MOSF 19.1: Love Your Enemies? Jesus, King, Buddha, and the Psychology of Love

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 19.1: Love Your Enemies? Jesus, King, Buddha, and the Psychology of Love

by Ravi Chandra
February 3, 2024

Inspiration and Perspiration for Transformation!

Words by Ravi Chandra. Adobe stock image by freshidea, licensed by Ravi Chandra

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
– Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in Matthew 5:43-48, NIV

Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies” closes out the Sermon on the Mount. It could be seen as an extrapolation of the Golden Rule, present in all wisdom traditions. Rabbi Hillel’s version was “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Don’t return hate for hate, but beyond that, love – especially when it’s not easy.

Okeee…. so if this 3000 word post is TLDR, here’s the AI skinny 🙂

But love and hate are in the mix for us. How can we skillfully cultivate our better angels – without falling into the trap of superficial perfectionism and denial of how our enemies cause suffering, and how they themselves suffer? How can we practice love and not simply claim it? How do we build our minds and hearts in the presence of destructive “enemies”? How can we make it rain, when we are experiencing what Beyoncé calls a “love drought?”

And why would we want to? Isn’t it ok to accept disliking our enemies?

We have to accept our actual feelings. But the enemy exposes intrapsychic, interpersonal, and cultural tensions which remains active, and even germinal. I think we can find love, and the need for love, in the seed called the “enemy.” As we deconstruct the enemy and enemy-making, we can find and grow a deeper form of love.

The enemy is the shiny disco ball of society, and especially our political life, that creates conditions of hostility, division, antagonism, and abusive power. We cannot ignore enemies. We cannot ignore the conditions that created them, or the conditions of our own minds that give them purchase. Enemies live rent free in our minds, and in fact attempt a hostile takeover. Our enemies seek to empower themselves by stirring animus and rivalry instead of reason, compassion, conversation, and mutual learning aimed at understanding and love.

Love empowers and heals. Loving our enemies makes us inaccessible to the slavery they would impose.

We create our collectivity and forge our own characters through our engagement with the enemy. We should not take our eyes off their disco ball, its transmission of unhappiness, its wish for triumph. Our interdependence becomes alive and vibrant by contemplating and processing the enemy, and remembering the music of the world beyond the dancehall of delusion and hatred they impose on us.

The Dalai Lama asked monks released from Chinese prisons what they most feared as they were being tortured. They replied “we most feared losing compassion for our torturers.” Love helped them survive, fortified their deepest values, and cultivated their sense of self.

Hating our enemies is like drinking poison yet expecting them to die. Or picking up a red-hot ember intending to throw it at them – but burning oneself instead. Hatred is self-destructive – and that is precisely what the enemy wants. And some tragically choose self-destruction in the face of cruelty. Loving our enemies helps us create ourselves in spite of them, and allows us to imagine a world beyond the mutual infliction of cruelty.

Voiceover from The Uplifted Heart on Terri Carrington’s “New Standards”: “The uplifted heart stays uplifted with faith greater than fear…tuned into something deeper, while remaining keenly aware of the greatest attributes of the human spirit – survival being synonymous with joyful living. No one can remove the joy from the uplifted heart. And yet no one should have to be so resilient.”

The hatred reflected between us and our enemies is a symptom of the disconnection at the root of suffering, per relational cultural theory. Hatred and antagonism proliferate in the distance between us, and most problematically, the distance created by abusive power. Hatred and enemies rise in the absence of nurturance, deep relationship, and the reality and necessity of mutually assured survival. Love, and its partners compassion, understanding, positive regard, warmth, safety, appreciation, respect, and shared humanity, promote the belonging that is the opposite of suffering.

Love is not just a way to be good, or to follow the teachings of Jesus, but a means of transforming disconnection and suffering. Love is essential in healing the wounds and rifts of our human journey in time. Love helps us survive and overcome the distress caused by “enemies” and the antagonistic and adverse conditions they transmit. Love helps us internally heal the psychological splits and dissociations caused by abusive power. Love helps us transform our relationship to those “enemies” and conditions. And finally, King and Gandhi viewed love as the mechanism of “soul force” or satyagraha, which has the potential to transform those “enemies” and conditions themselves.

