The Middle Ground Between Love & Contempt (love – part 1)

/The Middle Ground Between Love & Contempt (love – part 1)

Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.

October 7th, 2018

After listening to the sermon “Who, or what, is God?” a few weeks ago, Pam wrote:

“As soon as you asked what opposites I feel in my life I thought of the command to love everyone and yet I find myself disliking our country’s leaders. Without getting political, how do we feel love towards someone who we don’t respect? For me this is a constant push and pull struggle. How do I reflect God’s love in my life if I have contempt for someone?”

These are important personal reflections and wise questions. Thank you Pam for sharing them with us!

I wrote this week’s sermon, called “The Middle Ground Between Love & Contempt,” in response to Pam’s thoughts. Loving people we don’t respect isn’t something we can force. Learning to stand up to injustice from a place of love isn’t something we can fake. This kind of love is hard. And it requires deep and consistent personal practice.

One of my important personal practices is art making and as I was painting this week I was struck by the reality that red is a color we use to express both love and anger. We give the people we most deeply love red roses and we say “I saw red” when explaining a moment of blinding hatred/anger/fear. I find this fascinating…

Strong emotions are a very real part of life. How do we hold them? How do we process them? When we feel them do we react automatically? Or are we able to pause and respond to them with intention? These are the kinds of questions I explore this week.

After listening to the sermon, please be sure to add your wisdom to the conversation below. How do you deal with people you don’t respect or even find yourself experiencing feelings of hatred and contempt toward? In these divisive times, we need to support each other through difficult emotions so that together we can successfully fight against injustice.

The Middle Ground Between Love & Contempt

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Commenting on the sermon “Who, or what, is God?” a few weeks ago, a woman named Pam wrote: “As soon as you asked what opposites I feel in my life I thought of the command to love everyone and yet I find myself disliking our country’s leaders. Without getting political, how do we feel love towards someone who we don’t respect? For me this is a constant push and pull struggle. How do I reflect God’s love in my life if I have contempt for someone?”

When I read this comment, my first thought was “YES!” Those are the questions! And they’ve been the questions for a long time because advice shows up for them all over ancient scriptures from every religious tradition and spiritual practice.

We humans struggle with other humans. And in some ways we’re wired for this struggle. We come into this world with certain emotional primes already encoded in our DNA. We are wired for curiosity, care, and play. But we’re also wired for fear, rage, lust, and panic. These emotional primes are designed to help us survive and keep the species going. Without self-reflection, though, they can grow into habituated responses of fear toward people and situations that may not actually pose a threat to our survival. And of course, habits work both ways. We can also become habituated to accept dangerous situations and people as safe—or at least normative. Part of our spiritual practice is constantly asking ourselves why we think the way we do—and trying figure out what our automatic assumptions and reactions are based on.

We move through our culture—whatever culture we live in—with a sense of identity. We have a sense of where and how we fit within our society. Where this sense of identity comes from is complex, but it’s certainly effected by our tribe, clan, family, country, religious affiliation, political party. These are just a few of the influences that have shaped how we perceive danger and safety. How we decide who and what we like or dislike. Who we love and who we have contempt for.

In her comment, Pam described trying to love someone she disrespects as “a constant push and pull struggle.” Which is a very keen observation of how our brains work. We spend a ton of energy every day moving back and forth between like and dislike. Between attachment and aversion. We take in data through our senses and mind. And from this data we perceive and experience sensation and feeling. From these feelings we decide whether to push or pull. Move toward or away. All this happens in a split second based on the habits we’ve built through the stories we hold about our identity, our fears, the things we won’t let go of, the things we don’t see clearly, and every action we’ve ever taken. This whole cycle—from data input to action—happens over and over again all day long—reinforcing the habits that help us decide—again, in a split second—whether or not we like something or someone.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us many things, including that we are to love our enemies—and in fact, we are to pray for them. This teaching goes against our survival instincts. It goes against all the ways our habits of like and dislike have been built throughout our life. It’s not an easy teaching. And in my experience, it’s not something we can simply will ourselves into. While I think Jesus’ call for outright love is something to strive for, I don’t think it’s a realistic starting place.

Patanjali, the ancient sage credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, didn’t go as far as Jesus. He didn’t ask us to love our enemies, he asked us to develop impartiality toward them. But this impartiality doesn’t come in isolation. It comes in the context of a teaching about obstacles and relationship. Patanjali understood that animosity, cruelty, jealousy, and self-righteousness are habits that contaminate our mind and effect the way we show up in the world. He proposed that before we can change our outward actions we have to change our inward heart. The call to love our enemies is not about our enemies. It’s about our own inner life.

