Q: Someone very close to me is going through a great deal of psychological difficulty and can’t find their way in life. I feel strongly that they would benefit from being able to take their thoughts less seriously, something I feel I’ve been learning from meditation. Yet, they are clearly not ready to take up Buddhism or even meditation, although in the long run I think they might. I would like to help them out now and to help them find their way to the path. How can I do that without seeming to preach Buddhism or trying to make them take up an activity they don’t feel ready for?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: It is very difficult when someone close to us is experiencing emotional difficulties, and quite natural to want to offer them what has been helpful to us. However, the most helpful thing may be to give your friend the gift of listening. If you can offer your friend your full attention, expressing your care and concern free of judgment, it may give them an opportunity to explore with you what is happening with them. A friend once said to me in exasperation, “Blanche, I don’t want you to fix it, I just want you to listen to me!” Although I often remember her admonition, and the passion with which she said it, I still fall into that old habit too often.
If your friend can see a growing capacity for kindness and compassion in you as a result of your own practice, they may become curious enough to explore what it is you are doing. The most important thing is for you to be able to see their wholeness, as well as their pain. If your care is tainted with judgment, it will be hard for them to hear your genuine concern. It is said that the near enemy of compassion is pity.
I certainly agree that we all benefit when we take our thoughts less seriously and recognize them as just thoughts rather than reality itself. In the Soto Zen tradition, Dogen Zenji’s instructions say, “Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Nonthinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”
Although I have found that Zen practice is not something someone can do because someone else thinks it is a good idea, you might mention how much help your practice has been to you. If your friend shows any interest, you could invite them to join you on a visit to an introductory meditation class if there is a dharma center or temple or group in your area that offers instruction. Or, if there is a dharma discourse offered by a teacher you respect, you might invite your friend to go with you to hear it. Let your offer be in the interest of sharing something you value with someone you care about, rather than something you think will fix what’s wrong with him or her. The most important teaching I received from Suzuki Roshi, and the most difficult for me to accept was, “You’re perfect just as you are.”
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: In order to be of help to others, it is very important to offer an open heart. Through your practice of meditation, you can clear your own obstacles to being open and cultivate the sincere motivation to be kind to others. A subtle obstacle to being of service to others can be the very thought that meditation or the dharma is just what they need! Please be careful not to make this mistake. It is important not to block the space of your openheartedness with too many ideas of how to be helpful. It’s more important just to be available and kind, with a sense of humor.
Openness allows for the spontaneous expression of compassion to arise, which may manifest differently in any given moment. Perhaps your friend will be curious about what you are doing, but perhaps not. If you are willing to help when your friend needs it, without imposing your ideas on him or her, naturally they may be open to you and curious about what you are doing. They may even be open to talking about what might be helpful, including meditation. But this interest should come from them. If you have too many ideas for them, you can actually block their potential and openness, which is not your intention.
So be open and humorous and allow the space for them to come to you with questions about what you do or whether meditation helps. If they don’t ask, you are still helping them with your presence and the unique space of friendship that you offer. Please do not underestimate the power of this open presence. In our materialistic world, it is easy to devalue our human presence, but this open presence is a treasury of virtuous qualities. When we connect deeply and clearly in open presence, all the virtues are present and can spontaneously arise when a situation calls for them. This action is not fettered by our thoughts and ideas. It does not carry our fears or inadequacies.
As your practice of meditation deepens, your trust in the open space of your being will grow. In addition, in your meditation practice, you can always pray from your heart that your friend may be happy and free of suffering and the causes of suffering, that they find joy and equanimity, and that they connect with a path to liberation in this lifetime.
Narayan Liebenson Grady: The short answer is that you can’t make somebody take up Buddhism or meditation. The longer answer is that the process of beginning to practice meditation is somewhat mysterious. There are ways, however, which can push people away from practicing, including wanting this too much for someone, even with the best of intentions.
Trust in your sincerity. Through wanting to ease your friend’s suffering, you transmit your love and care. However, your strong feeling that this person would benefit from being able to take their thoughts less seriously, though understandable, is a thought. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but because of your attachment to this thought, it is unlikely to be beneficial. It may be more useful to your friend if you simply rely on the clarity available to you in noticing that it isn’t possible for your friend to take up the practice. Respecting this would be a kindness. And since your friend is experiencing psychological difficulties, suggesting psychological care might be most skillful.
However, sometimes one of greatest ways to extend compassion is not to offer advice. Rather, it is to offer a silent presence, letting the person rest within him- or herself. One of the more difficult things in life is to seemingly sit by and watch someone suffer when you know there is another way. Of course, you are not just sitting around doing nothing. You are continuing to practice. If you are calm and clear-minded, you may help your friend by offering a calmer and more peaceful environment.
Your love and care are the results of your own practice. The ways in which you have benefited from the practice will benefit your friend as well. If you are happier, your friend may at some point ask how this change came about. Then you can answer enthusiastically! Living the teachings is a much more powerful statement than talking about them.
This means applying your practice to this thought that your friend’s life would be better if they would only meditate. When it comes to our personal relationships, letting go can be a most difficult practice.
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