Once I was on a train going down the Hudson Valley to New York City and found myself sitting between a woman engaged in a rather loud conversation on her cellphone and a man growing increasingly agitated by the volume of her call. As the ride went on, accompanied by the steady sound of her voice and the minute details of her plans, he wiggled, grunted, muttered, and finally exploded. ‘You’re making too much noise!’ he yelled at the top of his lungs. I looked over at him and thought, Well, so are you!
We are the traffic
When we are caught in gridlock and freak out about the traffic, we forget that we, too, are the traffic. We may be part of the problem as well as, potentially, part of the solution. Working with our antagonists begins with a willingness to step into new terrain and explore the zone between those we care about and draw toward us, and those we wall off and reject. The philosopher Peter Singer calls this process ‘expanding the moral circle’ of those about whom we are concerned.
Although altruism began as a biological drive to protect our own, he explained, it evolved into a choice to care for others. Our knee-jerk reaction may be to drown out someone else’s noise by shouting back or to return belligerence with unkindness, but ultimately this is an exhausting, vicious circle of conflict.
No need for aggression
Designating someone as the enemy fixes that person in an immutable identity. When we categorize others as bad (or good, nor right or wrong), it enables us to feel secure. We know just where we – and they – stand. Or so we think. But life is more complex than that. My friend Brett, who once drove for a limo company, describes being enraged one day at the behaviour of other drivers. Then he realized that he himself, at one point or another, had committed the same transgressions he was so upset about.
Relating to others as if they’re in a category completely apart from us objectifies them, creating tensions that invariably escalate into conflict. It does not allow for easy connection and can leave us quite lonely. In the situation with the cellphone user on the train, a more fruitful approach to dealing with the perceived enemy might be to change seats, if possible, or to politely ask the caller to lower her voice. An alternative would be to not respond at all in the moment but to later take positive action, such as lobbying against cellphone use on public transportation or advocating for quiet cars on commuter lines. Instead of lashing out at people who offend us, we could work instead to turn the situation into an opportunity to benefit all involved.
Understanding, appreciating, healing
Brett tells a story about his first silent meditation retreat ten years ago. It was the annual loving-kindness retreat I teach at the Insight Meditation Society, a centre I co-founded in Barre, Massachusetts. One evening several days into the retreat, he was resting in his room after dinner, before going into the meditation hall for the evening sitting. He vividly recalls what happened next:
My room was located right above the phone booth in the basement. I was lying on my bed, feeling a warm current of love flowing through me, when suddenly I heard a loud, forceful voice in the basement below. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but I could tell it was a man yelling. My mind immediately went from well-wishing to thinking, How dare he! I was incensed enough to get up and head downstairs to tell this guy how wrong he was for speaking so loudly in our tranquil sanctuary. I opened the basement door and looked across the floor to the phone booth, where I could just see the top of the offender’s head. When I got close enough to actually make out what he was saying, I heard him shout, in obvious frustration, ‘But Dad, we paid three thousand dollars for your hearing aid; you really ought to be using it!’ At that moment, all the adrenaline in my system melted back into a field of loving kindness, and I smiled and went back to my room.
No victim, no aggressor
There is nothing weak or defeatist about not confronting our enemies directly and aggressively. Rather, it is a completely different way of relating to others that allows us to avoid being trapped in the role of victim or aggressor. We are so conditioned to relating to others in adversarial terms that we seldom think of how futile that is as an everyday code of conduct. As Brett discovered, we can learn a lot about what is really going on in the pause between feeling angry and taking action.
From Love Your Enemies, © 2013 by Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg, published by Hay House.