Patanjali suggests that in the face of our own animosity, cruelty, jealousy, and self-righteousness we cultivate habits of friendliness, compassion, happiness, and equanimity. Instead of trying to love our enemies, we’re asked to begin by trying love the people we already claim to love. If we reflect honestly on our close relationships, we have to admit that we don’t always love the people we love, perfectly. And whether or not we love them, Patanjali also asks that we notice our response to people who are suffering. Do we feel compassion, apathy, or judgement toward them? And what about those who are happy. Are we happy for them or jealous?

Long before trying to figure out how to love our enemies, or the stranger, or even our neighbor, we can work to notice—and therefore maybe interrupt—our automatic reactions to people. I invite you to spend an entire day noticing your reaction to every person you come in contact with—people you speak to, pass on the street, see on TV. What assumptions do you make about them? Do you deem them good or bad? Happy, sad, virtuous, worthy of contempt? As you notice your reactions, can you trace them back? Can you figure out why you feel the way you do about them? What experience, family lesson, or habit lies underneath your automatic reaction? When we decide that we don’t like someone, we assume our reasons are based on something external to us—on something about them. But what if rather than thinking about our reactions to people based on what we perceive to be true about them, we worked to notice how our reactions to people arise from something within us.

If we want to shift our emotional habits and our ability to love, we have to look inward. Not outward. Patanjali asks us to remain impartial toward the non-virtuous. This is not a call to condone dangerous behavior. It’s a call to respond to dangerous behavior from an inner place of equanimity, not animosity. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he wasn’t telling us to stop fighting against injustice. He was asking us to find a way to work against injustice without adding more violence and hatred to the world. Pam’s question—“How do I reflect God’s love in my life if I have contempt for someone?”—is a wise question because it highlights the disconnect that exists within us all. We have that of God within us and we have negative emotions, impulses, and habits within us. We are all capable of love and cruelty. Spiritual practice is about deciding which of these seeds we water.

This is really hard work. And I don’t believe we should ever feign a pious sense of love for anyone. And I’m certainly not saying we should become apathetic toward the actions of cruel people. I’m asking that we find our own middle ground between love and contempt. I’m not talking about suppression. I’m talking about the honest practice of being with our feelings. I’m talking about the hard work of finding a place where we can hold our strong emotions with ease. Can we cultivate a habit of impartiality that allows our love to be stronger than our contempt? Again, choosing to focus on love doesn’t mean we ignore the actions of cruel and dangerous people. Some people’s actions are worthy of contempt and need to be stopped. But how successful can we possibly be in working against evil in the world if we’ve allowed contempt to utterly corrupt our own mind? How can we allow the Divine Light that exists within us to shine forth if we’re walking around full of animosity? We can’t. As Martin Luther King said: “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” The ability to love doesn’t come from something external to us. If we truly want to increase our ability to offer love to all kinds of people, we must begin by paying attention to our own inner reactions.

And because I know—believe me I know—how easy it is to fall into habits of anger and hatred, I’m deeply appreciative of Patanjali’s teaching. We don’t begin with our enemies—the black belt of spiritual practice. We begin by paying attention to how we react to those we already like and love. Through this practice of attention we build a stronger connection to the love already within us. From this growing connection to love we can start to pay attention to how we react to suffering people and joyous people. We can notice our habits of moving toward and away—notice the inner sensation of push and pull that we feel. And we can work to stand still. … Neither attaching nor averting. Over time, as our inner love grows, as our inner equanimity grows, we’ll have a base of inner support from which we can begin the hard work of responding to contemptuous people and injustice from love.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • Have you ever taken the time to try and figure out what your automatic assumptions and reactions are based on?
  • Who do you consider to be dangerous? Can you articulate why you think they’re dangerous? Can you figure out where your feelings come from? Have they been shaped by your family? By media? By an experience? As you reflect more deeply, do your feelings change at all?
  • Are you aware how much energy you spend moving between feelings of like and dislike all day long? What experiences and habits have shaped what you like and don’t like?
  • Will you accept my invitation to spend a day noticing your automatic reactions to people (all different kinds of people)?
  • How do you fight against injustice? How do you respond to people who’s actions are worthy of contempt?

Let’s talk!

We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation.

 

12 Comments

  1. Donalee October 7, 2018 at 6:07 am - Reply

    A powerful sermon, Summer – thank you!

  2. Allyson Zerba October 7, 2018 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Amazing and spot-on as I struggled with another difficult week of our nation’s politics. It’s relieving to think I can start with noticing how I love those whom I already love, and work up to those I consider to be “enemies,” knowing that by the time I reach that black-belt place, I may not still define “those people” as enemies.

