Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.
“…patience arises only in dependence on that malicious intention, so he alone is a cause of my patience. I should respect him just like the sublime Dharma.
From the Bodhicaryavatara, by Santideva
The 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva gives us a rationale for feeling grateful to those who wish us harm: our enemies give us an amazing opportunity to practice patience.
This can actually work! This morning on a social network something I’d said attracted the attention of a guy whose communication started off as rather brash but quickly degenerated into graphic threats of violence against me. There was a momentary urge to write something nasty (but subtle!) back to him, but then I realized this guy was a “troll” — someone who gets their kicks from barging into discussions and causing a reaction. And I actually felt some gratitude and affection toward the guy for having given me an opportunity to be more mindful, wise, and compassionate — which manifested as refusing to respond to him at all. After a short reflection on gratitude, all anger for this person totally vanished. Right now I feel like I want to hug him, in fact!
We may generally wish that people who don’t like us would just go away, or start liking us, or stop being so unreasonable, but since we can’t force other people to change it seems that Shantideva’s approach has some merit. There are going to be people who hate us, dislike us, or make life difficult for us. We can’t entirely alter the world so that it suits us. But we can change our attitude toward them.
Now everyone has some positive qualities, to some degree. I can think of people it’s hard to like because they’re destructive, violent, and narcissistic. But not every single thing that they do is intended to cause harm. They have some restraint, some patience, some tenderness — or at least the potential for these things. But it can be hard to get beyond our dislikes and find something to appreciate in someone we feel antagonistic toward. Shantideva’s approach short-circuits this. When cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — for the people we find difficult, it’s their challenging behaviors themselves that we appreciate. We don’t appreciate those qualities because they are harmful, but because they test us, chellange us, and allow us the opportunity to go deeper into our practice.
This is a difficult thing to remember in the heat of the moment! When someone “flames” you in a discussion forum, it can feel like a sharp object has been jammed into a sensitive part of your body. The first instinct is to retaliate. So we need to practice cultivating this attitude when our amygdalas are not red-hot and throbbing (the amygdala being the ancient part of your brain that sparks off the “fight or flight” reflex).
So right now, think of someone you tend to get annoyed by, or someone who has hurt you, or someone you tend to criticize a lot. And see if you can feel a sense of generosity and appreciation toward them for testing you. See if you can regard them as being like a particularly challenging climbing wall, or sudoku or crossword puzzle, or like a tricky mystery story that’s designed to baffle you (please translate to your challenge of choice). Seeing the enemy this way, we take them less personally. We see them less as a personal affront, and more as a puzzle to be solved. It’s good to be challenged! Life without challenges becomes gray and insipid.
It crossed my mind that there’s a mirror image of this in the way that when we’re first in love with someone their “faults” are seen as endearing. We appreciate our loved one and take their odd habits not as a personal affront but as a reason to feel even more appreciation. But once the infatuation wears off, we’re left with being annoyed by our beloved’s faults. Shantideva walks this process back — we no longer take the faults as being a personal affront, and start to feel appreciation, and perhaps appreciation, because of them.
This is an important part of the Bodhisattva path — practicing Buddhism to benefit not just yourself, but all beings.
PS. You can see a full list of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.