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The 4 types of enemies (and how to defeat them)

Buddhism has rules for slaying your enemies. But the real surprise is finding out who your enemies actually are.
Credit: Thao LEE / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • Buddhist psychologists,┬áRobert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg, have identified "Four Enemies" that are obstacles to a happy, fulfilled life.
  • One is visible. The other three concern our feelings and our tendency to self-obsess.
  • The answer to all is found in love. Love is a hugely powerful tool, but it's more complicated than we might suppose.

This article was first published on Big Think in May 2022. It was updated in November 2022.

When was the last time you had a good sulk? It probably wasn’t the cross-armed, scowling caricature kind of a sulk, but probably the subtler, more common kind. It’s the sulk of bitterness and bottled fury. It’s the desire to harm someone who’s harmed you, to want vengeance for some slight, and to imagine them begging forgiveness as you deal out their comeuppance.

We all do it. If someone denies you something you wanted, or insults you in some way, or even beats you at some task or game (fairly or not), then we sulk. And blanketed in our seething, plotting anger, we think we can make things better again. We think that if we can get our own back, everything will be okay.

But this misunderstands the self-harm done by hatred, anger, and a bubbling thirst for revenge. When we stew in bitterness, we too become bitter. It’s something explored in a video by the Buddhist psychologists, Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg. In the video and in their book, Love Your Enemies, they call out what they call “The Four Enemies” in life. But what are they, and how are we best to avoid them?

Enemy 1: The Outer Enemy

The Outer Enemy are the “people, institutions, and situations that mean to harm us.” They are the partner who cheated on you, the boss who gave you a warning, or the rain that soaked you to the skin. They are the villains of comics, novels, and movies. The Outer Enemy is not just people; it’s anything external in the world that we see, fear, and hate. It might be inequality, violence, hunger, terrorism, loneliness, and so on — abstract ideas and conditions that are faceless and harder to pin down.

One of the most common and relatable examples of the Outer Enemy is found in the bully. Not some playground brute stealing your lunch money, but anyone who has put you down, disempowered you, or humiliated you. It’s not only people who can bully us, it’s institutions and systems, as well. As Thurman and Salzberg write, “Social structures promote bullying through stereotyping, through class hierarchy, or most insidiously, through various forms of thought control.”

When dealing with all manifestations of the Outer Enemy, the advice is an old one: Love them. Meet hate with love, and enmity with kindness. The problem is that most of us do not know what love actually means in this context. To love someone is to “make the one you love happy.” The reason someone treats you badly or cruelly — the reason they are your “enemy” at all — is because they likely perceive you as being an obstacle to their happiness. You, in some way, make them unhappy or at least deny them happiness. When we love someone, we work with them to make them happy. And so, we remove the cause of enmity.

Enemy 2: The Inner Enemy

The Inner Enemy are those emotions that poison our soul: anger, hatred, and fear. When we are offended, beaten down, or wronged in some way, we are left damaged. Into this hole, we often stuff those emotions that we think make us feel better. All the tears and pain are worth it, because we’re going to call down some cold, righteous, and brutal vengeance upon our enemies.

But these feelings, like so many drugs, are a quick fix that will do far greater harm in the long-run. Quoting the Buddha, Thurman and Salzberg write, “Anger, like a forest fire, burns up its own support.” (A similar sentiment is: Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.) If anger, hatred, and fear come to dominate our lives, they will separate us from everything in life that gives us joy. In their passionate, fiery maw, there’s little room to do anything else, let alone be present with others.

There is good research to suggest that these feelings physically harm the body. Anger, for instance, “releases noxious chemicals such as cortisol into our bloodstream, which damage our circulatory system.” It is thought that in the two hours after an angry outburst, someone’s chances of a heart attack increase five-fold. Their risk of a stroke increases three-fold.

The better alternative to these three poisonous feelings is three forms of patience. First, tolerant patience is recognizing the capacity that we all have to just grin and bear it. It is not about passivity or masochism but appreciating how resilient you are. Second, insightful patience is acknowledging just how subjective and fleeting our judgments are. The world is not out to get us, and sometimes we are the ones who make an issue bigger than it ought to be. Finally, forgiving patience is to “forgive anyone who harms us, no matter in what way.” Not only does this allow us to let go of anger and bitterness, but it allows us to take ownership and control of a situation.

Enemy 3: The Secret Enemy

The Secret Enemy is our inner voice that defines how we orient ourselves to the world. As Thurman and Salzberg write, “We listen raptly to this insistent, incessant ego voice and feel we cannot deny it, because we think it is our only voice.”

The Secret Enemy is so pernicious because we rarely accept just how changeable and contingent that internal monologue really is. New situations, the way in which we approach others, and even the way in which we judge ourselves are defined by that voice. Most often, it’s a voice of “self-preoccupation” — a narcissistic chamber in which the entire world is seen as something to service or hinder us.

But being self-absorbed in this way is not only short-sighted (after all, no one really cares about you as much as you do), it is also getting in the way of your happiness. What a variety of studies show is that those who are self-centered likely experience a “subjective fluctuating happiness” — that is, a short and transient kind of happiness. But those who are more selfless are more likely to feel “authentic-durable happiness,” which means a deep “contentment and plenitude or inner peace.”

In short, that Secret Enemy, the one that sees everything through the lens of you, is making you less happy.

Enemy 4: The Super-Secret Enemy

Finally, the Super-Secret Enemy is the darker aspect to that inner voice (above). It’s the one of self-disgust and self-loathing. This is the voice that settles for mediocrity, and which sees life as a sad collection of misfortunes, with a few laughs if you’re lucky. It’s the voice that says that there is no such thing as true happiness, and if there is, it’s certainly not something I can get. As Thurman and Salzberg argue, this “sense of unworthiness, this self-deprecation, self-loathing, and self-abnegation, is based on a deeply ingrained inferiority complex drummed into us from childhood by a culture afflicted with fear and ignorance.”

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The source of this self-loathing is, in some ways, the Secret Enemy. The more preoccupied we are with ourselves, the more we obsess over private happiness. The more we do things simply to make the self happy, the greater this self-disgust becomes. To do good and to be compassionate, kind, generous, and loving is what makes people happy. When we see ourselves doing worthwhile things, we see ourselves as worthwhile, too.

There’s good research to this end. According to one study, in the Journal of Social Psychology, those who do good deeds are noticeably more satisfied in life. Another, from the University of British Columbia, concludes that “spending money on others — prosocial spending — leads to greater happiness than spending money on oneself.”

In short, the Super-Secret Enemy of self-loathing is toxic. Helping others prevents self-loathing and makes us happier.

All you need is love

Thurman and Salzberg’s Love Your Enemies is a deeply insightful book, and the video exploring its ideas is worth watching. The key takeaway concerns how far we look after others: It’s about love.

Love is the single panacea for all Four Enemies. Love is what wants what is best for others, and so defuses the Outer Enemy. Love is what forgives and accepts and serves as the antithesis of the Inner Enemy: anger, hatred, and fear. Love is what defeats self-preoccupation, the Secret Enemy, with empathy and compassion. It sees others not in terms of what they can do for you, but from their point of view. And lastly, love is what helps and supports others, which undoes the self-loathing of the Super-Secret Enemy.

It turns out that the ancient wisdom found in most religions and belief systems is there for a reason. Love really is the single most powerful weapon in our arsenal. Nothing is made worse by love, and there are a great many things that need more of it.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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