Take Heart


By Sally Kempton  |  

Fran’s cottage on the Oregon coast should be the perfect meditative retreat. The only worm in her apple is Larry, her landlord, who lives on the property. Larry is an acerbic critic of just about everything—the government, the art world, drug companies, and Fran. He can’t believe she’s so clueless about simple practical matters. Only an idiot, he tells her, would plant petunias without putting gopher wire around them, and that’s just for starters.

Yes, he’ll bring her groceries from town and help her diagnose the weird noises in her car. But the last time she came back from a weekend out of town, she found him sitting in her living room, surrounded by beer bottles and heavy vibes. As far as Larry’s concerned, the house is his property, so why should she mind his sitting in it when she’s not there?

Fran feels trapped. She doesn’t want to move, yet her landlord’s presence hangs over her house like a dark, angry cloud. Worst of all, his anger magnetizes her own anger, so she often finds herself talking to him in the same harsh tone he uses with her.

As a conscious person doing her best to follow a yogic path, Fran feels ashamed for not knowing how to deal with Larry. You might feel that way too, when a difficult person challenges your yogic beliefs as well as your relationship skills. Few of us get through life without encountering, often in humbling ways, more than one person who is staggeringly tough for us to handle. Difficult people come in many forms—a manipulative friend, a prickly co-worker, an absent-hearted lover—but however they manifest, gnarly relationships are part of the package we signed up for when we enrolled ourselves in the school that is life on this planet. If we don’t have a few challenging people in our lives, we probably wouldn’t learn much in this incarnation. And most of us know this, even though we occasionally give in to the temptation to bad-mouth a selfish co-worker or to organize the rest of the family against a control-freak brother-in-law.

The question here, as it is in all the great confrontations of life, is how to act on what you know. In other words, how do you deal with the difficult people in your life without retreating to a cave, being harsh or wimpy, or putting them out of your heart? For example, if you have a friend who keeps enlisting you in the service of her dramas, how can you explain—without losing her friendship—that you don’t want to be part of her latest scenario of mistrust? Or how do you handle the boss whose tantrums terrorize the whole office?

More to the point, what do you do when the same sorts of difficult interpersonal situations keep showing up in your life? Chalk it up to karma? Find ways to resolve them through discussion or even preemptive action? Or take the truly challenging view, the view held by most Jungian psychologists and by many spiritual teachers: that these people are reflecting your own disowned, or shadow, tendencies? In other words, does dealing with difficult people have to begin with finding out what you might need to work on in yourself?


It’s All about You

The short yogic answer to the last question is yes. Of course, that doesn’t mean overlooking antisocial behavior. Moreover, some relationships are so difficult that the best way to change them is to leave. But the bottom line is, you can’t control other people’s personalities and behaviors; your real power lies in your ability to work on yourself. Not even the best interpersonal technique will work if you use it in a fearful, judgmental, or angry state of mind. Your own open and empowered state is the fulcrum from which you can begin to move the world.

I used to do projects with a woman whose moods tyrannized everyone she worked with. She was bossy and cranky, so hardly a day went by when she didn’t clash with someone. Yet one person, Terry, could effortlessly disarm this woman, and it was his inner attitude that made the difference. For years, Terry had practiced what I call the yoga of acceptance—holding the thought that since everything is an expression of a single divine reality, it should be honored and welcomed. Paradoxically, his attitude of deep acceptance allowed him to say and do tough things without creating any real resistance.

It was Terry who convinced me that relationships are all about energy exchanges. Real transformation in a relationship begins at an energetic level. You don’t have to be a student of quantum field theory or Buddhist metaphysics to sense how much the energies around you affect your mood and feelings. What we call personality is actually many layers of energy—soft, tender, and vulnerable as well as powerful, controlling, or prickly.

These energies, expressing themselves through your body, thoughts, emotions, and mind, manifest as your specific personality signature at any given moment. What’s on the surface, in body language and facial expression, is the sum of the energies operating within. When you speak, it’s the energy behind your words that most deeply affects others. When Fran’s landlord is being aggressive, his voice takes on a hard, strong tone. His body tightens and seems to get bigger. Fran, whose energy is much softer, feels scared in the presence of that energy, and she reacts by trying to placate Larry, by retreating, or by getting into her own aggressive energy and speaking harshly.

The Trouble with Being "Nice"

The beginning of change, then, is learning how to recognize and modulate your own energy patterns. The more aware you are—the more you can stand aside and witness rather than identify with your personal energies of thought and feeling—the easier it is to work with your own energies. This takes practice.

Few of us start out with an awareness of our own energy or the way it affects others, and even fewer know how to change the way our energies mesh with someone else’s. In the heat of an emotionally charged exchange, it’s not easy to step back and watch what’s happening. To complicate matters, you may have disowned your more problematic energies—anger or vulnerability—so they come out sideways, in sarcastic remarks or sudden outbursts, or unexplained tears, as you react to energy patterns that trigger childhood programming or family dynamics.


