We all have them. My current one is Frank. My friend's one is Sandy. For you it may be your boss, your mother, your brother, one of your clients, your next door neighbour. They are the people who drive us nuts, press our buttons, test us regularly. The best possible thing that could happen is that they go away, right? Preferably Australia.
Or maybe not. They could just be our saviours. 'We call them gurus,' says Buddhist Pema Chodron. Because every time someone gets your goat it's an opportunity to notice what triggers you, to ponder why, and to understand and heal something inside of you.
Gurdjieff was an influential spiritual teacher in the last century and he well knew the utility of these people in our lives. Pema Chodron tells the story that he was once teaching a group of people in the ways of 'The Work', a process of clearing the human reactions that lie between each person and reality, or enlightenment. In this group, there was a particularly difficult man, universally loathed by the rest. He was grumpy all the time, he was anti-social, he criticized, he never helped or supported anyone.
Gurdjieff was in the habit of giving his disciples meaningless tasks to do and, on this particular day, he asked them to move a lawn from one side of a path to the other. To do this they had to cut small pieces of the lawn and carry them carefully to the new lawn, a task which was set to take.... quite some time. Inevitably such pointless tasks would produce fruit in the form of upset, irritation, and frank fury, and this was no exception. The difficult man, in fact, became so angry that he stormed off and said he was leaving and not coming back. A cheer went up as his car screeched up the drive.
But the story goes that Gurdfieff came out of the house, frantic, asking where he'd gone. To the horror of the assembled company, he sent his assistant off to bring him back.
Later that evening, the assistant said to Gurdjieff,
'Do you mind if I ask you a question?'
'Please,', replied Gurdjieff, 'go ahead.'
The assistant cleared his throat.
'Why did you get me to bring that dreadful man back?'
Gurdjieff looked at him.
'Promise me that you won't tell a soul?' he said.
The assistant agreed.
'I pay that man,' said Gurdjieff
To learn from the people that trigger our most uncomfortable emotions might sound like a tall order, and it really is. Much more fun to rant about them, decide what's wrong about them, and get away from them as quickly as possible.
So what are these spiritual teachers on about? What are the Franks and Sandys for?
They are there to help us to see through our defenses. Long ago we built walls and a decent moat around our vulnerability and most of the time we live reasonably comfortably within them. Sometimes our gurus can see through these walls, and smile as they break through, but more often they are totally oblivious to the effect they are having. Whether they know or not is not important, what is important is that they have precisely the right equipment to slice through our outer layers, and with deadly accuracy.
We tend to know what triggers the people who are close to us because we've come to know them over many years and we've seen their triggers activated again and again. Unless we are perfect human beings, which most of us are not, it sometimes suits us to pull those triggers, press those buttons, deliberately.
For example, a friend of mine is married to a really gifted gardener. If she wants to press his buttons she just has to admire someone else's garden. It works every time!
I can remember a particularly effective button-pressing episode from my childhood. When I was about five years old, my elder brother and his friend called me a 'sissy'. I was, of course, as 'sissy' simply means 'sister', but even at that tender age I understood that this accusation was far from neutral, that I was considered a wimp because I was a girl.
I managed to work out in my little head that if my brother thought being a sissy was a bad thing, this was probably something that he did not want to be himself. A few years later we were in an altercation, which I was obviously losing as I was four years younger, so I invoked my secret weapon.
'You're just a sissy,' I said.
I was not disappointed. To this day I have a crooked nose to show for it.
My brother had been sent to a prep boarding school at the age of eight, a place where sons (and occasionally daughters) are sent in our British society to be 'toughened up' or to 'make a man' out of them. A child in this situation knows that weakness of any kind needs to be stamped out as soon as possible, as a boy who cries is thoroughly shamed as a wimp and there is no loving person to hold that vulnerability in those long dark dormitories, where little boys sniffle quietly into their pillows. Being called a sissy must have brought back all those complex feelings.
These deep places of vulnerability are so very painful. When we experience them at their most powerful it is not too strong a word to say that we hate the person who helped us to feel them. That person who cut us up at the traffic lights this morning. The woman at work who talks and talks and never listens. The family member who leaves their towels on the floor day after day, despite your constant reminders. The parent who is always criticising you. These things happen again and again, like Pavlov's dogs, we react again and again. Why? Because focusing on the other person is hugely preferable to focusing on our painful feelings and so we miss the opportunity to learn from the experience.
But what if my big brother had been helped to look at his reaction to his little sister's taunts? I'm guessing that he might have remembered how devastating it was to be abandoned with strangers in a cold country when his family were thousands of miles away in the sunshine. How he felt cast out by his parents, how he couldn't understand why I, his little sister, was still at home while he was sent away. How he assumed that he must have done something wrong and how painful that was.
And then, with the benefit of an adult perspective, he would probably have been able to see that the reasons he was sent away were actually nothing to do with him at all, that it is some strange and brutal British tradition to pack their children off to boarding school when they are barely weaned. After all, we used to pack our children off when they were born, to a wet nurse, so boarding school at eight is actually an improvement! And then he would have realised that devastation was a pretty understandable reaction to his experience and, most importantly, that he was not weak at all, but incredibly strong. He survived. If he had been able to look at all this, instead of hitting me, he would have had a chance to heal from those early wounds.
Not all our triggers are about wounds as deep and painful as that, but if you follow the trail you will, for sure, find something in your past that explains them. If you learnt to be quiet as a child and let others take the limelight, it is incredibly irritating when others 'hog' it. If you react strongly when you don't get the approval you need, or someone criticizes you, you can be sure there are some issues lurking about your self-esteem. If you hate conflict, and the people who cause it, you can be sure there is something in you that makes those situations especially painful.
1. Who are your 'gurus'? Who reliably winds you up, and how do they do it?
2. When you get wound up by them, where do you focus - on them or on you? What do you do exactly?
3. Turning the attention to you, what are the thoughts and feelings that this person elicits?
4. If your guru had been sent by someone who loves you very much, to help you to learn something about yourself, what might that something be?
Be very tender with yourself when you do this.