What can we really know about anyone?

We always think we know stuff about people — cheesman-park-2yeah he’s really annoying, yeah she’s boring, yeah he’s great, etc. Occasionally we find ourselves hopelessly confused, for example when a friend becomes an enemy or a stranger and we are not sure how that happened, “What happened?!” — but generally at any given moment we accept the appearances of friends, enemies, and strangers for what they are. Or, rather, what they seem to be.

Contemplating equanimity is fantastic for shaking us out of our grasping at both permanence and inherent existence.

And … it clears the space for a heartfelt understanding that, just like us, everyone else wants to be happy and free from pain.

For what else do we really know about them?!

Let me explain a bit more.


As described more here, we see how those categories of friends, enemies, and strangers into which we are constantly placing people are not remotely fixed – they are changing all the time due to impermanence, and also because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on. Indeed, nothing is really going on. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Meaningful to Behold:   

It is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy, or stranger. ~ page 24

So, given the facts of both impermanence and emptiness:

If these three positions are so temporary and variable – then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred?

Not just in this lifetime — we have been around since beginningless time projecting stuff on people, everybody. Let me tell you a quick story.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged had immortality thrust upon him.

“Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards.”

Anyway, Wowbagger decided during one long dark teatime of the soul, around 2.55 on a Sunday, to insult everyone in the universe — in alphabetical order.

On his spaceship, Wowbagger:

“gazed at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one, was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.”

Point being, over infinitely prolonged beginningless time, we have been doing this too! We have insulted everyone in the universe. We have slept with them. We have both slept with and insulted them. We have done everything with everybody.

On this particular trip he was on his way to insult a small slug by calling it a “brainless prat”.

That’s one thing, impermanence. And there is also emptiness to consider.

Infinite versions

If things are not fixed, and cannot be found outside the mind, you could argue that there are infinite versions of every situation and person. Even seemingly factual labels, such as “This is my husband or my boss or my President” have nothing real behind them. I saw a picture of the US President with his daughters the other day and I thought how he is a gazillion things – everyone is calling him something different. Stand up the one and true Barack Obama. Impossible.

cheesman-parkOr sitting in nearby Cheesman Park writing this – for me, a pleasant leafy place with wafting breezes; for that dog with the Frisbee, a playground; for the person who just approached me to canvass for the democratic party, an opportunity to get out the vote; for the more than 5,000 or so unclaimed bodies still buried under the ground, I’m not quite sure what. That is just two blunt illustrations amongst countless subtle variations. (Pics of said park liberally scattered through this article.)

We all have our own labels or versions of the people in our lives, and what we may sometimes forget is that so does everyone else. We might get possessive of our version, thinking it’s the only real person or the only version that counts, “This is MY husband, that’s who he is” — but try telling that to his mom, his best friend, his cat? Not to mention all those who knew previous versions and will know future versions.

So, we project our own stuff on everybody we meet – creating friends, enemies, and strangers over and over again. And this destroys our peace, causes us a lot of trouble, and blocks us from really helping people. We yearn for our objects of attachment to come here and make us happy while wanting our objects of anger to shut up and go away. But carlin-american-dreamprojected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.

So, what can we do?

If people are not permanently nor inherently friends, enemies, and strangers, what ARE they? What DO we know about them, really?

Only that they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. Just like us.

Yup. That we can know.

One of the most amazing things I find about this way of thinking is the amount of space and freedom it opens up to abide with the minds that help me, instead of wasting time and cheesman-park-3peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path

Equanimity reduces our attachment and hostility, but it does not reduce our liking and our love for others.

Quite the opposite. With equanimity understanding impermanence and projection, we now have the space to consider how others feel about things, rather than how we do, stepping into their shoes and walking through doorways to interesting new worlds based on appreciation, respect, affection, rejoicing, compassion, and empathy. Instead of staying confined to the claustrophobic spaceship of “me, me me”, our mental horizons are broadened on the way to the all-pervasive compassion and omniscient wisdom of a Buddha.

Over to you. Comments welcome.




Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

11 thoughts on “What can we really know about anyone?”

  1. Thank you so much for the time, attention and care you put into this article. It’s exactly what I needed to hear now.

    One of my dearest and closest friends both began a new position at my job. Initially, I was very excited about working with my friend, but have recently found myself turning her into a bit of a mara.

    If I’m completely honest, it didn’t happen recently. It’s been happening for longer. Albeit very subtle, I’ve found myself becoming annoyed with and agitated by her for some time now. It’s been very, very confusing and aggravating for me because I love her dearly and deeply. I would do practically anything for her.

    And talk about impermanence! When we initially met, she was the partner of my current partner. After they broke up, I began dating my now partner. Things became serious, and we have now since been together for over 13 years.

