Enemy Images or Who do You Hate?
My husband and I got into a dispute recently over our shared google calendar. He hadn't put something on our calendar and so that day I was surprised that he wasn't coming home for dinner. I was annoyed, and right away a barrage of thoughts arose that sounded something like this: he didn't put this on the calendar because he didn't want me to know he wasn't going to be home, that's because, like usual, he wants to go out with a friend in the evening, and that's because he doesn't want to come home to be with me, and that's because he doesn't really care about me, and that's because he never really did care about me. Seriously, those are the thoughts that arose within the first minute.
Are You Sure?
Am I sure about these thoughts? And what is really going on here? These are important questions. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to ask those questions because I was trapped in the cascade of thoughts, believing every one of them. With these thoughts came an image of my husband as enemy, that prevented me from seeing what was really true. Instead of remembering what a loving, caring, kind man he has always been, supportive of me in almost every way, I truly believed he was an uncaring jerk. And when I thought that way, I treated him that way. You can be sure that didn't lead to a lot of marital joy.
It took me two excruciating days to see that I was caught and begin to untangle myself from my thoughts. It required me to sit still and look mindfully into the story I was telling myself, and to remember that I need to examine my feelings and thoughts carefully before coming to any conclusions or taking action. I had to remind myself that, like everyone else, I have been conditioned through my genes, my family, and my community to think and react a particular way. By examining my thoughts in this way, I was able to gain perspective.
"An unexamined life is not worth living." -- Socrates
thoughts are stories
Neuropsychologists have confirmed what Buddhist have been teaching for centuries, which is that only a small percentage of what the mind believes is coming from our senses, the rest of our thoughts are stories, pieced together from past experiences, conditioning — which includes what we’ve been told, what we’ve inherited, and previous mistaken thinking — plus our current circumstances. And, frankly, even information coming directly from our senses needs to be considered carefully. Remembering all of this when we are completely immersed in our story is extremely challenging.
The enemy stories we construct make us feel right and righteous. And when we are right, we tell ourselves, we are more likely to be seen as worthy of love and therefore safe. We think that by creating what Marshall Rosenberg calls enemy images "out there", we will all be happy and safe "in here." An enemy image is just that - in order to feel that we are good, we make the other person bad.
So my story about my husband went from he forgot to put something on the calendar to he has never really cared about me in a nanosecond. Our conditioning says you’ll only be safe if you are right. And while I may have felt safer, these false thoughts also made us both miserable. It was only by stepping back from my thoughts and seeing them as misguided attempts at creating a safe, understandable, and controllable world, could I start to gently release them.
not making enemies is scary
Enemy images only increase our suffering in the long run. Making any other person an enemy perpetuates hatred and violence. But not making someone an enemy is scary. If I hand’t made my husband the enemy, then I would have had to feel some uncomfortable feelings. I would have felt how much my husband’s actions can affect me, how I sometimes feel like I’m unloved and unloveable, and how easily I feel abandoned and alone. And that’s not fun. Can we learn to tolerate these feelings for the sake of our relationships? And maybe for the sake of world peace?
“When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Once we drop our habitual stories and feel our true feelings, we begin to see the other person as just as vulnerable and caught by their thoughts and conditioning as we are. My husband has habits and conditioning, too. Like me, he only wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Going out with a friend is his way to relax and unwind. And his habit of telling me at the last minute comes from his fear of judgement and disappointing me. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity for accepting and having compassion for them is there.”
Just because we know our feelings and can the suffering and habits of the other person, doesn't mean we allow violence or abuse to continue. And it doesn't mean we don't protect ourselves from future harm. But to make real lasting change in any conflict, we have to be able to drop our story about the other person and see the situation as it is - everyone trying to find happiness and escape from suffering. We just have different strategies for getting there.
In our diverse and divisive world, is there a person or a situation you can practice with today? Is there someone you consider your enemy? Here are some steps to work with your enemy image:
Take a few minutes to quietly sit and breathe. Feel your in breath and your out breath. Send yourself some loving kindness by saying to yourself, “May I be safe. May I be well. May I be happy.”
Bring to mind the person you are having a conflict with, or who you consider your enemy. Notice how your body feels when you are thinking about that person. if you feel angry, say to yourself, “Something in me is angry.” If you feel sad, say to yourself, “Something in me is sad.” Etc. Embrace the part of you that feels angry, sad, afraid, or whatever feelings you may notice. Cry or curse. Stay with this loving self care until you feel your body relaxing. This is all about taking care of your feelings with compassion, don’t rush it.
Ask yourself what deep need the other person may have been trying to meet. Did they think their behavior would help them connect with others, enjoy physical well-being, have more fun, honesty, peace, autonomy, or meaning? Can you find a way to relate to the need they were trying to meet? In the situation with my husband, I related to not wanting to disappoint others and I also empathize with the well-being we feels when spending time relaxing with friends. I was able to say to myself, “It makes sense why he did what he did.” The strategy our “enemies” use to meet their needs are not very skillful, but by looking deeply, we can begin to understand why they did what they did.
Now that you understand, in your bones, how the situation happened, you will probably already feel a lot better. Ask yourself what you need right now. Maybe you need to have the other person hear how their actions landed on you. You may ask them to simply listen and reflect back. You may request that in the future they do something differently. In our case, I shared the impact his actions had on me and we decided that the shared Google calendar wasn’t working. We agreed to go back to just letting each other know our evening plans by text or phone. If there is a person you see as an enemy but who you don’t have direct access to, you may choose to take an indirect action that will help you feel that you have some agency. This could take many forms such as writing a letter, blocking harmful actions, or organizing people to vote.
At the end of this practice, you will likely feel closer to your own feelings and needs. And you will see the world the way it really is, interdependent. My happiness depends on your happiness. My happiness even depends on the happiness of those I consider my enemies. Even if we aren’t able to change other people’s behaviors, we can change our response to them, and stop getting caught. By practicing this way, we will cause less suffering and be more likely to find workable solutions to most of our conflicts. And, we will be more empowered to co-create the world we want to live in.