How to love your enemies

Meditation luminary Sharon Salzberg tells us how to deal with loud cellphone talkers to badly behaving exes, and how to love the people you (want to) hate most.


Let’s face it, there are some seemingly evil people out there: The loud cellphone yapper next to you in a restaurant. The evil ex-boyfriend. That person you thought was your friend who slept with the evil ex-boyfriend. Sharon Salzberg wants to help you deal.

The meditation luminary’s latest book, written with (the equally illustrious) Robert Thurman, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, takes a step-by-step approach to confronting your enemies—including the secret ones lurking deep within.

Employing meditation practice and Tibetan Buddhism philosophies, the book shows you how to turn the anger you have broiling inside into understanding. And how that leads to your own health and happiness.

And lest you think it’s easy for meditation teachers to love and forgive, Salzberg confesses that it’s a practice for us all. “We think that compassion is something that will make us weak,” she says. It’s easier to make war.

Here she explains how to love the people that you (want to) hate most. —Mike Albo

love-your-enemies_sharon_salzberg_robert_thurman In the book you write about being on a train and watching as a man got angrier and angrier with a woman talking loudly on her cellphone, eventually screaming at her that she was making too much noise, and you thought: “Now you both are making too much noise.” I totally get this. But I’m wondering how you reacted to the annoying person on the train? Well, it’s about recognizing…stepping back from the emotion. That creates space. The first thing for me when I’m in this kind of situation is feeling it in my body. To recognize, “Ooh, I’m really getting annoyed.” If I’m lost and immersed in that feeling without recognizing it, what I say may not be skillful. So it’s about basically stepping back enough and then seeing there’s a choice. Tied in with that always is a sense of being in touch with our motive: Do we want to be helpful or hurtful? Do we want to win?

So who are our enemies? There are actually four kinds in Tibetan Buddhism: outer (that’s pretty obvious), inner (one’s own anger and fear), the secret enemy (the thinking that “I am a separate self so I should be in control of everything”), and the super-secret enemy (self loathing). Part of the work is realizing what a problem it is that we hold on to grievances, and think that compassion [for those who caused them] is something that will make us weak.

I’m still having a little trouble understanding the difference between secret and super secret enemy. The secret enemy is more cognitive, involving the sense of self and the other. That we feel very cut off and separate most of the time. We actually exist both as individuals and as part of a network. We don’t necessarily pay attention to the interconnectedness of universe. The super secret enemy is more emotional than a world view. It’s really a feeling of hopelessness.

I was fascinated by how you describe anger as energy, and also as an addictive energy. Anger can be like a forest fire that can destroy us. Especially if it draws us to action. That’s the negative side of anger seen as energy. The positive side is—it’s just energy. Though it’s a cutting-through energy. For example, it’s usually the angriest person in the room that’s the truth teller (in some situations). The way it gets addictive is that (from Tibetan Buddhist teaching ) when we feel powerless and weak, we pick up anger. We don’t look at the consequences. One of the goals of the [Buddhist] path is almost to harness the energy without the burning.

You must get this kind of question all the time. But if we can get to a point where we can forgive and love our enemies, how do we still defend ourselves from attack? Is it ever warranted? In Insight Meditation circles, there’s this sort of well-known story about me. When I was 18 or 19, living in India, a friend of mine and I went to Calcutta to see one of our teachers. We couldn’t get a cab and instead got a rickshaw, which was pulled by this guy, who was running, taking us down all these back streets. Suddenly a guy came out of shadows and stopped our driver. The man pulled me out of the rickshaw. I thought I would be raped and killed. My friend pushed him off.

I was still shaking when I arrived, and my teacher, Anagarika Munindra, said, “with all your loving kindness, you should have taken your umbrella and hit that man over the head.” We do have to defend ourselves, remembering we count, too. Sometimes it’s about tough love: “No, I am not giving you anything anymore.” Or to translate it in New York terms, “No, I’m not giving you my rent-controlled apartment.”

I was told to ask you why Robert says you should love your enemies. [Laughs] He saw a movie and I think there was a scene with a church and it said on the sign out front, ”Love your enemies. It will drive them crazy.” I think we were going to have that as the title of the book, but the second part got dropped. But anyway that’s the message. Loving your enemies means you’re not buying into the game! Our own negative actions come from a place of unhappiness. And if you seek their happiness, they may not behave so miserably anymore. —Mike Albo

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