I’ve spent a lot of time trying to change other people’s minds—getting my father to agree that handgun ownership is unsafe, persuading an old friend that my denim maxi dress looks great, and, most recently, offering facts and explanations to a neighbor who I think should appreciate our local Open Street initiative and stop protesting it. Sometimes, the person I’m trying to persuade will listen politely and consider my opinions and information. But most of the time, they’re offended or frustrated—and so am I. The truth is, while it’s fine to disagree with others, offer facts about a situation, and even argue the pros and cons of it, what someone else thinks or believes is not up to me. It’s simply not in my power to change another person’s mind, and trying to do so is one of the most common causes of dukkha, the Pali Buddhist word for suffering or dissatisfaction.
We’ve all experienced this type of dukkha. Who hasn’t tried to change another person’s mind, usually with the best intentions? We want others to make good decisions, or we try to stop them from causing harm to themselves or another. But most often our advice or our intervention is ignored or disputed, and that’s usually when we notice our frustration, resentment, and/or anger. This type of suffering can be especially acute when we feel sure that we’re right—that our information and understanding is true—and that the other person is wrong or confused. When we’re sure that another person’s ignorant or deluded beliefs and actions are dangerous to them, their community, or the world, it can lead us to believe that we must find a way to change their minds. But since that’s not possible, what should we do?
Cultivating wisdom and discernment includes knowing the most useful action we can take in any moment. Buddhists call this upaya—skillful means—and it requires that we understand what we can control and what we can’t, and how to use our thoughts, speech, and behavior in the most beneficial way. When you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t change someone’s harmful opinions or terrible judgment, it’s important to recognize the skillful means you can use to care for yourself and others. One way is to identify actions that will mitigate the harm or potential harm the person is causing. This could mean voting for an opposing candidate or party than theirs; offering your time supporting, listening, or volunteering with those affected or oppressed by their policies; or simply talking with family and friends about your concerns in a friendly and non-aggressive way. Though you can’t change someone’s mind, you may be able to affect the outcome of their choices, and help create conditions for everyone to flourish.
Another type of other skillful means is to wish the person well through the practice of metta, or lovingkindness. Wishing them well—by giving them your compassion, love, and wisdom—alleviates your own suffering, by easing the painful mind-states of neediness, aversion, and delusion. When you feel less tense and afraid, your mind becomes steadier and clearer and you can make wise choices and smart decisions instead of saying or doing things out of anger or upset.
When you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t change someone’s harmful opinions or terrible judgment, it’s important to recognize the skillful means you can use to care for yourself and others.
Giving metta as a skillful means doesn’t mean you agree with this person or approve of their position or their choices. It simply means that you acknowledge that they are a human being just like you—they want to be happy, to live in peace and safety, and to have good health. When you offer metta to a person who frustrates you, you’re including them in your wish that everyone has the conditions to thrive and live with joy. This is because we all deserve to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. This is true even for people you don’t like or those who are dangerous. You can adopt an attitude toward them of “I love you and no”— knowing that you will do your best to stop them from exercising their poor judgment or causing harm, while at the same time wishing for them to have well-being and ease.
Open-heartedness helps us gain a wider perspective and realize that we’re all vulnerable and fragile.
Another reason that metta practice is skillful means is because it keeps our hearts open—to ourselves and even to those we don’t like or who hold harmful opinions. This open-heartedness helps us gain a wider perspective and realize that we’re all vulnerable and fragile, because everything is impermanent and conditions in life are constantly changing. This is why a bodhisattva vows to never give up on anyone—because they understand there might be a time in the future where we can reconnect with others, and bodhisattvas want their heart to be open and available when such an opportunity arises, ready to support and encourage everyone’s compassion and good sense.
I know how hard it is to let go of the need to change someone’s mind, but I also know it’s possible to lessen this attachment. I encourage you to practice the following traditional Buddhist metta contemplation that I use in such moments when you catch yourself in a similar situation.
- Shut off your devices, find a quiet spot, and stop talking. Get still and sit comfortably on a chair or the floor or your bed. Put your hand on your heart and take a few conscious breaths, perhaps deepening your inhales and exhales.
- Now make a connection with yourself. Feel your presence with your hand on your heart or your belly, imagine you’re looking in the mirror, or perhaps visualize yourself in childhood. Say this phrase to yourself, “May I accept myself as I am. May I be at peace.” Continue repeating this silently to yourself for a few minutes.
- Next, make a connection with the person whose mind you’d like to change. Imagine they’re sitting near you, and silently say these phrases to them, “May I accept you as you are. May you be at peace.” Repeat for a few minutes.
- Finally, consider all of us struggling beings who want to be happy and free. Make a connection with us all—maybe just allowing your heart to open to the life around you, or imagining the living beings on the earth—and silently say for a few minutes, “May we accept each other as we are. May all beings be at peace.”
- You can do this practice whenever you feel frustrated with another person or even at yourself. Each time you end your meditation, be sure to appreciate your wisdom and compassion, by whispering “thank you” to yourself for your sincere efforts.
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