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.