Category Archives: alienation

Exploring our relationship with the ‘enemy’

On especially hot days I am reminded of the summers I spent in Philadelphia when I was in my late teens. My parents had moved there from California, so when I went ‘home’ for the summer it was to this place that didn’t feel like home at all. It was a brick oven of a place, a sauna — so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where ‘nature’s air conditioner’ rolled in from the ocean most evenings. And yet there was something wonderful about a ‘hot town summer in the city’ experience, walking about Center City in the warm evening and meeting up with other young people in Rittenhouse Square. I made friends with a girl who lived around the corner and she was my guide. She taught me, for example, that how you walk across town when you are a young woman is not always a direct route. If guys are out cruising and start saying ‘Hey baby’ etc. and won’t let up, then how convenient that Philly has lots of one way streets. You just turn up the next street that goes in a direction his car can’t go. Oh yes, she taught me the ropes.

Upon returning home we’d often spend the night at each other’s homes, and finding it difficult to get to sleep in the oppressive heat, even at midnight, we’d make up lists. Our favorite list was of all the things we would get rid of if we had the power to do so. We could easily get to one hundred, taking turns naming, for example, people who do obnoxious things. We would get very specific. So, ‘boys who won’t take no for an answer’ might be on the list. Or ‘people who leave gum on the street’ or ‘girls who wear…’ whatever fashion we didn’t find becoming. I don’t remember the details of the list, just that we made one and that we were perfectly ready to wipe them off the planet for their offenses.

In retrospect, of course, this seems at the very least harsh, and at most horrifying. It was all in good fun, a shared complaint about the state of a world over which we had no power.

As a mature woman, I recognize that there is still an internal list, not as lengthy and not of people I would wipe off the face of the earth, but of things I perceive as a threat. And I know for a fact I am not alone in this regard.

At a time when so much saber rattling is going on in the world, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what we identify as ‘enemy’. We don’t have to be at war to have an enemy, do we? Throughout the day we find ourselves at odds and finding fault with all manner of people, situations and aspects of ourselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we practice kindness, but not ‘nice-nice’ in the way of my mother and perhaps yours, who if I said I felt a certain way told me I shouldn’t feel that way. No, in this tradition we look at what is arising with as much compassionate awareness as we can. If we can look honestly at our thoughts and our fears, we can cultivate a more loving skillful relationship with all that arises in our lives, recognizing its true nature.

So if you are game, take a moment to bring to mind someone or something that you react to as an enemy. Take note of the physical/emotional reaction as your body tightens up and fear or anger arises. This enemy may be a specific person or group of people. It may be a concept. It may be something that causes you pain. Just whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. It can be a list! Feel free to write them down if you want.

Now, assuming you were able to come up with at least something that feels threatening to you, let’s look at some common traits that things we perceive as ‘the enemy’ have in common, and see if this is true for yours.

The enemy causes a visceral reaction. We can feel ourselves tensing up and/or negative emotions arising when we think about the enemy. If there’s no visceral reaction, then it’s just an opinion, not something that feels threatening.

The enemy takes up a lot of space in our thoughts and emotions. It’s not just a passing thought. It’s not just someone with whom we disagree. If you doubt it takes up a lot of space, then how did you so easily come up with one or more ‘enemies’? They were right there, readily accessible.

The enemy has power. For example, an enemy might be:

  • A leader with whom we strongly disagree feels threatening, while a past-leader now ‘ordinary citizen’ doesn’t. Yet perhaps we can remember when they felt threatening to our well being, back when they had the power.
  • Pain has power to lay us low, sometimes change our personality and even cause us to feel life is not worth living.
  • Age has power to diminish our abilities in a number of ways.
  • A boss has the power to fire us.
  • A coworker has the power to make us miserable forty hours a week.
  • A parent can feel like an enemy at times simply because when we’re in their care they have power over us. (Any power we give them after we become independent is an unexamined patterned response worth taking time to investigate.)
  • Disease in ourselves or in a loved one has the power to kill, disable and break our hearts.

What power does your ‘enemy’ have over you?

The enemy has volition. We are more inclined to perceive as ‘enemy’ someone who made a choice rather than, for example, an act of nature. There is a classic story of a man rowing his boat on a misty morning when he sees another boat heading towards him. As it comes closer and closer he gets more and more upset. Why is that person not watching where he’s going? Is that person purposely aiming for his boat? Who is it? What did I ever do to him? etc. etc. Enemy alert to the max. And then the boat bumps against his and he sees that it is empty, just a lost boat adrift in the water. All his anger vanishes. The boat is not the enemy. It is just carried on the currents. There is no enemy with whom to be angry.

