near enemy

The “near enemy” of even-minded love (Day 82)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe traditional term “near enemy” points to some spiritually unhelpful quality or experience that can be mistaken for a helpful quality or experience. The near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of what we’re actually aiming for, and it’s unhelpful because while the genuine article helps free us from suffering, the counterfeit doesn’t.

Each of the four practices we’re focusing on in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness — metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joyful appreciation), and upekkha (even-minded love) — collectively known as the divine abidings (brahma viharas) or the “four immeasurables” has a near enemy.

Buddhaghosa, a 6th century commentator, has the following to say about the near enemy of upekkha, or even-minded love, which is translated here as equanimity:

Equanimity has the equanimity of unknowing based on the home life as its near enemy, since both share in ignoring faults and virtues. Such unknowing has been described in the way beginning, “On seeing a visible object with the eye equanimity arises in the foolish infatuated ordinary man, in the untaught ordinary man who has not conquered his limitations, who has not conquered future [kamma] result, who is unperceiving of danger. Such equanimity as this does not surmount the visible object. Such equanimity as this is called equanimity based on the home life.”

You can pretty much ignore the term “home life” here since this doesn’t really have anything to do with living at home, or being a householder as opposed to being a monk or nun. “Home life” is just “monkish” for “spiritually uneducated.”

What this passage as a whole refers to is simply “not caring.” You see a “visible object” such as a suffering person, and you simply don’t care. You may not have aversion for the suffering person (aversion is the far enemy) but for some reason you’re not moved by their plight. Perhaps you lack empathy at that particular time or generally lack empathy. Perhaps you’re cognitively overloaded and can’t take anything else in. Perhaps you’re tired. Perhaps you’re self-preoccupied. Perhaps your mind is moving too fast for you to slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling. Maybe you have a mindset that other people’s suffering is not your problem. Whatever the reason, you just don’t care. You’re apathetic. You “ignore faults and virtues” because other people’s sufferings and joys just don’t interest you..

You may even think that all this is a virtue! You may think that you’re being “detached.” In fact a lot of people have the view that Buddhism is about detachment, and that you shouldn’t have any desires — even positive desires — if you’re practicing the Dharma.

In fact someone just wrote to me today, saying, in part, “To be free of desire – does that mean we shouldn’t have any goals and objectives for anything. or love our families or pursue any desires because ultimately they are impermanent and will eventually lead to suffering?”

This is as bad a misconception of Buddhism as you can have! The Buddha encouraged us to abandon craving, not desires as such. If we abandoned all desires we’d never do anything. We wouldn’t “strive diligently” for awakening (those were the Buddha’s last words). We wouldn’t develop compassion, since wanting to develop compassion is a desire. We wouldn’t practice compassion, since wanting to relieve another’s suffering is also a desire. Practice simply wouldn’t happen without desire! In fact I’d go as far as to say that you need a huge amount of desire to become awakened and to realize the goal of enlightenment, and that most of us lack that level of desire. For most people, the task is to develop enough desire to develop the desire we need for becoming awakened!

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The brahma viharas are mostly defined in terms of desires. Lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy. Compassion is the desire to free beings from suffering. Joyful appreciation is the desire that good qualities, and the peace and joy that come from them, take root and flourish in the world. Without desire the brahma viharas simply wouldn’t exist.

Equanimity, or even-minded love, is not where we say “OK, all that desire for beings to be happy and free from suffering was great — now I’m going to give it up.” It’s the point at which our lovingkindness, our compassion, and our joyful appreciation of the good reach their fullness. It’s when they become imbued with a keen sense of impermanence. Because things change, happiness won’t last. So we don’t get intoxicated when people are happy. Because things change, suffering won’t last either, so we don’t get disappointed or depressed when people suffer. But what you do do is love, have compassion, and appreciate the good. You “ignore faults and virtues” in the sense that your love is unconditional, but not because you don’t care.

None of this causes us to become inactive. In fact, equanimity, or even-minded love, allows us to be more effective and sustained in our actions, because we don’t demotivate ourselves by dipping into depression or hopelessness or fear — or into not caring, the “near enemy” of equanimity — but are unshakable in our love and in our efforts to help beings.

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The “near enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation (Day 60)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We shouldn’t experience mudita, or joyful appreciation for happiness that arises in others through unskillful actions. If someone feels joy because they just swindled an old lady or robbed a bank, or because they’re high on cocaine, those would be forms of joy based on unskillful motivations and actions, and those therefore aren’t the kinds of things that we should, in our own turn, feel joyful about.

