In their new book, Love Your Enemies, Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman create a road map for diffusing anger and achieving happiness.
This is not your ordinary self-help book, but then, these are not your ordinary self-help gurus. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, is cofounder and president of Tibet House New York. He is a best-selling author and the first Tibetan Buddhist monk from the West. (Yes, he is also Uma’s dad.) Sharon Salzberg cofounded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and is the best-selling author of eight books, including the classic Lovingkindness. We caught up with them to discuss why love trumps hate every time.
What led you to write this book?
SS: Bob [Thurman] and I have taught a workshop together on this subject for many years. It became obvious how much people want to be free of the ordinary ways we relate to inner and outer enemies—anger, fear, shame and feeling overwhelmed. We both know from meditation practice and study that as human beings we have the capacity for that freedom.
RT: We observed that a focus helping people overcome fear, hatred, vengefulness and resentment over remembering having been harmed or wronged or betrayed led people to big breakthroughs and improved quality of energy and happiness. So it seems a good idea to put some of the most useful concepts and practices into a book, a toolkit for larger numbers of people to work in this direction.
Why love your enemies?
RT: Loving them means wishing for their happiness, instead of wishing them destruction and misery. Someone harms you and becomes your enemy because they think you are an obstacle to their happiness and they will cheer up when they hurt you, whether consciously or not. So if they were happy without harming you, etc., then they would cease to harm and be an enemy! That makes Buddha’s and Jesus’ advice a practical advice, instead of regarding it as idealistic, only-appropriate-for-saints sort of idea. Our joy in this book is to help people see the pragmatic nature of the precept, and figure out a way of using it in their lives for the better.
What is the value of lovingkindness and how do we attain it?
SS: Lovingkindness is a deep recognition of how connected all of our lives are. It is a powerful state, rather than the weakness one so many people attribute to an open heart, precisely because it reflects the truth of how things actually are—our lives are all connected. This doesn’t mean we have to like someone or give in to them or bring them home. We just know that in this interconnected universe everyone matters.
What led each of you to Buddhism in the first place?
SS: I first heard the Buddha’s teachings while a sophomore in college, in an Asian philosophy course. The next year I went to India to study meditation, as part of an independent study program at the university. I was 18 years old when I left for India, very confused and unhappy, but with this strong intuition that I should learn how to meditate and it would really help me.
RT: A search for sanity, common sense, and practical sense of joy and creativity, which the Buddhist civilizations, while still not perfect, have helped me move toward. I particularly like the Buddhist mind sciences, which are not based on religious faith, blind faith, and provide workable tools and insights to achieve a civilized and happy way of being.
What are the Buddhist values you would like to see more people practice in our society?
SS: I think of them as core human values, such as mindfulness and lovingkindness/compassion. I think we all, individually and as a society, would benefit from being more aware of our intentions and motivations, and being grounded in wanting to help and not harm. We need to move away from such strong orientations of “self” and “other” and move more towards a “we” way of being.
RT: Redefine civilization as wisdom, kindness, gentleness, self-restraint, etc., instead of the clinging to delusive fanatical ideas, cruelty as power, violence and militarism, greed and consumerism.
What tools can people rely on to help push through anger and fear?
SS: First we need to know what we’re feeling as we’re beginning to feel it, not after everything has escalated and we take action. Then we need to remember to breathe, simply pause and hang out with that feeling for a few moments. Maybe we decide to write that email but not press send right away. We also have time to remember the consequences of past actions, remember our deepest values, etc. That’s mindfulness training.
RT: The spiritual teachings of all religious tradition have many specific tools, and we teach in the book what we consider the most useful ones for people to turn in a better direction. We also cite modern neuroscience studies that show that anger and hatred lead to misery and ill health for the person carrying them round, like what Martin Luther King called “an unbearable burden of bitterness.”