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Robert Thurman: Love Your Enemy

Instead of returning anger with anger, Robert Thurman advocates the practice of lovingkindness, a translation of the Pali word mettā that is found in the original Buddhist texts.

The Buddhist psychology tradition, in particular, and the Asian psychologies in general and actually the ancient Christian monastic psychologies do have a strong theory and a strong practice really of overcoming bitterness, hatred, resentment, vengefulness and so forth.  Carrying a little further from Moses's already restraining idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  In other words, you don't take a leg or a life for an eye, you know.  Or a life for a tooth, you know, just another tooth. Which was already a step forward from the old vengeance idea of tribal attitude.  And Jesus's and Buddha's greater idea of really love your enemies and how to unpack that in a modern setting.  And people get nervous about it because they think if you love your enemies it means you're gonna cave to them, you're gonna be a martyr, you're gonna invite them to come and destroy you and just be a masochist and so forth.  And that is not at all what it means.  Love means in the Asian psychological term and I think really in any term it means the wish for the beloved happiness.  To want to make the one you love happy.  That's what love really is.  It isn't really greed and wish to possess although some kinds of love tend to mix with that of the egotistical person. The reason someone is your enemy is they think you're preventing their happiness.  Somehow you have something they want, you're in their way, whatever it is, the world isn't big enough for the both of you type of attitude.  And so they're gonna be your enemy because they're unhappy and they think by getting rid of you they'll be happy.  So if they were happy already without messing with you they might be wanting to leave you alone because it's no fun to go attack people.  It's like, it's an exercise, you know.  It's not like you are giving a caress or receiving one.  So loving your enemies is actually practical advice. 
And Martin Luther King, for example, when he went back the second time to that bridge in Birmingham, John Lewis says that he was advised by his friends, "Come on.  Don't get into how we're gonna love those guys, those cops who are sicking dogs and hoses and beating us and jailing us and torturing us."  Then Martin Luther King said, "No, it's too bitter a burden to bear hatred and resentment.  We do love them.  Of course we oppose them and we are against them and we don't want them to behave like that but we don't hate them.  That's just a ridiculous waste of our energy."  And in a way you can see that being an enemy who has hurt you has already hurt you.  If you go around nursing hatred and vindictiveness and how to get back at them you're hurting yourself.  When you oppose your enemy -- and by saying your enemy, someone they think they're your enemy.  Hopefully if you love your enemy you have no enemy.  But when you oppose that person which you can do, you can have tough love.  You can have fierce compassion.  When they sense that you're doing it because you want their betterment actually because it's not good for them to be mean to you and so on.  Then actually it has a little different edge to it and, for example, if you're trying to get them to see reason there's a better chance they'll be able to listen to you when they don't feel the weight of hatred and a destructive vibration toward them coming through the speech, you know, what's in the style of the energy of the speech.  Your motivation will make it more successful.

Lovingkindness, Thurman says, is not an abstract idea but rater a practice that allows us to appreciate that everyone, including our enemies, want to be happy. And so instead of reflexively categorizing people as bad and wasting our energy by fighting them, we can elevate kindness and compassion "as the strengths they really are."


Thurman explains how the concept of "love your enemies" is sometimes difficult to understand in a modern setting. "People get nervous about it because they think if you love your enemies it means you're going to cave to them, you're going to be a martyr, you're going to invite them to come and destroy you and just be a masochist and so forth," he says.

However, that is not what love means.

"You can have fierce compassion," Thurman says, pointing to the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told his followers during a Civil Rights march in Birmingham that hatred was "a ridiculous waste of our energy."

"If you go around nursing hatred and vindictiveness" and how to get back at your enemy, Thurman says, "you're hurting yourself."

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