Regardless of which side of the partisan aisle they're on, most people can agree that the levels of rancor, recrimination, and controversy we encounter each time we flip on the TV or scan our news feeds these days has reached a fever pitch. News-induced stress and anxiety are reaching almost epidemic proportions.
So what can you do about it? Getting involved in activism, whether in your local community or on a national level, is surely one way to work out your angst. But you can also try working from the inside out—looking at how you process the input, and how you relate to your political bogeymen, says Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Mindfulness offers a path to help you do that, she says.
Salzberg is an expert in the meditation practice known as lovingkindness, which centers on developing compassion. She is also the best-selling author of many books. (Her latest, Real Love, will be published in June.) In recent months, Salzberg has been touring the country, leading talks and seminars on the topic of working with enemies mindfully.
To learn more, we caught up with Salzberg after a talk she gave on the topic at New York City’s MNDFL meditation studio.
Health: You co-authored the book Love Your Enemies a few years ago. Why did it feel timely to return to this subject recently?
For the most part, organizers of various events I’ve been attending have been asking me to. I think people are clearly feeling very divided and quite anxious and it’s so pressing an issue. I’ve spent my whole adult life championing the notion that love and compassion are sources of power rather than weaknesses. Then times like these happen and I look at myself and I wonder: Do I really believe that? Is that really true? Or are these just ancient aphorisms?!
So assuming that really is true, why do lovingkindness meditation?
There are a few reasons, but one big one is because mindfulness is not easy to accomplish. Mindfulness doesn’t mean just knowing what you’re feeling, or that you’re simply just hearing a sound. It means knowing these things without the normal self-judgment that accompanies all our experience. Self-judgment like, “It’s not good enough, it’s not right, I’ve been in therapy forever, why isn’t this problem gone?!” And so to actually be mindful means to have a kind of interested, balanced awareness of what’s happening instead of being lost in that habitual pattern with our inner critic. For a lot of people doing a practice like lovingkindness can change our default response from one of self-judgment or fear or anger, to a sense of connection and greater spaciousness. (To get started with your own practice, check out our intro to lovingkindness.)
When you practice lovingkindess, you typically convey the wish for happiness and well-being to yourself, to your loved ones, even to people who you’d consider enemies. Who are these “enemies” and why send lovingkindness their way?
An enemy is someone toward whom we have enmity. There’s fear, there’s distrust, there’s dislike. It can be another person, or even some aspect of ourselves.
How would we be our own enemy?
An “inner enemy” involves different mind states—like anger, fear, greed, jealously—not just when they arise in us but when they take over, when we get really lost in them and when they guide our actions and our choices. Think back to a time when you were consumed by jealously. It’s like you’re insane, you could have done anything. And sometimes you did! We're not at all saying it’s wrong to feel whatever we feel, but when we are overwhelmed by these states, just by their very nature, they tend to give us tunnel vision, and when we’re walking around consumed by such a state, we’re going to miss a lot of information that we really need to make better choices and be happier.
And what about if the enemy is another person?
We think of an “outer enemy” as someone who’s hurt us, somebody who’s hurt somebody we care about, or who we’re afraid is very likely to do that.
When you use lovingkindess to work on your enemies, what is the result you’re looking for?
You may not notice a difference in yourself, but rather in your interactions with other people. I have a lot of students say to me, “I was going to stop meditating because I thought it wasn’t doing anything for me, then my kids came to me and said ‘Please don’t stop, you’re a lot better, you’re not so angry, you’re not so reactive, you have more patience, you listen more!’” These are real-life relationships in which the manifestation happens. And of course, these are the instances where we really want it.
What about people you consider to be enemies who you’ll never meet in your life, people who might be public figures but who nevertheless might be causing you concern or emotional pain? Can you include those types of enemies in your practice, even if you’re never going to change that person’s behavior?
It’s certainly worth at least experimenting with, because to be in a state of constant outrage or continual upset makes us really stressed out. In these cases, we’re the ones who are going to get sick, not the other person!
Bear in mind that by following this practice, in no way does it mean giving up our sense of principle, or right and wrong. If you’re feeling a particular political figure is causing damage and people are hurting, start by seeing if you can help one person. And if you want to work politically, it doesn’t have to be partisan. Think about voter registration, or encouraging people to vote… you don’t have to tell them who to vote for!
And there are ways of sensing if your own ire is turning chronic and if it’s changing your dynamic with your family or loved ones. The more overcome and ill at ease and despairing we get, the less action we can take.
Practicing compassion is often associated with being “soft.” Can you demonstrate lovingkindness and not be weak? Is it possible to use lovingkindness to “defeat” your enemies?
Yes, I think you can because there is a kind of fearlessness and it comes from the practice. Think about if you spend all your time, like some people do—and I have myself, too—thinking about someone else’s faults. You just go through the list again and again and again, and you realize they’ve taken up a lot of your mental real estate, which is very valuable stuff. And now that person has moved into your mind, and they’re not paying rent there and we don’t need that. If we feel a political figure has beliefs that differ so greatly from what we believe, than there’s work to be done there. But we don’t need to get sick and lose heart and lose energy over it.
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Actor Mark Rylance, in presenting the award for best supporting actress at this year’s Oscars, may have been talking about this when he said that sometimes the most supportive thing to do is oppose, but that you want to “oppose without hatred.”
Yes, there’s this fear that were we to cultivate compassion, it would mean “giving in,” it would mean taking their side, or losing your own sense of what is important. But it doesn’t really mean that. We can take very strong action, but we don’t have to do it with hatred. Action with hatred is not onward-leading.