Adobe stock image by Tharun, licensed by Ravi Chandra

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we will be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation…hate scars the soul and distorts the personality…”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Chapter 5, “Love Your Enemies”)

 

 

 

 

This parallels the words of the Buddha: “hatred does not cease by hatred. By love alone does hatred cease. That is the eternal law.”

It takes two to tango. Psychology tells us that if one party changes their step, the dance can change.

What will we allow to lead the dance of humanity? Love or hate? Indeed, compassion and nurture have been at the heart of our survival as a species for hundreds of thousands of years. But times are tough, and challenges are mounting. We stand at the cliff of a calamity of hatred, enmity, and violence. Every step we take counts for or against the precipice. (See video in references, “Compassion in Difficult Times.”)

Photo by Ravi Chandra

Several years ago, near the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I underscored the message to cultivate at least a seed of compassion for one’s enemies to a group of young activists (see references). One of them responded with frustration, “isn’t this asking us to do emotional labor?”

“Indeed,” I replied. “Life is about emotional labor.”

Emotional exhaustion is defined by dealing with chasms of empathy and compassion. Our minds and hearts struggle with the gap, often producing frustration, overwhelm, futility, hopelessness, despair, and rage. People of conscience cannot avoid facing this chasm. We cannot avoid being distressed by hatred and injustice. Cultivating love, compassion, and self-love are liberating, healing, and necessary. “Relationships are the highest form of spiritual practice,” per folk Buddhist wisdom, and love is part of that spiritual practice and emotional labor.

Adobe stock image by peterschreiber.media, licensed by Ravi Chandra.

But “loving your enemies?” That is a tall order indeed. Love might make us feel vulnerable to attack. Should we not be wary of our enemies? As one man said to me on the topic, “fine, love our enemies – but first, get his boot off my neck!” And the boot is always on the neck of the oppressed and vulnerable. Love is not a panacea, particularly in such a moment. But there is a mind and culture that keeps boot on neck. Love must work “upstream” on these if at all. Loving enemies might include both wariness and at least a cautious investment in their well-being. Love helps put warmth and spaciousness around our relationship with a challenging person or “enemy,” and thus more choice and freedom about how we respond. Love is most certainly not subordinating oneself to an “enemy,” but extricating both of you from a downward spiral. Love restores our humanity when it has been eroded by an “enemy.” Love affirms us and writes us into existence, even as an “enemy” tries to distort and erase us.

Words over Adobe stock image by sianstock, licensed by Ravi Chandra

First of all, one has to ask “who or what exactly is an enemy?” Is it someone who actively or passively hates you and aims at your destruction? Is it someone who denies your humanity or the humanity of those you care about? Is it someone who pricks your ego or makes life inconvenient? Is it someone who raises issues that offend you? Is it someone who challenges your ideas or self-concept? Aren’t our enemies the qualities of our own minds that perpetuate suffering? Aren’t our enemies not a person or group, but ignorance, impatience, jealousy, pettiness, hatred and selfishness themselves – the qualities that keep us turned against one another? Could our “enemy” be a changing climate? Could our “enemies” be generated by the distress and futility of facing real and perceived existential threats? Can loving our enemies lie in recognizing their inability to understand and face such challenges, and in helping them around what blocks them from love, kindness, and a lively, generative coexistence?

Some people think an enemy is anyone who doesn’t do exactly what they want them to do – a very controlling, selfish and punitive way of viewing other human beings that builds cults and caste systems, hierarchies of top-down, authoritative, autocratic, and abusive power. Those who can’t control their own distress try to control others, and they can be successful at implementing grandiose, bellicose, adamantine, byzantine, and Kafkaesque systems of control.

Shantideva wrote in The Way of the Bodhisattva:

“Therefore, just like treasure appearing in my house
Without any effort on my part to obtain it,
I should be happy to have an enemy
For he assists me in my conduct of Awakening.”

In this way, an “enemy” can be a teacher and a spur to learn, grow, and do better. A synonym for “love” is “understanding” – so “loving your enemy” can begin with understanding them, retaining curiosity about them, and not simply reacting to them. Love your enemies, because they are catalysts for creativity, community, wisdom, and transcendence.

Gurdjieff’s community had a particularly noxious member. One day the other community members had it out with him and told him to leave. Gurdjieff raced after him and convinced him to come back. “Why did you do this?” asked his followers. “Without him, how would we practice?” Gurdjieff replied.

