Is it just me, or does it seem like the world is going to hell in a handbasket? Where I come from—Denver, Colorado—there’s gun violence practically every other day, from mass shootings in movie theaters and high schools to exchanges of gunfire when people are gathered together in celebration or in sorrow. Of course, my hometown is not unique in this respect. Across the globe, from Boston to Cairo, Sochi to South Sudan, the human race—possessed of both motive and means—seems bent on blowing itself to bits.
Blame the jihadis if you wish, but no faith tradition, even our own beloved Buddhism, can claim the high ground here. This past year, I was shocked to read an article in the July 1 edition of Time magazine titled “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Buddhist? Terror? It sounds like an oxymoron, but sadly, it is not. Incited by the monk Wirathu (“The Buddhist Bin Ladin”), Burmese Buddhists have been terrorizing the minority Muslim population in the country’s far west. Similar ethnic cleansing has also taken place in Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Thus, the publication of Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman’s new book, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, comes at a timely moment. Clearly, the age-old paradigm of “meeting force with force” is not working. Never before has the world been so in need of the teachings of tolerance, wisdom and lovingkindness on offer in this book.
Love Your Enemies grew out of a series of seminars Salzberg and Thurman have been holding for the past seven years. This book is not an easy read. I’ve been through it three times now, and I’m still pondering some of its deeper insights. Many of the Tibetan visualization practices suggested in the book are new to me, and they might make more sense were I to be introduced to them in a practice setting under the guidance of these teachers.
The book posits four categories of enemies, some of which you may not even be aware are within you. These include the outer enemy—people and situations that pose a literal threat; the inner enemy—the reactive mind prone to outbursts of anger, hatred and retaliatory violence; the secret enemy—self-obsession based on the mistaken notion of a separate and immutable self; and finally (and this is where it gets tricky) the super-secret enemy—a deep-seated sense of personal unworthiness that keeps us from finding true happiness and personal liberation.
The authors offer practical suggestions for working with each of these in turn. With regard to real, objective enemies bent on your destruction, do your best to avoid them altogether. When this is not possible, use the faculty of critical wisdom to see through your own fear and confusion, so that you can keep your cool and potentially defuse the situation.
When it comes to the inner enemies of anger, hatred and reactivity, the authors suggest the practice of metta or lovingkindness—sending your antagonists wishes for their happiness and peace instead of rehearsing their destruction. If nothing else, expunging nasty thoughts from your brain will make you a happier person, as the book’s subtitle suggests, no matter its effect on your adversary.
When working with the secret enemy of self-preoccupation, looking into the fleeting and ephemeral nature of “self” is required. To begin with, if you can see into your own egolessness, there’s a good chance you will also be able to recognize the selfless nature of your adversary. Professor Thurman writes, “Enemy is not a fixed definition, a label permanently affixed to anyone we believe has harmed us. It’s a temporary identity we assign people when they don’t do what we want or they do something we don’t want. But . . . enemy making always comes back to us.”
The authors recommend a proactive stance in working to defeat the secret enemy of self-preoccupation. They suggest replacing it with other-preoccupation: focusing in every instance on benefiting others, rather than yourself. In so doing, self-centered thoughts are “crowded out,” leaving only altruistic ones in their place. Another avenue is to embrace your antagonist and his animosity as atonement for all the bad things you did while under the spell of self-addiction. It’s a twist on “blaming the victim” that may not be palatable to some, but is a logical conclusion when viewed from the Buddhist perspective of egolessness and interbeing.
Finally, there’s the super-secret enemy of self-loathing, which, as I said earlier, you may not have even known you were harboring. To conquer this particular enemy, the authors describe a visualization practice called the “yoga of self-creation,” in which you envision the world as a place of beauty and security, free from all suffering, and you imagine yourself as the “Diamond-Force Time-Machine Buddha, a deep blue being with supreme self-confidence and total commitment to the immediate happiness of all beings.” Cultivating this vision of perfection can serve as a source of inspiration and self-respect in your day-to-day existence. “The purpose of this yoga,” Thurman writes, “is to provide you with a playful, magical way to experience creative self-confidence. . . . The security and power you have discovered remain within you, alive and active . . . [allowing you to] change the world and yourself.”
Heady stuff, but is it for everyone? Love Your Enemies presupposes a certain familiarity with Buddhist concepts and the practice of meditation. Much of it can only be apprehended through direct experience, say, in the context of the seminars for which the book was intended as a guide. (Okay, let me be honest and tell you that I did not try any of the Tibetan visualization practices, feeling that I’d rather do so in the context of a Love Your Enemies seminar. I’m already doing the Theravadan practice of metta.)
On the other hand, Love Your Enemies is full of so much goodwill and lovingkindness that you can’t help but be inspired to approach life a little differently, which is to say, with a tender and loving heart instead of an aggressive and angry one. In my case, reading it prompted me to reexamine a relationship that had gone totally sour. I had to admit that I was carrying around a lot of resentment towards this person, and it felt neither healthy nor pleasant. So one day I sent my estranged friend a Christmas card, and on it I wrote, “Life is too short to carry a grudge. I wish you happiness and good health in the coming New Year.” I haven’t heard back yet, but I gotta say, I do in fact feel a whole lot happier.