This was part of Fran’s problem with her landlord. Fran had always thought of herself as a "nice" woman who would rather stuff her anger than express it. The way she tells it, her older brother had a hair-trigger temper and used to yell at her. Fran had always tried to placate him, repressing her resentment. Throughout her life, she realized, she had been attracting angry males, like replicas of her brother.

Just becoming aware of this pattern made a difference. Fran was able to witness the process between Larry and her, recognizing the moment when her own anger started to surface. But she was still too frightened to discuss her feelings about their relationship. It wasn’t just that confrontation scared her. She had a strong feeling that it wouldn’t work.

A Real Heart to Heart

At one point in our work together, we tried an inner visualization technique, adapted from a practice used in the Tantric tradition for paying respect to a teacher or deity. In yogic language, this practice is called bhavana, or active imagination.

Fran would close her eyes and calm her breathing, then imagine herself in a small, comfortable room inside her own heart. She saw a door in the wall, which opened onto a staircase that she walked down. At the bottom of the staircase she found another door, through which she imagined herself entering a room with two chairs in it. She sat in one of the chairs and imagined Larry sitting in the other. Then she saw herself handing Larry a bouquet of roses and saying to him, "I would like there to be peace and kindness between us."

The first few times she did this practice, her imaginary Larry either showed up faceless or showed no interest in taking the flowers. Finally, after several tries, she felt Larry’s energy in the imagined room and felt him accepting the bouquet.

A few days later, the real Larry came to her door in an unusually mellow mood. They had a cup of tea together, and she asked if they could talk. She told him she appreciated the things he did for her, but wanted to set up a friendly boundary. She would prefer he not hang out in her house unless she invited him—"not because I don’t like you," she said, "but because it’s important to me to keep the energy in my house my own."

To her surprise, Larry seemed to accept her position. "It was as if he respected me for making it clear," she told me. Moreover, there was an ease and friendliness in their conversation that had never been there before.

Fran felt it had everything to do with her flower meditation. Whether or not her internal gesture of respect had indeed reached him on a subtle level, it had certainly released something in her, and that internal shift had allowed her to speak to him without charge. Now she can say, "Hey, Larry, be nice!" when he starts talking in his hectoring voice. And he laughs and shifts into a friendlier tone.

How to Change the World

The Yoga Vasishtha, one of the most radical texts of Vedanta, teaches that the world you experience is a manifestation of consciousness itself, and that when you change your inner view, the world changes to match it. If you believe this teaching, it follows that when you want to change a relationship in the physical world, you begin by creating a shift in your thoughts and feelings. Whether you make this shift by creating an intention, doing a pacifying visualization, or imagining yourself having a loving or mutually respectful conversation, the imaginative work you do with each of your difficult people is a powerful step toward breaking down the barriers between you.


Here’s one way to start the internal process of transforming yourself in order to transform a difficult relationship: First, notice the energy that’s triggered inside you in this person’s presence. Remember the last time you were with him or her and sense the way the energy feels in your body when you think of that encounter. Notice how your throat and stomach feel. Be aware of any emotions and thoughts you have about this person. See how long you can stay in this state, standing aside from the situation and your reactions while holding them in awareness.

The witnessing awareness is the most empowered part of your consciousness; it’s your connection to the creative power of the universe, and once you tune in to it, awareness itself will, over time, integrate all the contradictory energies within you. When you tune in to the witness, gnarly feelings let go.

That may be enough in itself to shift the energy between you and your difficult person. But if you want to go even further and use the creative power of consciousness to communicate subtly with the person—or at least change your internal relationship to him or her—you can use symbols, which the unconscious will recognize more easily than words. You could engage in a practice like Fran’s flower meditation, for example. Flowers are recognized universally as a symbol of appreciation and reconciliation, but you might also use an olive branch or other gift.

I like to do this by imagining myself walking into my heart. A ladder connects my brain to my heart, and with each inhalation and exhalation, I walk myself down that ladder. In the heart, I imagine the two of us sitting in a cave, with a candle between us. Then I speak to the person. I ask that the two of us be friends, or that we be at peace. Sometimes I say what’s bothering me in the relationship and ask for help in resolving it. Often, though, I just imagine us sitting together in the heart space.

Once I’ve done this internal process, I’ve found that confrontations I’ve been dreading turn into reasonable discussions. People who seemed distant or disagreeable become less so. Above all, and first of all, I feel easier.

The creative consciousness of the Great Mind is best contacted through the heart. When you use active imagination, or bhavana, to resolve a relationship inside your heart, you are putting this insight into action. I’ve long suspected this is how the difficult people in your life can become your best teachers—by inspiring you to change the dynamics of your relationship with them by shifting the dynamic within yourself.

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit www.sallykempton.com.