The behavior of the bullies you confront will change as you get older, but at any age, a bully is someone who tries to break your spirit. Bullies pump themselves up by teasing or terrorizing others, exposing the painful fact that their victims are weaker. They may lock kids in the wood-shop tool shed (my own personal experience), steal lunch money, or continuously undermine their co-workers to make themselves look more important or competent.
Even when we grow up and become professionals, bullies continue to roam the landscape. The difference is that adults are more subtle about their bullying and their reactions to it. They can even be unconscious of how they feel when they get bullied. There won't be any fist fights in the lunch room, but there may be passive aggression, putting on armor, avoiding sensitive feelings, or a lot of time wasted complaining about a bullying colleague. These tactics can lead you to ruminate on negative emotions, leading to unhappiness.
This isn't the best advice to handle bullying in school, but in my own experience studying meditation and Buddhism, I've developed a few strategies that help me deal with bullies without aggression in the workplace.
1. Don't be a Victim
Tibetan teacher and founder of the Shambhala Tradition, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, often talked about the poverty mentality. He was referring to the feeling that you aren't good enough or don't have enough. It can turn lead to aggression, so you speed up with a "feeling that you cannot survive and therefore must ward off anything that threatens your property or food (Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom, p22)."
When someone exposes our weaknesses, it can be painful and we can quickly feel victimized. We start feeling sorry for ourselves, inadequate, even incompetent. We can start to push people or good common sense away. The more we think about it, the more we become a victim in the sense that our negative emotions take hold and lead us down darker paths.
Instead of being a victim, be present with those raw feelings, whether they are anger, pain or helplessness. Notice them before they hook you into a long storyline of negative thoughts. Take a deep breath and recognize what those emotions feel like in your body. Then let them go and move on with your life.
2. Cultivate the Heart of Warriorship
The Samurai of Japan were attracted to Zen because the teachings and practices of letting go of the self helped them cultivate fearlessness in the face of battle. They knew combat could result in the loss of their own lives, but if one could learn to let go of attachment to the self, the mind would be sharper in battle.
When dealing with bullies in the workplace, we try to protect our selves. Our egos suffer when the image of a competent, hard worker is put in jeopardy by a bully who has just pointed out our flaws in public. We panic and cause ourselves more suffering when we fight back with aggression.
A warrior is not necessarily someone who practices aggression. When Chogyam Trungpa talked about warriorship, he was talking about qualities like bravery and confidence. Through the practice of meditation, you dissolve the ego, which leads to the fearless confidence that Samurai aspired to.
When we experience fearlessness, we don't struggle so much. Our minds are not so clouded by confusion and strategizing to preserve the self. This frees our minds to be present with other people, to listen to them, and to gain insight from seeing the situation and the suffering of others more clearly.
3. Practice Compassion
Bruce Lee knew something about interdependence and the illusory nature of selfhood when he said: "Relationship is the mirror in which you discover yourself - to be is to be related." The Buddha taught that in the complex web of interdependence, we are not separate from other people, even bullies.
Reminding ourselves that we are not separate from others can be a practice, which cultivates wisdom and compassion. One meditation practice instructs us to contemplate the Four Immeasurables (Buddhist virtues) with different people in mind, including someone we don't like. One part of this meditation would go like this:
"May (someone – insert name – who I feel is difficult or offensive) enjoy happiness and the root of happiness." (click here for a description of the meditation)
It may seem counter-intuitive to wish happiness upon someone who terrorizes you, but practices like this one remind us not only that we are not separate from other people, but that even bullies need the same things we need. They are often just too confused to realize what they really need to feel whole and happy.
4. Cultivate Prajna
With a disciplined meditation practice, several skills develop. First we develop mindfulness, which helps us focus on an object, whether it is the breath or the book we are reading. Then we become more aware of our thoughts, including the self-abasing thoughts and the appreciation of people, things, moments, or feelings. Out of this comes prajna, a Sanskrit term for "wisdom."
Cultivating prajna through meditation allows us to see what's what. So the next time your co-worker sends an email debasing you as an incompetent ignoramus, you may see clearly how ridiculous such an email makes the bully look. You might not even take offense. You will more easily resist the urge to hit "reply all" with a list of reasons you are not an incompetent ignoramus, since this would only bring more negative attention to yourself anyway.
The other realization that might come to us relates back to what Bruce Lee said so elequently: "relationship is the mirror in which you discover yourself..." People are all mirrors unto each other, and even bullies can be our teachers.
Through a bully, we may learn to see aspects of ourselves that are bullyish. We may see that some of the things the bully has pointed out for us so painfully, may actually be true. A bully can help us see the raw aspects of our selves that we are trying to escape from. none of this justifies bullying behavior, but if you can learn to let go a little bit, and see how the bully manifests bewildered suffering, the bully's grip on you may loosen up.
This post was originally published at the Interdependence Project, here.