Abstract concepts are not as powerful as personal experiences. We might be against violence in general, but it isn’t a palpable enemy unless it is happening to us (or did happen to us and we are still processing it), or it happens or happened to someone we love, or to someone right in front of us, whether in person or on a video or in a book. Abstracts do not activate our emotions in the same way.

Those are some things I have noticed as common traits of ‘the enemy’. What else do you notice? This is an exploration. Feel free to check it out for yourself and report back by commenting. (Click on reply at the top of this post.)

HOW TO COME INTO SKILLFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH ‘ENEMIES’

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you are in that moment being threatened, you will do whatever you feel in that moment that you need to do — your flight or flight response will likely kick in and nothing we discuss here will make a bit of difference. However, regular meditation practice will help you to be more mindful and better able to see the situation clearly, and perhaps will have cultivated some compassion that could help to ameliorate certain threatening situations. But street smarts and a call to 911 may be what’s needed. Just sayin’.

But, assuming we are talking about someone or something that is not holding a gun to our heads in this moment, but which satisfy the definition of ‘enemy’ for our purposes here, let’s proceed.

All of this ‘other’ making, this ‘me’ against the world or ‘us’ against ‘them’ thinking, takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. It depletes our capacity for ease, joy and kindness to ourselves or anyone else. But it isn’t skillful to push these thoughts away or pretend they don’t exist. It is equally unskillful to actively antagonize an external designated enemy. This only adds to their power by fueling it with similar energy. So what are we to do?

Know your enemy
We’ve already made a first step by defining who or what we are perceiving as enemy. We have ruled out anything that’s just an opinion and anything that is abstract. Now we can focus on something that does activate a visceral reaction, that does cause us to feel threatened in some way. We get to know the enemy not to strategize how to defeat them, but in order to understand their true nature and the nature of our own mind.

Here are some ways to come into a more skillful relationship with the enemy or enemies we have named.

Expand awareness
We tend to get caught up in the story or the rant about whatever we perceive to be enemy. We probably don’t even listen to ourselves anymore, we just blather on in a habitual way. But we have a choice. Without pushing the enemy away, we can notice all else that is going on in this moment. We can come into an awareness of our senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
We can notice pleasant sensations also going on right now. The enemy may still be present, but we see that it is just one part of all that is happening in this moment, a slender thread in the whole fabric of being. We can take in all of this moment with gratitude for being alive to experience it, enemy and all.

Interview, inquire, investigate
When we feel up for it, perhaps after meditation, we can invite the enemy into our thoughts for clearer observation and investigation. We can breathe into the discomfort. We can take care of ourselves. We can remind ourselves that the enemy in this moment is just a pattern of thought and emotion. It is safe to look more closely and to do some insightful investigation.
Part of this investigation might be actual fact checking. When we perceive something or someone as ‘enemy’ we might not be able to talk ourselves out of it, but it is worthwhile to know at least whether it is as dangerous as we think. So, for example, if we have a fear of flying, the fact that it is statistically much safer than driving may be little comfort, but it is an important fact to keep handy. Other typical fears — spiders and snakes, for example — can also be aided by discovering their benign and helpful aspects, and perhaps how unlikely it is that we would encounter a dangerous variety in our area. Some things are easier to fact check than others. We need to be sure our sources are reliable, that our enemy is not the product of some random thing read online or the irrational ranting of some pundit with an ax to grind and bills to pay.  We might notice how willing we are to believe someone who reinforces our existing view, and let that be a red flag for us to make further inquiry rather than getting more entrenched in our position which is causing us, and perhaps others, such suffering.

Consider whether the enemy is a projection
We can recognize the possibility that what annoys us about another person is the very thing that we are either suppressing or judging in ourselves, especially if it’s always the same ‘type’ of person who annoys us.

Back when I was too shy to speak my own truth, I found I was often judgmental toward powerful women. ‘Who does she think she is?’ But it was just my own insecurities and my own desire to feel that freedom to speak up that was making enemies of perfectly nice people who were more worthy of admiration than condemnation.

If the ‘enemy’ that you defined is not necessarily powerful, then there’s an even stronger reason to look at the idea of projection. Perhaps you’re annoyed by people who are virtually powerless. Then what part of you feels powerless? This is not an accusatory investigation. We inquire with respect and kindness.

enemy-as-messengerRecognize the enemy as messenger
We can look at the possibility that what we have taken to be an enemy with a weapon to harm us is in fact a messenger with an offering that has the potential to heal us. The image shown here could be carrying a weapon or a scroll with an important message for us. We won’t know until we take the time to look.

