Mystical masters like to use hot coals in analogies. It’s probably because they’re always walking across them on the way to their ashram. I recently heard a teacher compare anger to throwing hot coals at another person. You may or may not hit your target, she said, but one thing is certain: you will get burned. I remember hearing another master talk about resentment in the same way. Resentment is like holding hot coals of anger, and yet never throwing them. Now the only one who gets burned is you.
I was thinking about the problem of “being offended” or “insulted” and the hot coals came back to me. In a way, being offended is like grabbing someone else’s hot coals and shoving them down your own shirt. Your just burning yourself with someone else’s shit. It’s just plain stupid. But it happens all the time. We are, as mystical thinker Anthony DeMello says bluntly, pathetically stupid. Someone compliments us and we feel good–even if it’s just about our shoes–and then someone complains or condemns and we get angry.
So how do we hop off the roller coaster of praise and insult?
First, you have to recognize the stupidity behind being offended (even if you cannot stop the feeling). Now there are many types of offense. Some people are offended by a website about spirituality that is called Give Up and Die. Well, fine. Stick it. But I’m talking about personal offense, when someone insults you, your family, your way of life, how you do things, who you are, what you think, etc. The basest example is clothing. Someone does not like what you are wearing and tells you. My mom used to call my resale shop style, “blah beige,” and I used to get offended. It made me feel bad. A day later, my girlfriend says she likes my cuffed pants and overalls (oh, those 80s and 90s were great) and I’m happy. This is Athony DeMello’s example of being a puppet on a string. We are not our clothes. And if you read any zen or mystical literature, you quickly realize that we are not our bodies (which decay), our opinions (which change), our jobs (also change or end), and even our ideas (which constantly evolve) either. All those things change. We’re something better than all this. Read about why You don’t exist here.
So, we recognize it might be silly to “take offense” over a comment by someone else. The problem is that the hardest part about being insulted or offended is not the actual comment or action, it’s the fact that that person made the comment. I have three very energetic and precocious kids. They are loud sometimes. I know this. I even get teased by friends. Our neighbors notice when we’re gone for more than a day. But occasionally someone I don’t know points it out to me in a less than flattering way, and I get offended. Ironically, all they are telling me is the truth. I spend half my day shushing my kids. How can I be offended by the truth? Really I’m offended because they had the nerve to say it. It’s not polite to tell people bad things about their kids unless you are their teacher or parole officer. I’m not offended by the comment, but by their rudeness.
Well, this is where the coals come in. Since I can’t be offended by the truth, I get offended by the actions of the truth teller. So, in essence, I’m making the choice to pick up someone else’s shit–their hot coals of rudeness and resentment–and drop them down my shirt, even cuddle with them in bed.
This is a dangerous way to live. If you are going to get offended by every rude sales clerk or telemarketer, you are going to have a very long and bothered life. It’s a true art to look rudeness in the eye and smile–not in a malignant way, but a warm way. Most rushed and rude people, I find, are rushed and rude for a good reason. And even if they are not, it can be a good practice to imagine they are. Whenever I’m cut off in traffic, I imagine the poor guy is late for the birth of his first born. This can be tricky when the poor guy is in a Hummer with the music blaring–but I try.
Rude people, mean people, people who like to make sure you get put in your place, are hurting people. When you get offended and join in the rudeness, you don’t change that person, you become that person. Don’t take on other people’s shit.
GIVE UP being offended by others (especially if they’re telling the thruth) AND remember you’ll probably DIE happier if you don’t take on other people’s burning coals. You’ll be glad you did.
Next week, I’ll continue and expand this theme with my favorite practice in dealing with very difficult people: the empty boat analogy.