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Take Heart

No one likes dealing with difficult people. But by inviting them into your heart, you can create a radically different experience.

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?

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