  3. Sarah Birger October 7, 2018 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Thank you for making the wisdom of the ages so accessible.

  4. Pam Shales October 7, 2018 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Just what I need! Thank you for this perspective and call for me to ground myself.

  5. Adriana October 8, 2018 at 5:46 am - Reply

    Valuable insight, and…. may I suggest that the practice of noticing how we react to people arround us may also serve as a discerning tool to know what people strive to be arround and what people to shed off our lives?

  6. Jennifer October 8, 2018 at 8:13 am - Reply

    Powerful words, pastor. Thank you. It was exactly what my soul needed to hear in the wake of another difficult week for me in our nation’s politics. This week I decided to be present to the contempt and frustration I’m feeling by instead noticing the work of those who are my allies. I think it is tempting sometimes to be consumed by the contempt… so that life becomes hopeless and weary….at least it is for me. However, in the practice of gratitude for my allies I reminded myself that love still has power in these times and how healing it can be to notice the beauty and love in other people.

    I deeply appreciate your insight that “love our enemies” is not the starting point… but the “black belt” haha. It granted me the space and self-compassion to not be a black belt yet. I am grateful for the invitation to practice the observation of inner life, and work from where I’m at without judgement but with love.

    Thanks again for this ministry, Summer. Namaste.

  7. John Hawkins October 8, 2018 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Summer, this indeed is a brilliant question, well worthy of a sermon and well worthy of ponder. You searched that out, very well. I, also, have struggled with those in control of our government. In my more or less unorthodox view of Patanjali’s Niyama, I see samtosha as the acceptance of our dark side as well as the light side. I see loving that side we wish we could bury as a Tapas, Jesus’ call to love your enemy speaks to that, because the enemy is part of our makeup. I see svadyaya as an acceptance and cultivation, in spite of that dark side, of that power we possess within. There are other samtoshas, tapas, and svadyayas but in this regard I believe it works very well. I have spoken with someone about this before. Donald Trump is our shadow, reflecting the worse in all of us. It is important to speak out against injustice. We liberal-minded people get that from the Jewish Bible prophets. However, it is vital to our spirituality that we acknowledge that he is, indeed,our shadow. All that vulgarity, vindictiveness hatred, tribalism, and so forth, is in all of us. I agree with you that we should be with it. It is our tapas.

  8. Stephen johnson October 12, 2018 at 11:52 am - Reply

    The opening into an uncertainty at the heart of things need not then dishearten decision.
    It is the unknowable which draws, into the in-between.
    Is the geographic of the in-between, possibly, not suspension. A state of heightened sensitivity and awareness of both/all. The dialectic you so beautifully speak of, which forms the heart of the compassion orientation, allows for the natural emotions to manifest while holding them in the abeyance of love. In suspending these sermons in an interfaith and integrative way you are breaking the dichotomy between inner and outer, thought and action. A unique and much needed process. And process, writes Whitehead“ is the immanence of the infinite in the finite.” I bet your yoga therapy is profound. Thank You.

  9. Katrina Svoboda Johnson October 14, 2018 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Nice job, yet again! You are killing it.

    I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind” right now. It’s huge—over 400 pages! It’s a pretty exhaustive account of psychedelics/entheogens/whatever you want to call them. What’s interesting—and made me think of it as I listened to your sermon—is that a “good” trip is one where the participant is into the experience and flows along with it. A “bad” trip is one where the participant gets fearful of the experience and resists the experience. A “bad” trip can turn into a “good” trip when the participant relaxes into the experience and allows it to unfold naturally. A “bad” trip keeps being a bad trip when that fearful response is rigidly held onto.

    This brings up the idea that you can’t change an existing paradigm with current technology (or beliefs). Something has to change for change to happen. I think placing ourselves in opposition to what we don’t like perpetuates the dynamic. But when we soften into “this is the reality” and then look for ways to differently be in relation to that situation, that’s where change can happen (and even improve).

    Of course, Vedic Astrology is my tool for keeping perspective around all of cycles of time and the dynamics of growth, especially related to the WA DC psychodrama. These are puppets on a stage, acting out their parts brilliantly. If we want it to be different, we have to be active agents in making that change a reality—ie: voting (at the very least) and being the change that we wish to see in our very own lives and personal relationships. And, as a pendulum swings backwards and forwards, it will all change.

  10. deborah suess October 22, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

    graetful.

  11. deborah suess October 22, 2018 at 9:55 am - Reply

    I have listened three times now to this challenging message. It is such hard work to do the work of love – and yes impartiality even. Your assignment to pay attention to my own daily reactions is such a good beginning place. Thank you. <3

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