Let’s take tension, for example. It is the one thing we actively work to diminish in our meditation practice. So it is easy to see it as the enemy. But in fact it is the messenger. It tells us that our thoughts are caught up in the past and/or future. When we befriend the messenger — come on in, take a load off, care for some tea? — then the tension releases to whatever degree is possible in that moment, and we can be fully present with what is arising in that moment. Noticing the tension, we recognize where our thoughts have wandered. The tension is the messenger.

Let’s look at some other ‘enemies’ we might encounter and what their message is:

If you experience any degree of impatience or even road rage, then your ‘enemies’ may be:

  • Someone driving slower than you want to drive. The message is to cultivate patience and to stay more present in the moment rather than rushing to be somewhere else.
  • Someone cutting you off, being discourteous. The message is to cultivate compassion, to recognize that everyone is carrying a burden we are unaware of.
  • Someone driving recklessly, putting you and everyone else in danger. The message is to be mindful ourselves, to be aware we have great power to do harm as we drive around at high speeds in these metal ‘killing machines’.

You get the idea. So what we’re learning is how to be present with someone or something we perceive as enemy by cultivating a spacious field of awareness to hold whatever is arising.

As we stay present with the enemy in that spacious field of awareness, we can inquire about the message it is bearing. We can ask ‘What do you want me to know?’ for example. This would be very skillful in post meditation inquiry if a challenging ‘enemy’ is present.

Practice meditation on regular basis. By doing so we become more and more attuned to recognize the infinite interconnection – all one, that there is no separate self that needs to be defended against some outside enemy. In that way we are able to see through the faulty filter of fear that has named something or someone ‘enemy’.

Feed your Demons This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that can be very skillful in working through a difficult relationship with an aspect of self that presents as enemy.

Send Metta  A powerful practice is to send metta, infinite loving-kindness, always beginning with ourselves and always ending with sending it to all beings. In between we can send it to a difficult person. I have heard so many first-hand accounts of the power of metta practice — May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy. — to shift a relationship and reveal that in fact the ‘enemy’ is a vulnerable suffering being, worthy of kindness and compassion.
Here’s a recording of me leading an extended metta practice.

Speak our truth to whomever is in power, whether in government or in our private lives. Once we have cultivated compassionate awareness, we are ready to use wise speech to address any concerns we have. Instead of aggravating the enemy, turning off their ability to listen to us, we touch a deeper place and inspire their own inner wisdom to look more closely at their own way of being with difficult emotions.

I hope that these suggestions help to whittle down your enemy list, and create some powerful positive changes in the process. Let me know!

First Foundation of Mindfulness: Elements

The Buddha taught about the elements of the body: earth, air, fire and water. As we develop a sensory awareness of physical nature, we can enhance that awareness by noticing these four elements as they show themselves in our experience.

As we walk we can feel the earthy mass and weight of our body succumbing to the gravitational pull of the earth.

As we breathe we can feel the air nature of our body, how the largest proportion of our body is in fact oxygen (65%).So we can breathe  in that sense of aliveness and connection with the air around us.

We can experience the element of fire as we exert energy and burn calories, as we note the temperature of our body, both internally and on our skin. Our neurons fire an elaborate electrical system in our body. And our hormones have a potentially fiery component, creating a burning sense of urgency and passion.

We experience water in our being — saliva, sweat, a full bladder. Or we notice a lack of water in thirst or skin dryness. We take in liquids and emit them. We know we would not survive long without water. Dehydration is death. Water is life. We are liquid beings.

In focusing on the elemental nature of our body, the Buddha has added another effective way for us to sense into the body in order to be anchored in the present moment. Try noticing one or the other of the various elements as you go about your day. You will probably find yourself being present, grounded and able to see more clearly the reality of whatever is going on within you and around you.

But the focus on elements also has the potential to bring us home to an awareness of the body as an intrinsic part of all nature. Looking at the science of elements — not just the Buddha’s four overriding elements but the whole periodic table — we find that everything, including our body, is made up of all the same elements, but in varying amounts.* For example, while the core of the earth is iron and other heavy metals, the earth’s crust has many of the same elements as the human body.

In our group discussion one meditator mentioned the fact that everything is mostly space at a microscopic level, which creates an even greater sense of commonality. And then we talked about how if you are working with a photo on the computer and you zoom in very close to the edge of any object in the photo, the edge disappears. It makes you really question the reality of the edges that we take for granted! Am I really in a skin container? Skin is protective but also permeable. It is in a constant state of shedding and regenerating, so that it becomes a part of the atmosphere and the ground we walk on.

