When at Wat Metta, a Thai forest monastery in California, every day at 4:00 in the afternoon, all residents, visitors, and monastics gather outside of the meditation hall for a brief question and answer session with the abbott, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. His graciousness makes for such a rare and precious opportunity, allowing access to the mind of a senior master with such experiential wisdom...it's truly priceless.
During my first visit in May, each day I would make my way to the sala in time to observe the residents as they set up numerous folding chairs in order to accommodate the size of the group. On one occasion, when I was the first to arrive, I took it upon myself to set up the chairs just as I had observed each day prior. As I happily set up each chair, a woman arrived who I had not yet met. She didn't say hello, nor introduce herself, but rather interjected, criticizing how I was setting up the chairs, to the point that I eventually stopped and asked if she would like me to set them up otherwise. She responded with a stern "yes", then huffed and puffed as she rearranged the chairs. Our interaction was tense, so much so that I avoided interacting with her for the majority of the rest of my stay.
But, on one day in particular that May, I had noticed that she had been the cook, and she had prepared a wonderful baked polenta dish, filled with pesto, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, and feta cheese! It was memorable enough for me, that when I saw her on this most recent trip, that I thought, rather than focusing on our first interaction, the moment the opportunity would arise, I was instead going to start "on the good foot" by complimenting her cooking.
There we were, under the overhang of the outdoor kitchen, when I looked her in the eyes and asked if we were going to have polenta that week. Her entire demeanor softened. She was impressed that the dish had been so memorable, smiled as I went on about how delicious it was, then shared how much she loves working with polenta and promised we would have some later in the week. From that moment onward, whether simply exchanging smiles throughout the day, or working together in the kitchen, our relationship was AMAZING.
This was a choice, between holding onto the past or moving forward, between building up or knocking down walls, between carrying a burden or traveling unencumbered. We make these choices nearly every single day. When we see people as a conglomeration of different behaviors rather than a fixed, permanent being, and knowing that behavior is malleable, we can safely (in most cases) entertain the possibility that individuals are not defined by the worst thing they've ever done.
Before we enter into interactions with those with whom we've struggled in the past, I suggest being on the lookout for any memories that might creep in, being sure to not get caught up in them. The tendency of wanting to feel right about being wronged can be very sticky and challenging to overcome. Mental self coaching can be very helpful, asking questions like "why do I want to feel this way?" and/or "do I really know what's about to happen?" Answering these questions honestly can interrupt our own mental habits, allowing ourselves to enter into situations with a clean(er) slate. These sorts of intentional thoughts coupled with smooth, deep, mindful breathing work together as wonderful, mind soothing medicine, that leaves us best prepared no matter what circumstances should arise.
And as for the last meal I enjoyed at the monastery...she served polenta.