    Initially, she _hated_ me because she felt like I broke them up. I tried to reach out an attempt to be friendly, but it was very hard for her. Time passed, a friendship gradually formed between us. Now, we are very close. What’s funny is that I feel very strong previous life connections with her -like a sister. And, like sisters, I find myself occasionally annoyed with her.

    The crazy part is, I know it’s not her. It’s really my mind paying inappropriate attention to her behaviors, and developing anger. I even find myself complaining about her to my partner recently, which isn’t helping her mind either! Blasted samsara!

    You have been very helpful. Thank you for understanding and helping me develop a mind of equanimity!

  2. So true, that we think we know people, and grasp at those ‘beliefs’ so strongly. I realized a while back that we are all ‘Know-It-Alls’, at least probably most ordinary beings are ‘know-it-alls’ (I think there may be a song there…We are all know-it-alls 🙂 ) Another awareness that dawned was how arrogant my mind can be (pride( attachment to self), and attachment to view. What is really scary is that even after I think I know that I am projecting my reality I still find myself grasping at it most of the time. I think in the summer this was described as either not having developed mindfulness or not applying mindfulness moment to moment. Fortunately I am reading and meditating on Shantideva’s teachings lately and he should set me straight.

  3. But projected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.

    I love it!

  4. “….. because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on.”

    Thank you for reminding me of this truth this morning! Over the past year I’ve been privileged to work with many people suffering from severe head injuries, brain disorders and brain cancer. The majority of these people experienced drastic and/ or inconsistent changes in their behaviors and personalities. One particular gift was from a delightful lady who has now since died. I’ll call her A.

    A loved life and was a vibrant outgoing lady, everyone loved her, but as her brain cancer took hold, her personality and behaviors changed, making her seem impulsive, erratic and somewhat unreliable. Her husband loved her deeply and was completely devoted to her, but (by the time I met him) was also worn out from the toll of caregiving. As A and I engaged in conversation and I could sense the conversation becoming more and more non-linear, A’s husband started to step in to try to explain to me “A’s thinking is muddled, I wouldn’t expect her to make much sense.” His face was tense and I could sense this was something he’d been saying to folk for a while, but A’s face flashed a look of sadness and I knew that even though she may no longer ‘be linear’ she was still present and had feelings and wishes and dreams and emotions – just like me. That even though she didn’t ‘act’ the same way that she used to, and that folk weren’t relating ‘to’ her in the same way as before, she was still hurt by this – by being perceived by others as being less than her ‘previous’ self. Quite simply, A’s brain had become unreliable and it was affecting many of the things that those around her had regarded as ‘fixed’ or ‘impermanent’ about her.

    Fortunately for A, her husband didn’t do this, but he did strive to protect her from others doing it. So after his comment, sensing his exhaustion and witnessing the flash of sadness in A’s eyes, I gave A’s husband a huge smile and a gentle wink, before turning to A to say in a stage whisper, “my husband says exactly the same thing about me!!” We all cracked up laughing and I had the good fortune of spending the next 45 minutes with A and her husband, moving through disjointed conversation, heartfelt honest fear and downright incoherent humor, with love, openness and equanimity. I witnessed A’s husband relax as A and I engaged, and it seemed to me as though, for the first time in a while, A’s husband was able to be just that: her husband! In this interaction no explanations were needed, he was able to simply enjoy the presence of his very insightful and humorous wife.

    The gift they offered me was profound: if I can meet these two people with open-heartedness and equanimity, why not all? If I can move fluidly through disjointed conversation with A and her husband, why do I need to become so ridged with others? If I can see in one person the unreliability of personality and behavior, why can I not see this in myself?

    A gave me an incredible gift that changed the way I engage with others, whether or not they have a brain injury/ disorder or cancer – she gave me an experience of equanimity – and it was so incredibly freeing and vibrant and joyful, that I can’t help but strive to develop my mind so as to experience this more consistently with anyone I meet. Thank you Luna for reminding me of this special motivation this morning 😉

  5. Omg lol wowbagger had me in fits of the giggles so much so both my dogs tails were wagging lol and one of them can sleep for England lol the slug did ! X fav to read over breakfast just not if your drinking hot tea lol xx

  6. Last Wednesday I spent a whole day with a large group of Mental Health Professionals. We were being trained to understand and recognise 10 different types of so-called Personality Disorder. I am completely confident that had we all spent that same time contemplating equanimity and seeing how we all share the same wish to seek happiness and escape suffering, we would have all returned to our respective work-worlds with our capacity to care wisely – fully restored and energised. Instead we learned some new labels and the apparent features that go with them enabling us to ‘spot the difference’ between ‘us and them’. I long for the day when Dharma medicine is being universally dispensed.
    Going to set my intention for the day to remember with every person that I meet, they are just like me: wishing to have last happiness and freedom from all suffering. Also, just like me; they completely lack any enduring identity.
    Thank you 🌟

  7. There is nothing really going on. Emptiness is turning the projector off shows u your projecting something that is not there! Thank u luna. 😊

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