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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

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.

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