Being Less Annoyed by Others - Is this Love?
Dear Friends, I have been thinking about love lately, and not just because Valentine's Day is near. But also because there were many times in my life I felt unloved and unloving. Starting in my teenage years, people I didn't know usually annoyed me. People close to me often annoyed me. And I usually annoyed myself too. But over the years I have noticed a slow shifting of the plates of my heart so that now, at age 50, I am very much less often annoyed by anyone, myself included. I even find myself falling in love with people, plants, and animals many times each day.
I am curious about this shift. It could have to do with practicing meditation and mindfulness, which allows me to see just how similar we all really are, and how our stories and conditioning don't have to rule our lives. I think a lot of it comes from being in a long term committed relationship with a partner who, beyond reason, seems to love me no matter how insane I am. (I remember, with some embarrassment, a day 15 years ago, when I was so annoyed with him that I threw a dinner plate at his head. And yet he continued to love me.) It may have a lot to do with becoming a mom of four, or the 5 years I spent in therapy working through layers of anger and hurt. Or maybe it's just old age.
This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, I fell in love with a wren and later in the day with a mouse the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
In the shadows of an autumn evening, I fell for a seamstress still at her machine in the tailor’s window, and later for a bowl of broth, steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
This is the best kind of love, I thought, without recompense, without gifts, or unkind words, without suspicion, or silence on the telephone. -- Billy Collins, from Aimless Love
Whatever the reason, feeling metta, or loving kindness for others feels a heck of a lot better than being annoyed by them. I wish I had discovered this secret earlier. The Buddha describes the four brahma viharas, or heavenly abodes, which are the places where it is most pleasant to dwell. The four dwelling places are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity or inclusiveness (upekkha). Practicing so that we can dwell more often in these places can bring a lot of ease and happiness to our lives, but it can take time to rewire our brains to stay in these places, rather than run screaming back into the comfort of our irritation.
Loving-kindness is a feeling of warmth toward others, which we can cultivate in meditation practice by silently repeating phrases wishing well to ourselves and others. Compassion is the ability to be present with others who are suffering without trying to change or run away from their pain. We can expand our ability to be compassionate by not turning away from suffering when we encounter it, yet also not expecting that we can always do something concrete to alleviate it.
Sympathetic joy is my favorite brahma vihara. It's amazing that we don't take advantage of sympathetic joy more often. Feeling happy for someone else's happiness seems so obvious, but so often we feel annoyed by others' happiness instead. It's easy to feel mudita when we see our young nephew thrilled by his new legos, but it's harder to find that sympathetic joy when someone gets the one thing that we wanted but couldn't get, like good health, a vacation, or even a child. The practice of mudita, like the other brahma viharas, directly benefits our own happiness. As they say in the 12-step program, "Resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die." No one benefits more from sympathetic joy than we do ourselves.
And lastly equanimity, which may be the most challenging of the four, is the practice of including everything and everyone in our embrace, leaving nothing out. It means being open to the possibility that we could include everyone and everything in our love-- the person who takes our armrest on the plane, the woman who breaks our heart, the tree that falls on our house, the dog that poops on our rug, or even the man that fires us from our job. It doesn't mean that we are always able to treat someone who hurt us with the same kindness that we might treat our elderly grandmother. But it does mean that we can leave the door of our heart ajar for the possibility that they are worthy of our love as well.
"Please call me by my true names, so that I can wake up... And the door of my heart can be left open." -- Thich Nhat Hanh
So I guess I'll never know exactly why I am less annoyed by others than I used to be. But I feel sure it has something to do with engaging others at the heart level. Hearing about someone's deepest longings gives me a window into their beautiful intentions, or who they really are, rather than getting caught by the unskillful and annoying strategies they might be employing. When my partner chose to view my plate throwing as an intense passion to connect with him rather than a crazy woman's homicidal tendencies, he was seeing the "real" me in spite of my unskillful action. And seeing into the heart may well be the secret doorway into compassionate, joyful, and inclusive love.