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Why Fighting Enemies Isn't Good for You

Anger and hate can feel like powerful emotions, but when you wield them, the only one who gets hurt is you

posted by Suzanne Gerber, October 27, 2013 More by this author

Man upset and angry

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


Man upset and angry
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The man responsible for turning more Americans on to Buddhism than anyone else, Columbia professor, author and Tibet House co-founder Robert Thurman, and his longtime friend Sharon Salzberg, the Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Insight Meditation Center, have written a powerful new book called Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier. 
 
In the book, the two offer a radical approach to dealing with the people and things we consider our enemies. This approach doesn't involve getting even or turning the other cheek; it's about understanding the different types of enemies we face and then redefining the very nature of “enemy” and “self.”
 
(MORE: The 5 Most Inconvenient Spiritual Truths
 
Inner, Outer, Secret and Super-Secret Enemies
 
The underlying premise of the book is that there are four different types of enemies. “Everyone knows the outer enemy," Thurman explains. "It’s a person, situation or an institution that harms you or that you fear is going to harm you or obstruct you in some way.
 
“The inner enemy," he adds, "is your own anger and hatred and fear — the way we typically deal with the outer enemy. In reality, however, these destructive impulses are habits that grip us helplessly and make us a tool of them.
 
“The secret enemy is an identity habit that underlies that. Humans have a natural kind of forcefulness and aggressiveness in defending ourselves, but it’s often attached to only seeing things from one’s own perspective. When that natural fierceness is accompanied by good judgment, however, it can be a positive thing. But it takes a deeper level of self-awareness to see beyond our sense of individual identity.
 
“The super-secret enemy even underlies that: a feeling of unworthiness or self-loathing that we sometimes get from our upbringing or from culture. Though unrecognized, this is what prevents us from finding inner freedom and true happiness because deep down, we don’t feel like we deserve success.”
 
It’s inevitable, of course, that some manner of harm will eventually find us. So hiding or running away is, at best, a temporary (or illusory) fix. The only way to become invulnerable, the authors say, is to “change our view of enemies and learn to see every instance of harm as an opportunity — as something we can use to benefit ourselves and others.”
 
(MORE: What I Learned From Sitting in Silence)
 
How Making Peace Benefits You
 
The book is intended as a guide to peel back layers of illusion. Thurman and Salzberg contend it takes “an act of audacity to step out of our familiar but flawed ways of dealing with our enemies and seek another, better way to shift the enemy dynamic of Us-versus-Them.”
 
In the end, this isn’t some kind of namby-pamby acquiescence. This new way of dealing with our adversaries is for us, a concept Buddhists refer to as enlightened self-interest. “Our enemies are our best teachers,” Thurman says. Because they ignite our anger and hatred, they force us to look at our own shadow sides, which is the first step to moving past reflexive negative behavior.
 
Once we have that wisdom, we can begin to employ more effective weapons — tolerance, compassion and love — and begin to reap real benefits. “If there weren’t people trying to harm us or keep us from getting what we want,” asks Thurman, “how would we learn patience and tolerance and forgiveness?”
 
Taking that a step further, the authors make their most radical point of all, something they learned from the Dalai Lama, who said, "We should be grateful to our enemies, for they teach us patience, courage and determination and help us develop a tranquil mind."
 
Like all of life’s truly big lessons, this can’t be grasped in a minute, a day or even weeks. This is the work of a lifetime. 
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