How to Look for the Good in Difficult People

Repeat these helpful phrases to deal with just about anyone.

This post originally appeared on Five Tattvas


Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Niramaya,
Sarve Bhadraani Pashyantu Ma Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhag-Bhavet

May all be happy, May all be free from sickness,
May all look to the good in others, May none suffer from sorrow.

I used to get a little bit confused by the part that says “may all look to the good of others.” We hear many prayers and mantras in all traditions praying for peace, health, prosperity, long life, happiness, freedom—but this peculiar little line puzzled me. What does it mean that in this blessing we are wishing for the recipients to “look to the good of others.” Is that what it means to be happy?

This line sometimes reminds me of a friend of mine. I went to yoga teacher training with her back in 2008, and we sat next to each other during graduation. Just like so many other ceremonies, each person was called up to the front to receive their certificate. At each name, my friend would say something like, “Wow, isn’t Lisa so smart?” or, “Tim is so kind,” and, “So-and-so has such a magical singing voice.” There were about one hundred people in our class altogether, so as you can imagine, it was a long ceremony. But she went on like that through the whole thing. She saw something beautiful in every single person.

I think this enthusiasm and ability to see others’ great qualities is a true indicator of happiness. This friend of mine is certainly a very happy person, and she is so friendly without reservation or limitation. This magnificent woman has not lead the easiest life, if you knew her story, you might even say that she has every reason to be unhappy, angry, hurt. Many years ago, she was in a terrible accident and lost one of her legs. Many people would be left angry and convinced of the world’s unfairness after such an event. Unfortunately, people sometimes feel this way or worse about their particular life circumstances. They carry that weight around and let it affect the way they interact with others. But my friend is very happy, maybe the happiest person I know. I think it is because she loves others so much.

Love doesn’t always come easy these days. From an early age, our family, culture, and media environments train us to believe that we are at constant battle with each other for social supremacy. Someone is always put up as “better” or further ahead. Competition, one-upmanship, gossip, and manipulation are weapons with which we guard our positions in the crowd. People do benefit from this system; there are many who profit politically or financially from encouraging all of this bickering and in-fighting.

In our culture, exclusivity is commodified and marketing is hardly subtle. These messages create the false feeling of a resource war, a feeling that the good stuff is kept just out of reach. With that attitude, it’s not so hard to make the leap to stepping on others to get a boost up to that next echelon. We go around acting like happiness is a limited resource: If someone lands the job of his or her dreams, that must somehow take away from my own happiness. Jealousy comes between friends and lovers, as if friendship and love are also limited resources. If anything, they are renewable ones. The ancient texts and mantras of yoga help to remind us that we can give and receive love infinitely, and we need not be selfish.

I highly recommend doing the following contemplation practice if you find you are having difficulty with another person. Even if the individual is someone who has passed or that you will never see again, this practice can still be helpful:

  1. Begin by focusing your thoughts on this person. Allow the feelings associated with them to arise in you, whether they are of frustration, fear, anxiety, or anger. Remember, the meditation cushion is a safe place for strong feelings.
  2. Try to think of some quality about that person that is good or positive. Be creative. It might even be the case that the quality you like least about the person is something other people find value in. Do your best to rejoice in this good quality of theirs.
  3. Silently, in your mind, repeat the following phrases: “May you be happy, may you be free from sickness, may you look to the good of others, may you never suffer from sorrow.” If other words feel more sincere or natural, you can adjust the specific words. Repeat these phrases to the difficult person in your mind for 5–10 minutes of meditation practice.

It can be very challenging to work with people who you feel have hurt you; there may be unresolved matters or feelings of resistance. Allow the resistance as part of the practice. Remember, you cannot change another person. All we can do is change our own hearts and minds, and when we do so it is our own perception that changes.

Photo by Daniel Grozdanov

jessica-sticklerJessica Stickler grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has always felt an irresistible magnetic pull toward New York City, where she has been living since 1998. Jessica discovered yoga as a means to manage anxiety and depression, and was attracted to the beauty of the forms and the depth of the philosophy. Jessica is an advanced certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher, and also serves as a mentor in Jivamukti’s apprentice teaching program. Jessica loves finding ways to make these ancient teachings applicable to life and practical to help us be the best version of us we can be on a daily basis.