Merriam Webster defines contempt as the act of despising someone or something; holding it/him/her in low regard; also, wilful disobedience (e.g. contempt of court).
Contempt is a natural opposite of respect. We can review our own attitudes and actions on a scale running from contempt at one extreme to respect at the other. Do we incline more towards scorn or respect towards other people? In what situations are we more likely to display one quality or the other?
Whom or what do we hold in contempt? Governments? Fat people? People with bad grammar? People who don’t dress well? People who don’t share our political views? People who don’t speak our language? People without teeth? It may not be a list we care to admit to – but it is probably there, possibly just below the level of consciousness.
We could also ask ourselves if we behave respectfully, even towards people we may not know, and towards people we do know and don’t like. Obvously, we don’t (and shouldn’t) respect everyone equally. Some people we know well and have good reasons to respect deeply. But everyone deserves to be treated with respect, even if they don’t behave well themselves.
I found this lesson particularly useful in my family. Let’s say there is someone whom I don’t have a lot of respect for. I’ve learned that a very good attitude, and a remedy for contempt, is to treat the person politely, even when he is being provocative. It has worked every time, and the result is that this person no longer has the power to upset me. I know that he’s had a lot of strife in his life and I trust that he is doing the best he can. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for others is to give them the space they need and not take up their challenge. This comes back to offering loving-kindness in every situation.
When we surrender to the feeling of contempt, we are injuring our own heart. We need to be creative and persistent in finding ways to bring forth loving-kindness rather than its opposites.
Imperfections that defile the mind:
(1) covetousness and unrighteous greed
(2) ill will
(6) a domineering attitude
(13) conceit (mana)
from MN7, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi