I just started reading Love Your Enemies by the Buddhist scholars Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. I decided to pick the book up because I had heard an interview with Sharon Salzberg on a weekly podcast I enjoy called On Being. I was intrigued by Sharon’s explanation of why breaking the habit of anger towards your enemies can invite happiness into not only your adversarial relationships but your overall wellbeing.
I first became aware of this philosophy when I was participating in group therapy for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse at The Gatehouse, here in Toronto. When a person suffers horrific trauma such as sexual abuse, it’s not unusual for this individual to get “stuck” in a cycle of hatred for, and fear of the perpetrator(s) of the abuse. Over the duration of the 15-week program, It was amazing to witness that all of us began to let go of that anger towards our abusers, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the feeling of release was palpable. I had never realized that by holding onto that ensnared anger, I was closing the door on any possibility of healing that would come from forgiveness of myself and my abusers.
I don’t claim to be a religious person, but I am actively cultivating a spiritual foundation based on what Buddhists refer to as “mindfulness”. One of the great ironies is that by learning to be compassionate towards my “outer enemies”, it inevitably involves self-reflection and slowly unravelling the things that I need to let go that are standing in the way of my living a fuller life.
Buddhists believe that anger is heat or energy, so learning to harness that negative energy and redirect it for positive growth offers me the possibility to move past the feeling of being “stuck” in my negative mindset.
So, how do we get “unstuck” from our anger? It all begins and ends with learning to be mindful, and through this mindfulness, we discover that we are all interconnected. When I begin to release my anger towards others, I start to step away from “myself” and move closer to “you”. It’s in this connection that my healing exists. It sounds so easy, yet our entire western upbringing programs us to believe that our growth and success comes at the cost of someone else’s. We are trained to spot the differences between one another, rather than to embrace the similarity. The news and media much prefer focussing on “what went wrong today” than on stories of forgiveness, joy, or love.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the gift of time. I’m learning to practice self-compassion by permitting myself time to transform 47 years of thinking and behaving in the same, limiting way. I’m still guilty of beating myself up because I foolishly believe that I should be “further along” on this journey. My therapist is fond of saying, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” One of my favourite passages from the AA literature is, “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve read or heard that phrase in 12-step meetings, and still, I’m struggling with learning to use it as a lens to frame my thinking.
What I’m really working on right now is learning to “quiet” my noisy inner chatter that fuels my hyperactive personality. I’ve always been a tightly spun bundle of nervous energy; I have two speeds, full tilt and off. It’s precisely this hyperactive energy that allows anger to deeply root itself in my life. Whenever I face discomfort, frustration, or anger, I have a tendency to keep busy so that I don’t have to deal with those feelings inside. The Dalai Lama says that so many of us are actively trying to pursue happiness, when all we really need to do is to slow down and let happiness catch up to us.
I believe there is a lesson for me in learning to slow down, face my anger, and acknowledge the trauma I experienced in my childhood instead of simply running away or burying it deeper inside. I heard a fantastic interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who expressed this philosophy so beautifully. When asked how he copes with pain, anger, and grief in his life, he responded: “I say to the bad times, I will not let you go until you bless me.” What I can take from that is every enemy I encounter, every obstacle before me, and every trauma in my life can be a lesson or an opportunity for growth.