This article is adapted from Diane Eshin Rizzetto’s forthcoming book, Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion, to be published by Shambhala Publications in May 2005.
—T. S. Eliot, from The Cocktail Party (I,iii)
T. S. Eliot’s words resonate in my mind as I catch myself dropping a comment to my husband about someone we both think is “not very reliable.” How do I know what this person’s been up to since we last met? Why do I choose to freeze his image in my mind by faulting him as unreliable? What have I hung on to in the interval since our last meeting? When we choose instead to meet others as strangers, our hearts are open to possibility and change.
Zen teacher Robert Aitkin Roshi reminds us that “a so-called fault is a weak place where character can change.” Many years ago, when I was a single mother, I worked in a paper box factory and as a cocktail waitress to support myself and my children. At one point, I even lied my way into a job as a legal secretary. But it wasn’t long before my boss figured out that I didn’t have half the office skills I claimed to have when I applied for the job. Instead of berating me or outright firing me, he responded by finding a way to help me. I believe that what he saw in my deception was what some people call chutzpah, and that, if channeled correctly, it could help me overcome many of the obstacles I would face in the future. If he had frozen his perception of me as a person who lies, then he might not have given me the opportunity to move past that perception.
I did not realize all this back then, but perhaps a few of the hundreds of students I have met as strangers over the last thirty years will have benefited by my boss’s willingness to meet me with openness and possibility.
There are many ways we can freeze how we see other people, even those closest to us. I’ve seen this in the lives of several of my students who face the challenge of caring for aging parents. How difficult it is to see our parents, our first caregivers, as those needing care themselves. This transformation doesn’t happen all at once, but with each little bill that goes unpaid, or each little fall, a bit of our crystalline picture from the past is chipped away until we are left wondering: Who is this person?
One student talked about how tired he was of hearing the same old story of how his mother had been forced as a young girl to leave her home, her boyfriend and all her friends to come to a new country with a language and culture totally foreign to her. After seventy-five years, his mother still told this story over and over and over. When he realized that he was cutting her off, changing the subject, doing anything just not to have to listen to the same old tape, he decided to stop and try to really listen, to take up the practice of seeing his mother as a stranger.
As he started doing this, his curiosity was piqued and he began asking her questions: “Was he your first boyfriend?” “Did you ever kiss?” “Did you ever tell Dad about him?” Little by little, he became intrigued as he elicited her untold tale, so rich and full of surprises. In some ways, I see this as reconciliation. In doing such practice, little by little we can meet our parents anew, if only for a few moments, but only if we let go of the old and see them as strangers.
This approach of seeing others as strangers underlies the precept of speaking of others with openness and possibility. Often worded as “not discussing the faults of others” or “refraining from gossip and backbiting,” this precept invites us to question deeply the assumptions and beliefs that find their way into our comments as we speak disparagingly of others and blame them for what we see as their faults.
Speaking disparagingly about another person can have far-reaching effects. But on an even deeper level, a mind that is seized by a frozen view of another, whether the thoughts are spoken or not, is incapable of being open and awake. So, in a broader sense, this precept invites us to not only speak of but to meet even those we think we know—such as our mother or father—as if for the first time, like Eliot’s stranger.
How is it possible to do this? How can we let go of the past, or not size up the future? To meet others as strangers doesn’t mean to forget the past but rather it means to not hold on to the past. It means to acknowledge that what we think we know of others can only be a memory of our past experiences and, whether we know it or not, these people and ourselves have both changed since we last met.
For example, yesterday you may have exchanged a few harsh words and thought someone disagreeable, but today, in just this moment, where is disagreeable? If you meet that person with yesterday’s words echoing in your mind, then it is as if you are viewing them through tinted glasses. In this case, the glasses are tinted disagreeable. What are the voices and images of recent and distant memories that freeze our knowing of this person? Here is the paradox of this precept: in order to truly know someone means to be open to the possibility of change and to acknowledge that we can truly know that person only in the present moment.
When working with this precept, many people have found the following exercises helpful. Try them first with people for whom you have no particularly strong negative reactions, then slowly work your way toward people for whom there is a stronger charge.
Reconciliation comes naturally when our hearts and minds reside in change. When we have the courage to squarely meet what we hold on to, to acknowledge and experience it with each new encounter, then over time we find that the bondage of our holdings loosens. We can meet others as strangers and, in that moment, discover interconnected peaceful dwelling for ourselves and the world.