But here’s a trickier one. Someone asked me about joy that’s based on luck, or worldly gains: “I know too many folks (above all in the IT field) who stumbled into riches and others who worked themselves to the bone yet nonetheless are still struggling just to get by.” This question really got me thinking. Could we end up focusing on cultivating joy for people who are, perhaps, privileged? Could rejoicing in people’s good fortune lead to us ignoring the plight of people who are struggling against the odds?

After all, gains are often not fair. There is bias in the job market against people of color and against women. There is bias against people who are currently unemployed, who are less likely to receive a job offer than similarly (or even less) qualified people who already have jobs. There is bias against people with disabilities. Is mudita, to put it in extreme terms, elitist, siding with the most fortunate?

Let’s take a look at how Upatissa describes the practice of mudita in his Path of Liberation:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”. And again, when one sees or hears that a certain person does not follow demeritorious doctrines, or that he does not follow undesirable doctrines and that he follows desirable doctrines, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”.

So this account of mudita is entirely to do with good qualities and good choices, and with the joy and peace brought by having good qualities and making good choices. It’s nothing to do with “luck” in the sense of nice things happening for no apparent reason, or indeed about worldly gains or any sort. I think that responding to worldly good fortune — for example your friend gets a job — is in the same ballpark as mudita, and may even be a form of mudita, but it’s not what Upatissa seems to have imagined us celebrating or cultivating in our meditation practice.

In fact Buddhaghosa, in the 5th century Path of Purification, describes the near enemy of mudita (the near enemy being a quality that is similar enough to mudita that it can be confused with it) in terms that sound very like the luck or worldly gains that the original question raised:

“When a man either regards as gain the obtaining of visible objects cognizable by the eye that are sought … and associated with worldliness, or recalls those formerly obtained that are past, ceased, and changed, then joy arises in him.”

So Buddhaghosa seems to be suggesting that celebrating in worldly gains and luck is a distraction from mudita. I think that he’s right — if that’s the only thing we celebrate.

I don’t think mudita at all excludes rejoicing in people’s good luck but it’s not the main focus, which is celebrating good qualities and good choices and the peace and joy that follow from them. That’s the way I’ve consistently been talking and writing about mudita.

But I do think mudita can include celebrating people’s good luck. When a friend is looking for somewhere to live and finds a new apartment, it’s natural and proper for us to be happy for their gain (and although there can be a large component of hard work and initiative involved in that kind of gain, there’s also a large element of chance).

But such strokes of good fortune often come at others’ expense. There are inevitably losers in such a gain. Your friend was lucky and got the apartment, but there would have been even more people who were unlucky, since his or her signing a lease on the apartment necessarily excluded other from getting it. The world becomes a better place if your friend develops a skillful quality like courage, patience, or compassion. And although your friend’s world is improved is she or he gets a new apartment, the world as a whole isn’t really a better place.

How should we deal with all this? Well, I’d suggest that our mudita may celebrate our friend’s luck, and that compassion is there for those who were unlucky, if we happen to be aware of someone in that situation. I don’t think we have to go seeking the unlucky applicants for your friend’s apartment in order to “balance out” the mudita we’re feeling for our friend. I’d suggest that there is plenty of suffering in the world and therefore plenty of opportunity to cultivate compassion. When there’s something to celebrate, celebrate it. When there’s reason to be compassionate, be compassionate.

But in the practice I’d suggest focusing mainly on celebrating good qualities, good choices, and on the joy and peace that arise from them. Although we should celebrate worldly gains and good fortune when we come across them, that’s not the main point of the practice.

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Sorrow is failed compassion (Day 28)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve had more people asking me about the “near enemy” of compassion. So here goes…

The “near enemy” is, by definition, something you might confuse with compassion. You might think you were cultivating compassion but were actually cultivating something else, in the same way that you might water and care for a weed, thinking it’s a useful plant. The “far enemy” is quite straightforward. It’s cruelty, or indifference to suffering, which is just the direct opposite of compassion. That’s easy to understand. But what is compassion’s “near enemy”?

People often use the word “pity” to describe the near enemy, but the traditional commentaries use the word “grief.” Compassion is also said to fail when it becomes sorrow, and that also seems related to the notion of the near enemy, since grief and sorrow and virtual synonyms. I’m going to point to three things that I think can be the near enemies of compassion.

But first, as a reminder:

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

1. Your suffering’s making me feel bad, dammit!
Now, grief is a sense of loss. We can be attached to our own “normal” state of mind and find it unpleasant to have that interrupted by seeing someone suffering. We experience the “grief” of losing our normal sense of ourselves — even our normal ego-centric sense of ourselves — taken away from us.

