.
[00:35:37] Mark Westmoquette: Particularly with an open facial expression and that kind of sing-songy voice. If someone needs to say something don’t say it monotone; say it with a little bit of ups and downs and that’s really calming.
Evolutionary psychology: the body doesn’t forget
[00:35:49] Scott Snibbe: Where do you think the evolutionary perspective comes in? Evolutionary psychology is very popular now and it does seem to make logical sense but it can be a little discouraging cause I think one of the things they say is mammals never forget being hurt.
[00:36:07] Mark Westmoquette: That’s right. So there’s this amazing book called The Body Keeps the Score about all that kind of work on somatic experiencing, trauma release, and things like that.
The body is very good at remembering things the mind and the memory have forgotten completely.
[00:36:23] Scott Snibbe: So how do we release those things? Knowing we’re mammals, knowing we are so prone to trauma, even from someone cutting in line which brings up this live-or-die response. You’ve mentioned a lot of good techniques but what do you do when you realize we are over-reactive mammals?
[00:36:40] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, I think it is helpful to realize that our meditation practice is not something we just do with our mind. It is an embodied practice that happens with our whole being: mind, body, and all levels.
Our meditation practice is not something we just do with our mind. It is an embodied practice that happens with our whole being: mind, body, and all levels.
Whether we’re sitting there counting our breath and a memory arises, or sitting there counting the breath and a sensation arises, then we are practicing the same art of allowing it to be. We are not trying to manipulate it, not trying to change or push it away in any sense.
The memories can unwind, but also the body has an opportunity to let things go and release a little bit. And personally, I practice a lot of yoga as well. I found that to be deeply helpful for emphasizing that embodiment: physical element, release, and unwinding.
[00:37:28] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s very important to see, to accept not just that we’re mammals but that we’re embodied beings and to let feelings settle within the body, accept them, and let them pass.
[00:37:40] Mark Westmoquette: I definitely remember being on retreats where there’s been like a sharp pain somewhere in the middle of my back and it going on for days. I’d think, What is that? What is that? Then, Let it be, let it be, let it be.
Then after a few days it just poof and up comes a memory of when I was a teenager and something happened. And then it just sort of dissolves.
Trauma, abuse, and healing
[00:38:02] Scott Snibbe: Wow, so the memories have this physical effect. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about yet on this topic of dealing with difficult people?
[00:38:12] Mark Westmoquette: We all have those common or garden people that we find difficult; we’ve spoken a lot about that. But I think many people—especially people who are drawn into practicing Buddhism in different ways—most likely have those people who are up at the top end of what I call the ‘troublesome ogres.’ These are people that have caused deep pain, perhaps some kind of abuse or trauma.
I think it really important to acknowledge that they also can be brought into this troublesome Buddha sphere. It can be the work of years and years and perhaps always ongoing to allow these people to be seen as Buddhas as much as anyone else.
I was sexually abused when I was about five or six and it’s taken a lot of time to come to terms with my father and what he did. I think part of my healing was to spend a good number of years where I cut all communication to him because I felt being in communication—being in a relationship with him—was just clouding, re-traumatizing, re-confusing everything.
So I actually decided to separate completely to look at what was going on in me, to deal with some it. And now, more recently, I’ve felt more okay to get back in touch. I got to the point a few years ago where I felt I was ready to forgive him.
We met and I told him, I’ve been really working with this. I forgive you for what you did. After that I don’t know what he made of it, I don’t know whether he took it on board. I don’t know whether he was in a position to hear what I was saying, but I felt it was a big watershed moment in my practice.
[00:40:04] Scott Snibbe: Do you think he was aware of what he did?
[00:40:09] Mark Westmoquette: I think he has told himself a version of the events, which he has come to terms with himself, which are not the version of events that I remember. And it has become, I think, his truth. And it’s become as much of his truth as my truth.
It gets to the point where you realize actually, what is truth? From like 35 years ago, who knows what truth is? All I can know is what I feel and what has come as a result of that.
He knows what he feels and what comes with all of that. We just came to meet at this place where I feel able to see his history, his background, his confusion, the result of his background coming in.
We’re all in this deeply interconnected, manifesting version of the universe right now.
[00:41:07] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, without letting go of the compassion for yourself as a helpless child who suffered extensively; it’s very difficult to balance all of that I would imagine.
[00:41:17] Mark Westmoquette: Yeah, so I think forgiving someone, in my book, is not saying that what they’ve done is right; in no sense.
Forgiveness is like the precept of not harboring anger. If we harbor it—holding on and unable to let go—then all it is doing is just jamming us up.
It may take a lot of time to really, truly let go. But when we can do that, then the pipe opens and it allows the energy to flow much more.
[00:41:46] Scott Snibbe: No, that’s amazing. My friend was really helped by the Dalai Lama. She got to meet with the Dalai Lama long ago—about 20 years ago—and she had this same thing with childhood sexual abuse with her parent.
And it was surprising what the Dalai Lama said to her. Because actually it was quite strong, he said, Have you been angry long enough? It wasn’t rude in any way. It was actually a legitimate question, Have you been angry for long enough?
And it had this extraordinary transforming effect on her to realize, Oh yeah, I think I have actually. I can now move on—obviously not completely healed or forgiving or anything—but to move on to a next stage in processing those feelings.
[00:42:30] Mark Westmoquette: I think for me it was the other way round. I just couldn’t feel any anger. My way of reacting to all of that was to shut off and hold everyone at arms’ distance and really suppress all that stuff. It worked well for me to be able to get on in life. But in the end it all catches up to you.
I remember being in psychotherapy and the therapist saying, Are you angry about that? No, I’m not angry. No. And it took a long time to realize and then it just surged so much once you touch it; wow, there’s a lot of anger here.
So it can be, have you been angry for long enough yet? Or it can be the other way around, have you been angry for long enough? Is it done?
[00:43:15] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, or is it finally time to let that anger go?
[00:43:18] Mark Westmoquette: What a lovely comment, what an amazing, insightful comment.
[00:43:22] Scott Snibbe: Well it’s very kind of you to share that. I think it’s very inspiring for people to hear stories like that, it puts smaller conflicts into perspective. Obviously if someone like you can deal with something so severe like a parent breaking your trust like yours did, then we can probably deal with the angry boss and the squabble with our wife and the parking spot-taker.
Next week’s meditation: Cutting the Cat in Two
So you’ve kindly agreed to lead a meditation for us that will air in the next episode. Can you talk a little bit about what that meditation is and then we’ll just air it uninterrupted in the next episode.
[00:44:02] Mark Westmoquette: I thought maybe we could look at Nansen’s “Cutting the Cat in Two,” a famous Zen koan that is all about conflict. So we’ll settle into our body and then I’ll introduce the koan and just see how that might settle into our body thinking about it.
[00:44:21] Scott Snibbe: Wonderful, I think I’m familiar with that one. It’s similar to a fairy tale.
Well Mark, thank you so much for joining us on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment and sharing so much about this extremely practical topic of dealing with difficult people and also your openness and generosity of sharing such a personal story. I really appreciate it; I’m sure our listeners will really appreciate it. And thank you for writing this great book too.
[00:44:46] Mark Westmoquette: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Thanks for joining us in our conversation with Dr. Mark Westmoquette. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to buy Mark’s latest book Zen and the Art of Dealing with Difficult People and his other wonderful books, including Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers that draws on his background as an astrophysicist.
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