When we begin to look at the reality of our physical nature, we can let go of that self-imposed sense of separation, as if we are alien intruders in the natural world, an invasive species. Those of us who love nature may find it difficult to see the nature in ourselves or in others of our species. And those who accept the inherited culturally promoted idea that nature is just a pile of useful resources for human use are at an even greater disconnect from understanding the reality of not just inter-reliance but inter-being. We are all one!

This collective sense of alienation from others of our species and the rest of nature is the direct cause of the abuse of each other, other animals, plant life and the earth itself. So this meditation on the elements allows us to recognize that we are all family here. We can relax into a sense of unitive ease. We can be kind. We can be cooperative. We can take the needs of all beings into consideration. It is a very powerful meditation well worth incorporating into our practice and into our daily lives.

Still not feeling it? I have come up with a couple of analogies we can play with to help remind ourselves that we are all made up of the same stuff.

I always like cooking analogies so here’s one to consider:
Just as a fully stocked kitchen can provide an amazing variety of meals, we can think of the universe as a full pantry of elements where anything can happen. And it did! Here we all are — humans and millions of other species of animals, plants, and all manner of rocks, and then all the ‘man-made’ objects created out of combining the elements found in nature.

Another analogy:
Imagine a huge set of Lego blocks — the basic blocks, none of the fancy pre-fab stuff. Now imagine them infinitely smaller, so small we couldn’t even see them in the microscope. They are subatomic blocks.

Now imagine that we are all Lego constructions. I am a Lego woman, living in a Lego house with my Lego husband. We drive in our Lego car to the Lego store, take walks in the Lego forest, and enjoy the company of our Lego family and friends.

We could live our lives without thinking about our Lego nature, and most of us do. That’s why it throws us every time some Lego construct comes apart and gets repurposed as something else. We are shocked because we thought this version of Legoland, this version of ourselves, our family and friends and where we live, was permanent. We thought these were solid structures! They are not! They are all made up of subatomic building blocks of life!  

If we have some part of our awareness knowing this is Legoland, then we understand the nature of the universe we live in. We see that we are all one in the sense that we are all made of the exact same stuff — maybe you’ve got more blue Legos in your make-up and I’ve got more red, but we’re all Legos. Everything is Legos.

The fundamental building blocks of the universe come together and fall apart with regularity. The world is full of cycles and seasons. The only constant is change!

If we are distressed with how things fall apart, then we can take comfort in the unitive nature of it all — that we are not and never have been separate. That we have always been and will always exist, at least at the subatomic level, just not in this particular Lego shape. We are in and of the universe, we are stardust, we are expressions of the sun itself, the earth itself. We are never alone, no matter how isolated we may feel at any given moment.

So these experiential exercises we undertake — sensing into the physical nature of our being — are meant to help alleviate the suffering that we cause ourselves when we engage in erroneous thinking. When we believe in permanence, we suffer because we are shocked, maybe even horrified, when things fall apart. The erroneous thinking that we are each of us encapsulated and separate also causes us to suffer. The separation we perceive is just a conceptual convenience for making our way in the physical world. We are not separate! There is no separation!

These realizations that we come to are awakenings to the reality of life. This is insight meditation and the whole purpose is to foster our own insights into the nature of reality.
The Buddha encouraged his followers to find out the truth for themselves. He did not want people to simply accept what he said as truth and parrot it to others. This is a tradition that continually sends us back to ourselves, to our own experience to discover the truth. This is a truth that is based not in books but in our bodies, in our tuning in to our senses to access full awareness in this present moment.

So as you listen or read a dharma talk, don’t take it as the whole of an answer. Think of it like going to the safe deposit vault at the bank. The teller, just like the teacher, has one key. You have the other, the one that makes it possible for you to not just receive the dharma, but to experience it for yourself.

So what does your key look like? It consists of wise intention and wise effort in your meditation practice. The insights rise of their own accord when you give yourself the time, space and silence to experience them.

If in reading on you find this is not sitting right with you, just notice it. Maybe it’s not time for this. We each need to notice and honor our own cycles and rhythms. We need to be autodidactic in the way we learn, following the wisdom within. This is not a linear exploration but something much more organic.

So how does this sit with you? What does it bring up? Give yourself some time to practice sensing in. Then give yourself some time in silence to notice your thoughts and feelings. This is your exploration.


*Elements of the human body:
Oxygen (65%)
Carbon (18%)
Hydrogen (10%)
Nitrogen (3%)
Calcium (1.5%)
Phosphorus (1.0%)
Potassium (0.35%)
Sulfur (0.25%)
Sodium (0.15%)
Magnesium (0.05%)
Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt, Iron (0.70%)
Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine (trace amounts)