Dharma Q/A: Angered by Other’s Opinion

Since the election, you’ve been talking about the importance of the practice of “dropping the divide” and “seeking understanding” when meeting others we disagree with, but I can hardly get past my angry reaction to some people that goes, “You’re completely wrong!”  

You’re not alone in this dilemma — many of us in this culture are out of practice meeting face to face with people who think differently, having developed a social sphere replete with information that fits into our basic frame of life. This election has burst the bubble of that comfort — so this is an excellent place of practice, to cultivate embracing difference without the extremes of helplessness or hate that make the divide between self and other appear impossible. We can begin with curiosity as to why someone’s verbal opinion feels so threatening to us in the moment.

Here are three practices to move from stuck to compassion. They follow the progression of our three Pure Precepts — to cease from harm, do good, and do good for others. The final commentary goes like this:

Embrace all things and conditions. Leap beyond the holy and the unholy. Let us rescue ourselves together with all beings.   

One: Cease from Harm. When faced with someone’s opinion or idea that is offensive, take responsibility for what you do. Notice your body, the emotional charge, the tightening and sense of fight or flight. Do I feel compelled to make a rebuttal or counterattack, or escape? If we can simply pause and notice, we can ask ourselves, in this moment, where is the threat?

Most of the time, we take what is said too personally, but if we can step out of that reactive sense of threat and notice that we’re actually safe in the moment, we can shift from defensiveness and attack mode to curiosity and engagement.

Dropping the self here doesn’t mean we don’t value our own life experience, our commitment to Buddhist values, and what we do know of the world. Practice means forgoing fixed views. Embrace this paradox — having views while letting go of views. That is the art of Zen.

Two: Do Good. Doing good here means forgetting about convincing someone else of the rightness your ideas and the wrongness of theirs, though you might disagree, and instead offering a gesture of what is good. I meet you as a being with intrinsic value. In our social connections, good comes in many forms – being curious, being honest and respectful, being willing to be present and authentic with this person with whom you disagree. You may get no reward for this at all, but good should be done nonetheless.

If someone says to you, “I’m tired of all these immigrants getting special treatment in this country. Why don’t they go back home?” how do you empathize with their frustration without compromising your own integrity? “It sounds like an important issue to you. I wonder what you’re thinking about that?” “Wow, we think really differently about this — what do you hope will change?” or even, “Sometimes that’s hard for me to hear, but I’m willing to try to find out about your experience.”

Instead of combating what you think is a wrong idea by judging the person and thereby cutting off the heart, try to uncover what’s underneath this difference to find common values. Don’t be in a hurry. In Buddhism, this is always this one common truth: We all suffer and wish to end suffering. We are all subject to greed, hate and delusion, which when clarified becomes generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom.

Three: Do Good for Others. After we have some practice becoming safe being in the presence of someone with different ideas and opinions, if there’s any measure of openness, here is the moment to connect ideas to action, for ideas are at once merely words, and also, the basis of mind states that create great harm. Given the larger context, how do we stay connected to the other and share our own experience? What is most intimate is most influential. “Can I share with you my experience? My neighbor’s from Mexico. She works three jobs to send her kids to school. On Fridays we go out for pizza together and I’m concerned about their welfare because the youngest is being bullied at school. I wonder if there’s a better way to make sure the next generation has work ahead of them?”

In Zen, no one gets voted off the island. Suppressing and shaming someone for their ideas makes them gather steam as we have come to observe in the last few months. Bringing your practice to others means meeting the truth of the person before you without defensiveness, and it is that fierce compassion, not the words we speak, that becomes the most important dharma gate to cultivating wise views that serve life.

With palms together,


1 thought on “Dharma Q/A: Angered by Other’s Opinion”

  1. Bruce A. Hindrichs

    I know many people that I know are good people, but they are caught-up in this current wave of bigoted thinking. How is this possible? Where does this bubble-up from? How susceptible am I to subtler forms of the same delusion?

    Perhaps if I can understand how it resides in me, I can communicate more effectively with others.

    Thank you for your insights into this dilemma – very helpful.

    Bruce h.

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