A dear friend wrote, this morning:
"When someone ruffles our feathers, it’s because we are seeing an aspect of this person that exists in us as well. We attract people who mirror our own negative traits. That’s why these people are in our lives – to offer us an opportunity to transform ourselves, and our anger."
This is a very wise old teaching... I have run across it in spiritual settings, as well as in the course of studying traditional psychology. Indeed, it can be very useful in understanding ourselves, because we tend to be more open to experiencing our own quirks and foibles when they are illustrated in the actions of another, rather than in ourselves.
On the surface, the lesson looks fairly simple. But it is actually one that can sometimes require a lot of insight and contemplation, in order for us to understand the true how of the "negative aspect" that actually lives in us. In my own years of contemplation, a large part of my lesson has been about understanding the deeper subtleties of this teaching. And if you don't, you'll often tend to reject what appears on the surface... and, I might add, rightfully so!
As I said, sometimes it's quite simple:
Our friend Bob annoys us because he's always in a hurry. And it feels like he "herds" us, every time we go somewhere. And we feel annoyed, because we deeply identify with being "laid back." Although not pleasant (because the truth seldom is, at least up front), we can pause and recognize that whereas we may not always be in a hurry, when we do have a lot that needs taking care of we'll tend to "herd people," and annoy them.
That's easy enough, right?
Most people could look at situations in their own lives and nod, and think "Yeah, I can recognize this-and-that tendency in me, embodied by 'Bob,' or my partner, or one of my friends."
But... it's not always that straightforward. Let's say that what ruffles our feathers is that our neighbor puts puppies in the microwave and defends his right to do so-- sorry, I know that's pretty graphic, but it's needed for the example, AND to stretch people's "reality threshold." When someone holds up the teaching of how we are "reacting to a negative aspect in ourselves," we may recoil in horror and utterly reject the idea that we latently embody that particular negative trait. And OF COURSE we would be entirely RIGHT... we have no latent desires whatsoever to put puppies in the microwave.
Right! So what's the problem, here?
H.H. The Dalai Lama once explained-- about Karma and reincarnation-- that people's lifelessons don't return as "obviously" in subsequent lives as one might think. Just because you were a thief in one lifetime doesn't mean you'll necessarily be stolen from in the next lifetime. You might be born without arms. Or even live a beautiful and compassionate life, but every attempt you make for gain fails. Or you simply live a life in which you always have to "go without." All of these, of course, a reflection of the (indirect) result of having been stolen from.
So what about us getting riled up about neighbor and his treatment of the puppies? Can we just throw away the teaching when it's as graphically ugly and seemingly inappropriate as this?
It pays to consider carefully, what the teaching might be, before we dismiss it.
Indeed, there may be nothing to be learned. But what IF the lesson at hand actually IS valid... we're just rejecting it because because what's in front of us is graphically literal and wrong? Could it be, for example, that on a greater scale of life we have latent tendencies to bully and terrorize the innocent and defenseless? And THAT's what we "don't like" and what "ruffles our feathers?" Maybe we lived a horrendously rough childhood in which something gentle and innocent ("a puppy") not only would be doomed to perish, but our caring for it would be a direct liability for us, because it reflected (perceived or real) "weakness" in us... and thus it would anger us... because such weakness put us at risk.
Now, I hasten to add that our anger at our neighbor is probably absolutely righteous and justified. My point here is that just because our anger is righteous and justified doesn't mean that I couldn't contain a valuable teaching, as well.
So... what inspired me to write (apart from my friend's words) was a desire to "expand" the lesson... and to remind myself (and others) to not reject an idea because it fills us with reactionary rage, but to pause and consider that even in the darkest and most horrific acts there may be a nugget of valuable enlightenment.