Without dust, there can be no pearl. We can turn our suffering into pearls. But no one wishes to be buried in the dust of hatred and antagonism. No one wishes a boot on their neck.

In the social media age, there are provocateurs who aim to get our goats, enrage us, and waste our time. In the US, there’s not nearly enough “content moderation,” and all-too-often, lies, anger and hatred can and do go viral, far outpacing facts, reason, and compassion. This parallels what can happen in our own nervous systems. In fact, in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, I called social media our “auxiliary amygdala.”

What to do when “enemies” and hatred make a beeline to our own nervous systems, online and in real life? How do we stabilize our nervous systems, continue to build relationships and allyship, and keep growing?

“Love your enemies” is a powerful spiritual, moral, and psychological injunction to advance our better angels – but as a psychiatrist and human, I know that inspiration and injunction aren’t enough. We need the perspiration of pathways to work with hatred and facing “enemies” in our relationships and culture.


Mindfulness

Mindfulness is “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” The first step is to notice, label, and identify the difficult emotions stirred by whatever or whomever we might label an “enemy.” Such labeling and mindfulness tune down the amygdala (responsible for fight-flight-freeze survival responses) and the default mode network (which scans for problems in the past and future and creates a narrative sense of self). Paying attention and noting what is happening inside your heart and mind gives you a foundation, and allows you to have a dialogue with the narratives that threaten. By cultivating an experiential sense of self grounded in your body and the present moment, you can better take care of challenging emotions instead of leaping to actions, narratives, judgments, criticisms of self and other, and conclusions that fortify barriers to love, kindness, relationship, shared humanity, and your own health and well-being.

Sometimes we go farther by sitting still.

Lovingkindness practice

When enemies shower us with hatred and antagonism, we can feel eroded and threatened. Lovingkindness practice helps us soothe our nervous system, and as mentioned, improves subjective sense of well-being. Lovingkindness also downregulates the default mode network. The practice consists of repeating phrases such as these for several minutes:

May I be filled with lovingkindness,
May I be well;
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be happy.

You could imagine a benevolent or spiritual figure directing these phrases towards you. And silently directing these phrases towards a stranger actually helps us feel better as well. This all helps us detoxify, deconstruct, and deactivate hatred as it lands on us. This practice is part of cultivating a healthy sense of self to cope with trauma and life.

Keep enemies, hatred, and suffering in perspective

Love and hate, likes and dislikes, and fear, insecurity, uncertainty and feelings of threat are common to our human psychology. Enemies abound, particularly for those who are vulnerable. But our brains were built for survival, not happiness, so they tend to collect negative information and dangers. These are viewed disproportionately by our survival brains. It takes work to keep things in perspective, and not succumb to catastrophic or engulfing emotional narratives. This work doesn’t make the threats “go away” but it allows us to bounce back and keep going as we find ways to deal with challenging situations and “enemies.” One way to do this is to recognize that the “enemy” is “just like me” in some way – in their shared humanity or even in the ways they act or suffer. (For an example of this last practice, see my article “Compassion for Trump?” in references, and my articles on working with catastrophic fears and anxiety.)

Cultivate the “umami” of lovingkindness, friendliness and compassion

As King wrote, “hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.” We have to work with our psychic contents, and not mirror our enemies. When one is distressed, adding a dash of the extra flavors of lovingkindness, friendliness, and compassion makes our inner lives and relatedness more tasty and delicious. (See references for guided meditations to help cultivate these, and over time, transform the imprints of hatred and self-hatred.) We suffer less, and our “enemies” lose their potency. This umami and self-care might help us take a social media break, not engage with a provocateur, or find a way of interacting that promotes shared humanity and love. Sometimes “clapping back” is necessary, but it usually reveals and leaves a residue that needs our umami. Audre Lorde wrote “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

Cultivate humor

Sometimes laughter is the best medicine when faced with “enemies.” Humor helps us with our psychic contents, and the internalized projections of inferiority, contempt, conflict and disgust that “enemies” can put in our emotional ecosystem. Humor relaxes us, shows us the absurdity of the situation, and gives us the space to regard our enemies with something other than fear and hatred. Humor validates our identities when “enemies” invalidate us, and validates reality when they spread disinformation and lies. Humor can draw attention to the absurdity of the situation that “enemies” create. Humor can knock grandiosity down to size. But enemies can use their brand of humor to “punch down” at vulnerable people. It’s fair to be curious about what kind of humor we lean into. Rod Martin’s Humor Styles Questionnaire can help you see if your humor is more constructive or destructive. Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and all: I’ve got your back, just like you’ve had the back of our sanity for the last 8 years, lol!