So we see someone suffering, and it’s unpleasant. Now we’re suffering too! Now we may just turn away, or we may want their suffering to stop and in doing so think that we’re being compassionate. But we want the other person’s suffering to stop because we want to stop our own suffering. We really just want to remove an obstacle to our own happiness! There’s no real empathy. No real recognition of the other’s suffering. There’s just our own pain, which we want to get rid of. So this is very self-focused and it’s essentially egotistical pseudo-compassion.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, so we need to connect with our own vulnerability, which is something I’ve talked about in relation to compassion, and with lovingkindness. I wouldn’t recommend going into compassion meditation “cold.” We should always start by acknowledging that we suffer.

Another form of this may be when we feel the heart-ache of considering another person’s suffering. This heart-ache is completely normal. It’s just a deep-rooted response to pain in another person. But it’s uncomfortable, and we may not be very good at dealing with discomfort. You know what it’s like when you have a cold or some other minor ailment, and you find yourself wallowing, telling yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) about how awful it all is? And it ends up that 95% of your suffering is actually caused by your reaction to the cold, not to the cold itself? Well, that can happen with developing compassion as well. We move from the heart-ache of being aware of someone’s suffering, to going on about how awful everything is.

We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, but we also can’t empathize with others’ suffering if we’re not able to accept our own. We need to learn to become comfortable with discomfort, otherwise the heart-ache of compassion turns into a wallow-fest that’s all about me, me, me.

2. Stop samsara, I want to get off!
Another way attachment can get in the way of compassion is when we get despondent (i.e. we experience sorrow, which is failed compassion). So we might be aware of someone’s suffering, and we get overwhelmed. Maybe we try to cultivate compassion for a friend who has terminal cancer, and we feel dreadful because we’d like to help but can’t. There’s attachment to the idea that we should be able to make things OK. We can’t accept that there are things we can’t fix.

Or the mind takes this one step further, and we start thinking not just about our friend, but about all the other people who have cancer, and maybe other terminal diseases as well. Now we get despondent because there’s so much suffering in the world, and we can’t fix it! So we feel terrible. But compassion isn’t about saving the world, because none of us can do that. We can and should act where we can, but it’s just going to make us suffer if we’re attached to being a “savior” and think that we should be able to help everyone.

As they say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s grief and sorrow when we don’t know the difference.

This very much connects with the Buddha’s teaching about the “two arrows” of suffering:

Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

The first arrow here is simply the heart-ache of sensing someone’s suffering. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to consider someone’s suffering. But how do we deal with the discomfort of compassion? The second arrow is the reactions I’ve described above, where we “sorrow, grieve, and lament” about the fact that we or others suffer.

The Buddha called wallowing a “bottomless pit” of pain, because we generate pain in response to pain. It’s bottomless because there’s no end to that. But this wallowing is not necessary. “When a well-taught noble disciple is afflicted by painful bodily feelings,” the Buddha says, “she will not worry nor grieve and lament, she will not beat her breast and weep, nor will she be distraught.” And thus she becomes one “who can withstand the bottomless pit and has gained a foothold in it.”

We can learn to bear suffering mindfully, without reacting. We can practice being aware of suffering, and beaing aware of — and letting go of — our thoughts and reactions to suffering. We just let the suffering be there. It’s OK to feel discomfort. Over time we become better at experiencing the first arrow without adding a second.

3. Poor you!
And maybe related to this is a sense of superiority, where we’re feeling good about ourselves in relation to all these “poor souls” out there that aren’t as “sorted” as we are. So that is “pity” in that we feel superior. But here the grief is hidden, because we’re probably having a blast thinking of ourselves as being so wonderful and benevolent. The grief comes later, when the people we’re so “benevolently” helping tell us how arrogant and out-of-touch we are, for example. This is what the Buddha called the “suffering of reversal.”

The cure again here is acknowledging our own vulnerability. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. And yet over and over again you encounter suffering when you hadn’t expected it. Suffering sideswipes you. So you’re not in control. You’re not “sorted.” You’re struggling, like everyone else. Compassion doesn’t make us superior. Bearing this in mind helps keep us real.

Doubt is deadly! People are always looking for excuses to think that they might, secretly, be doing a meditation practice wrong. So I feel compassionate, but maybe it’s not real! Just keep going. If you feel despairing, then that’s probably a sign you’ve tipped over into “grief” or “sorrow.” If you just have an ache in the heart then that’s probably just the “first arrow,” which is an unavoidable part of the practice.

All of the above are simply things we have to work through, so don’t beat yourself up or despair. But maybe if we learn about these unhelpful patterns we can recognize them a bit earlier.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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