In their 2018 book Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush introduce a practice geared to generate understanding, respect, and compassion for others. It’s called Just Like Me. While it can be used with friends, acquaintances, or neutral persons, I believe it is particularly beneficial for identifying with those we think are radically different from us and for whom we find it difficult to feel sympathy.
Calling to mind a person we dislike, disagree with, hate, or hold in contempt, we are encouraged to repeat the following phrases: This person
… has a body and a mind, just like me.
… has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.
… has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
… has at some time been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
… has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
… worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
… will die, just like me.
… has longed for friendship, just like me.
… is learning about life, just like me.
… wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.
… wants to be content with what life has given them, just like me.
… wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
… wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.
… wishes to be happy, just like me.
… wishes to be loved, just like me.
I first encountered this practice on a retreat during 2020. I cannot now recall whether the retreat came before or shortly after the US Presidential election, but when the facilitator asked us to call to mind a difficult person, Donald Trump popped into my head immediately. Donald Trump is nothing like me; I protested internally! I quickly searched for another, less challenging person, but I could not quickly come up with anyone. So, I closed my eyes, called up a mental image of President Trump, and began repeating the phrases silently after the facilitator. I encourage you to go back and read them now with Trump or any challenging person in mind.
I was astounded by how many times I could say with sincerity that Mr. Trump was “just like me!” I must admit I had some difficulty with “has felt unworthy or inadequate,” “has longed for friendship,” “is learning about life,” “wants to be caring and kind to others,” and “wants to be content with what life has given them.” However, I could embrace enough statements for the exercise to reveal our likeness and soften my heart slightly. Perhaps removing the word “just” would make the practice even more palatable.
Next comes the even more challenging pursuit of wishing the difficult person well, using phrases including:
I wish this person to be free from pain and suffering.
I wish this person to be peaceful and happy.
I wish this person to be loved because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.
The point is to consider respecting the other, not for what they have said or done, but because I acknowledge their humanness—their actions and words may have arisen from very human desires, fears, suffering, and losses, as do mine. In this practice, respect does not equate with approval, praise, agreement, or even tolerance but, instead, involves understanding and empathy. Therefore, treating the difficult person with respect may entail giving them the benefit of the doubt and offering compassion rather than mockery, rebuke, denunciation, or bitter criticism.
“And what would such respect look like concerning Mr. Trump?” I ask myself. Perhaps it would involve refraining from posting unflattering pictures of him on Facebook or liking jokes at his expense on social media. Maybe it would rule out repeating plausible but unsubstantiated stories about his actions or words or stoking fires of anger and hatred against him. Such restraint would mean forgoing delicious opportunities for cleverness and self-righteousness.
On the positive side, it means offering genuine good wishes for healing, clarity, and humility, hoping that his heart will open with understanding and compassion, just as I hope that mine will open. I am convinced that sending positive energy in his direction cannot do the slightest harm.
Does all of this sound pollyannaish? Then take Trump out of the equation and substitute your problematic next-door neighbor, the family member who disrupts every holiday gathering, the boss who criticizes everything you do, or the friend who breaks your confidence. Even the dog who won’t stop barking! How can a dog be just like me? Think danger, fear, boredom, confusion, pain, past trauma, and family heritage.
Religious and secular platitudes about this “just like me” concept include The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Buddhist idea of interbeing and interdependence (no left, no right, no up, no down, no you, no me) also captures the notion. The once-popular song Walk A Mile In My Shoes suggests how we gain respect for those we find difficult or different. (I’d encourage you to listen to this cool old music video.)
The bottom line—to respect those who do not seem to deserve our respect, we must see what we have in common with them. Yes, we are different, but what essential qualities unite us? And how can we act respectfully while disagreeing, resisting, and taking a stand against our opponents?