Build communities that share distress

 Dante wrote “money shared is halved; love shared is multiplied.” Emotional self-regulation is a myth; we all depend on co-regulation in companionship and community. Holocaust research showed that the pair bond was the unit of survival in those dire circumstances. Therefore, enemies who try to divide us are issuing a survival threat. We need to be togethered, not othered, for survival. (See my article and podcast on this subject: What Do We Feel When We Feel Close? The Dim Sum Dialogues.)

Words by Ravi Chandra. Adobe stock image by rawpixelcom, licensed by Ravi Chandra.

Loving our enemies is a way of restoring our own humanity when “enemies” have dehumanized, distorted, and oppressed us, and also remembering that our “enemies” are human too. King also wrote of love requiring us to forgive our enemies, while not letting them off the hook. Forgiveness is letting go of grudges, bitterness, and resentment, and has positive effects on our health and immunity. But we also need to forgive ourselves for being human. Love, especially the boundless love Jesus, King, and the Buddha spoke of, is always a work-in-progress, and we are continually learning from each other, and our “enemies.”

***

Maybe just knowing enemies exist is a kind of love. Giving our enemies our healthy regard is a kind of love. Aiming at their inclusion in a greater whole, and not simply their defeat, is a kind of love. Naming their mindsets and tactics, and naming how these affect the whole, is a kind of love. Seeing them as enactments of cultural forces (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, super-capitalism, and colonialism) allows a holistic and mindful depersonalization, which is a kind of love.

Seeing our “enemies” as gripped by the archaic paradigm of brute force wins, domination, denial of reality, and rejection of the vulnerability of learning, accountability and conscience – is a kind of love. Seeing how their fear has made them monstrous, is a kind of love. Seeing how their fears of losing status, power and prominence have sent them to war gives us room to envision a new, egalitarian paradigm of coexistence and collaboration, which is a kind of love. Seeing ourselves as part of a social, cultural, and spiritual force that knows “enemies” are part of our greater humanity, is a kind of love.

We can see our enemies as human, fallible, and sadly dimmed to or diverted from empathy, humility, and character, and all-too-often we too have been dimmed and diverted.

Our political enemies have been educated in the ignorance of self-centered factionalism. They have been given an emotional, cognitive, and relational education and structuring in the supposed supremacy of wealthy, white, conservative, religiously fundamentalist males, who imagine us as menaces to their will and their imaginings of “God’s will.” Educating, informing, loving and relating to them holds the possibility of lessening their sting, and allowing them to see us as not as vile threats and underlings, but fellow humans, bearing medicines and antidotes for not only our unhappiness and distress, but theirs as well.

***

I hope we can learn and grow from our entanglement with enemies. Part of that growth must lie in learning how to love more deeply, and see more clearly.

I hope that our “enemies” can learn and grow as well, and remember that we whom they have hated are human too.

I hope we can all choose to disempower hatred, fear, and suffering in our politics, culture, society, and minds, and instead empower love, compassion, reason, and shared humanity.

As cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote for Earth Day 1970, “we have met the enemy. And he is us.” In the spiritual, expansive view of self, all hatred is self-hatred. And all love is self-love, love of the big-S Self beyond our most narrow confines. Love of the self in the supposed “other” – the “enemy.”

Ultimately, we are all in this together. As King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Thanks to David Lai of Stanford University’s King Papers Project and Rev. Dr. Sungrae Kim of Aldersgate United Methodist Church for their teaching on this subject which contributed to this article.

 

© 2023 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

For further reading:

As Dennis Brown sang, “Love and hate – will never be friends – oh no – oh no – here I come with love and not hatred. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow I, all the days of my life.” We all do what we can – it takes a village.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer, compassion educator, and civilizational health shaman in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Here’s his linktree. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and is now at work broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand, and with the discount code “Awake” you can get a 20% discount. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. You can find him on Psychology Today, MediumTwitter, Threads, Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

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