Category Archives: negative emotions

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!

The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on openembracemeditations.com along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.