Potato Practice: Benefiting from Friction with Others
Being asked to include everyone in the Sangha with an open heart is a very, very different scenario than “out in the world,” where for the most part everyone picks and chooses who they want to spend time with based on their preferences, without feeling the slightest need to look any deeper than that. In Sangha – ideally, at least – everyone belongs as long as they have a sincere interest in the Dharma, behave with a basic level of consideration and respect, and don’t pose a threat to others. This means an open Sangha of any significant size is inevitably going to include people who annoy you or even who trigger negative karmic reactions in you.
You may experience a negative reaction to someone as soon as you walk through a Sangha’s door, or only after many years, but it’s important to recognize this as an opportunity and not as sign that the Sangha treasure isn’t working for you. It’s tempting when we feel negatively about someone to take off, or ask the other person to change, or try to maneuver things so you don’t have to encounter the person much. However, if you stick around and face your interpersonal friction or conflict instead, you may be able to resolve major issues that would otherwise follow you for a lifetime!
The value of learning from interpersonal friction is actually so central to Zen practice, we have a term for it: potato practice. If you ever need to wash a whole bunch of potatoes, float them all in a big sink full of water and then tumble them against one another with your hands. By bumping into one another, the potatoes become amazingly clean! Another commonly-used analogy is that practicing in Sangha is like being a sharp-edged rock tossed in a rock tumbler with a bunch of other sharp-edged rocks: Eventually, we polish one another until we’re shiny and smooth (or, put in practice terms, self-aware, humble, authentic, compassionate, etc.).
This benefit from interpersonal friction within Sangha happens whenever interactions between people provide a “mirror” of sorts for one or more of the people involved, allowing them to become more aware of their behavior and views. For example, potato practice happens when an overbearing Sangha member eventually notices no one wants to work with them, and they finally get some gentle but honest feedback about their behavior. It happens when a new person arrives and you feel a powerful negative reaction based on some aspect of their personal appearance or manner of speaking, revealing a “sharp edge” of yours that may be tied to past experiences or an insecurity of your own. You don’t get to exclude someone from the Sangha just because, when you’re around them, you feel annoyed, judgmental, defensive, inferior, needy, etc. As long as you don’t exclude yourself from the Sangha, you have a chance to experience some spiritual polishing!
Note: The fact that potato practice is valuable doesn’t mean anything goes in terms of Sangha behavior – that no matter how outrageously someone acts, it’s just an opportunity for you to examine your own karma and learn not to be reactive. Taken to extremes, potato practice can result in abusive and dysfunctional situations in Sangha. (This has happened, particularly in Zen communities, so watch out for it.) Sometimes what you need to learn from potato practice is how to skillfully and appropriately speak up and ask for what you need, or to point out how harm is being done.
On the other hand, the vast majority of human interactions that cause friction or conflict are not actually serious matters. Most people – including myself – could benefit from erring on the side of acceptance, non-reactivity, and inclusiveness about 99 times out of 100 when we feel a negative reaction to someone or their behavior.
Resolving Lifelong Karma through Relationship
If you’re part of a Sangha for many years, you will probably get a chance to experience an even more significant aspect of the “potato practice” discussed above. Chances are, you’ll encounter at least one other long-term Sangha member you just can’t get along with to save your life. They may bug others as well, or just you, but once again you’re faced with an opportunity for deep practice and transformation. When we have powerful, negative karmic reactions to certain people, it’s usually because our unresolved issues are butting up against their unresolved issues. It can be an uncomfortable process, but as long as both of you remain in the Sangha and do your best, eventually you may be able to help one another recognize and overcome significant inner obstacles.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share an example from my own practice. My monastic Dharma brother and I had to live and practice together at a very small Zen center for many years – we’re talking about encountering each other just about 24-7 for meditation, work, meals, everything. I triggered him in ways that made it difficult for him to trust me, probably in part because of my extroverted habit of demanding responses from him that would validate me in some way. This made him withdraw, which only made me more insecure and desperate for approval. All of our interactions felt to me like complete misunderstandings at best, and stressful struggle at worst. In order to mitigate the tension, our teacher mercifully assigned us daily work that would minimize the amount we had to interact.
Eventually, I recognized my lifelong pattern of gravitating toward people who I felt judged and rejected me, in order to impress them and ingratiate myself with them. I tended to judge myself on how well I was able to anticipate what would generate disapproval in the person, and then adapt my behavior in order to shift the reaction to approval. Recognizing this tendency at last, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. Instead, I began reminding myself, whenever I perceived disapproval (real or not) from my Dharma brother, it was his responsibility to tell me if he had a problem with me. I would try to act respectfully and kindly, but not twist myself in knots over someone else’s reactivity to me. This helped a lot; it let me relax, and therefore it helped my Dharma brother relax!
Eventually I took practice with this problematic relationship one step further: I realized I wanted my Dharma brother to love and respect me, but even more than that, I wanted him to assure me that was the case. I wanted him to address and overcome my doubts. Sadly, he took my barely-camouflaged demand for reassurance as a sign that I didn’t trust him! So, one day, I decided to recklessly act as if he loved and respected me. I mean, if I really thought about it, I had to admit he probably did. Doing this felt a little scary, but heck, I was really tired of my old way of operating. Beautifully, miraculously, my relationship with my Dharma brother opened up and blossomed. Mutual trust grew, and we remain deeply grateful for the valuable interpersonal lessons we taught each other.