School shootings. Devastating storms. Never-ending political scandals. Fear, disgust, and mental anguish are the “new normal.” Life these days is difficult, and you can see the impact on people’s behavior. In a world of increasing confusion, stress, and enmity, in which greater numbers of people are besieged and demoralized, it’s not surprising that there is escalating road rage, rude behavior, and verbal and physical outbursts. Threatened and frightened, we tighten and turn away from the world or create scapegoats and artificial “enemies”—in other countries, across the political aisle, even at home.
When adversaries seem to be everywhere, managing intense feelings and handling conflict constructively are two of the most important tasks we face—as individuals and as communities.
In Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier (Hay House), Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, eminent teachers of meditation and Buddhism, respectively, share theoretical understandings and “practical methods for transforming our relationship to our outer, inner, secret, and super-secret enemies.”
Marketed as a guide on overcoming anger and experiencing happiness, Salzberg and Thurman’s book is actually much more. Beyond explanations of the four kinds of enemies we all confront, there are enlightening discussions of a range of topics from the nature of anger and how to transform it, to meditative practices for cultivating patience, compassion, and sympathetic joy.
Marketed as a guide on overcoming anger and experiencing happiness, Salzberg and Thurman’s book is actually much more. Beyond explanations of the four kinds of enemies we all confront, there are enlightening discussions of a range of topics from the nature of anger and how to transform it, to meditative practices for cultivating patience, compassion, and sympathetic joy. There are also illuminating examinations of the limitations of our “short-term take on time,” the awareness of death as “the great awakener,” and “the myth of [being] not good enough.”
The voices of the authors alternate and interweave: Robert Thurman presents clear and interesting accounts of Tibetan Buddhist teachings on anger and patience, selflessness and sympathetic joy, and so forth, while Sharon Salzberg shares personal stories and meditative practices that complement Thurman’s theoretical reflections. Together, this approach gives the reader both an intellectual and emotional understanding.
Love Your Enemies has many virtues. The tone is accessible and inviting. Thurman shares experiences dealing with his own anger, and Salzberg discusses the isolation and despair she experienced with her father’s mental illness and her mother’s death when she was nine. Learning about their real-life struggles is a powerful way of welcoming readers and aiding them in feeling more hope and patience about their own attempts to live with pain and suffering and cultivate a better life.
The spiritual perspective Thurman and Salzberg share offers a unique window into qualities and virtues that secular culture and contemporary psychology neglect, if not ignore, such as the value of selflessness, compassion, and wisdom.
The spiritual perspective Thurman and Salzberg share offers a unique window into qualities and virtues that secular culture and contemporary psychology neglect, if not ignore, such as the value of selflessness, compassion, and wisdom. But I wonder if it downplays certain aspects of human psychology and relationships that we need to keep in mind in order to navigate our world.
In my book A Psychoanalysis for Our Time: Exploring the Blindness of the Seeing I (NYU Press), I suggested that there is no immaculate perception. No one has an objective view of life. We all look at the world from particular vantage points, which uniquely illuminate and obscure vital aspects of reality. And I think this can be applied to a consideration of Love Your Enemies.
In my psychotherapy practice I work with many people who have been physically and sexually abused, and so naturally I brought those clinical experiences to my reading of Thurman and Salzberg’s interesting and helpful book. Doing so raised a few questions but also suggested a more wide-ranging way of looking at some of the main topics the authors focused on. My questions fall into three categories: goals, analysis, and methods.
For example, two of the goals mentioned in the book seem excessively idealistic: “freedom from fear” and “perfect freedom.” Is it really a good goal to be completely free of fear? While fear is scary and painful, it is also necessary and valuable—signaling danger and helping us avoid what might be harmful. Likewise, I wonder if complete freedom is a realistic goal. I have treated and known many people who feel guilt and shame because they can’t live up to such a spiritual ideal.
Another question about Love Your Enemies concerns the analysis of misfortune. Speaking of 11th century poet and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dharmarakshita’s The Blade Wheel of Mind Reform, Thurman writes that it shows us “how to accept it [misfortune] as the result of our own previous negative action, seeing it like a boomerang that we threw in our previous life or lives, which circles back to hit us. Thus, when…my house burns down, it is because I burned out others long back. When I lose my relationships, it is because I broke up others’ relationships in the past.”
A skeptic could legitimately ask: “Where is the evidence?” For this to be true there would have to be a cosmic scorekeeper tallying good and bad actions and divvying up appropriate consequences. And if it is not true, as I suspect is the case, then the consequences of operating as if it were true—treating a rape victim as if he or she were a rapist in a former life, for example—can be profoundly harmful. The survivors of severe trauma I have treated overwhelmingly tend to blame themselves. The approach of taking on the blame, according to Love Your Enemies, aids the former victim in no longer feeling victimized. In my clinical experience this approach has a triple danger: It takes the abuser off the hook, which can’t be good for that person; increases the guilt and shame of the abused; and creates the brittle illusion—which will quickly fall apart—that the victim no longer feels victimized. This deepens rather than liberates the victim from a feeling of victimization and generates further and unnecessary suffering for people who have experienced trauma.
The third question I have about the book concerns the methods Thurman presents for approaching difficult emotions. He acknowledges that we can’t be free of challenging feelings without “bringing to consciousness what we were previously unaware of,” but he assumes mindfulness, common sense, and reason are sufficient. They are necessary—but insufficient. What I’ve learned from working with survivors of trauma is that difficult and painful feelings need to be seen, witnessed, validated, and understood so that trauma is converted into memory. Then horrific events are no longer experienced as fate—as something that was inevitable and will happen again in the future. This helps the traumatized integrate what they have experienced.
A good book provokes good questions, and Love Your Enemies is that—a clear and thoughtful collection of gems that will be helpful to both new and advanced students of meditation, as well as people who are exploring living with greater awareness, compassion, and wisdom.
The main insight for me in reading Love Your Enemies was that spiritual and psychological approaches to life are not one and the same—and they need to be integrated. This offers a fuller spectrum of possibilities in navigating our miraculous and challenging world.