Friday, January 21, 2011

Who is More Valuable: Friend or Foe?

There's a prayer we say in Buddhist practice on Tuesday nights and it always jars me from my recitation and—at times—has brought me to tears. It goes something like this, I will cherish those who wronged me and consider them my most honored teachers and spiritual guides. The few first times I read this prayer, I thought it was the Buddhist spin on the New Testament verse love your enemies, bless those who curse you, but lately, those words have found new resonance with me.
I will cherish those who wrong me and consider them my most honored teachers and spiritual guides.
    I never thought of myself as having enemies. Sure, there were people with whom I disagreed, but to consider someone an enemy meant they did me intentional harm. I didn't have anyone like that in my life! Then one evening as I sat cross-legged on my mediation pillow, following along in the Buddhist prayer book, it occurred to me that the person who becomes the most dreaded foe is the one who was once held in closest intimacy. What the phrase really meant was this: We learn the most poignant lessons about ourselves from the people who have broken our hearts. 
   We think our friends teach us and provide us with insight into our lives. We spend a lot of time trying to cultivate friendships. We amass as many "Friends" as we can on our Facebook pages and feel we've accomplished something when we see that number rise. It feels great to surround ourselves with people who love and admire us, but the true test of our compassion comes from those who won't accept our Friend Request—friendship unrequited.
   Rejection is painful. When you've put your heart out to another only to have it turned away—no matter the reason—it stings physically and emotionally. The sorrow of love lost is enough to make one harden one's heart and resolve to not take that risk again. This is loss upon loss—insult to injury—because in those failed relationships we have the best opportunities to learn and grow.
   When he spoke recently at Emory University in Atlanta, His Holiness the Dalai Lama talked of this dichotomy. He said in order to develop a true sense of loving kindness and compassion, "we must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble."
   I know, it sounds just another cup of lemonade-from-life's-lemons philosophy, but think about it. It's true. If we can get outside the pain and humiliation and anguish we feel when someone fails to return our love in-kind and look at why the relationship didn't work out, there is a lot to be gained. As humans we want to place blame when relationships sour. When someone hurts us deeply, we are quick to rationalize it's not me, it's him. But the bitter truth may indeed be me who caused the rift.
   In peeling back the layers of the proverbial onion on my now defunct marriage, I've shed more than a few tears over vows not upheld in one way or another. But now I'm getting to the true heart of the matter, and I realize in many ways that I have been the cause of my own suffering. This is not to say that I am beating myself up, but, rather, I'm accepting the role I played in the matter. My ex—although I don't think of him as my enemy—has taught me a lot about relationships and of my own flawed nature. Too late, unfortunately to mend our differences, but in time for us to both recover and heal and become better people for it.
   When someone hurts us deeply it sheds light on the source of our fears and anxieties. These may be neurosis we've been carrying around since childhood and we aren't even conscious of how the pattern of behavior is effecting our lives. To find that source is powerful. Often, we go through life tamping down our fears. We think they are our weaknesses, the very things from which we should flee. In truth, these fears, insecurities and anxieties are at the core of our motivations throughout life, and if we can understand them—even embrace them—we can overcome them and live happier lives.
   And this is not only true for romantic relationships, it's true in the workplace too. The boss who drinks too much at dinner and makes insensitive comments may be an ass, but he also might help you define your convictions so you can become a more compassionate manager. Or the difficult coworker who frustrates you endlessly because she smugly takes credit for your work, might just be the person who gives you insight into you deep-seeded sense that you should be more vocal about your own contributions. By understanding insecurities exist, you can address and diffuse them in overt and subtle ways.
    Conversely, chances are the very thing that repels you in the person you abhor is a quality that you possess. As American novelist and civil right activist James Baldwin wrote, "One can only face in others what one can face in oneself." Damn.
   Although it's never pleasant to be at odds with another person, the Buddhist perspective does provide a means to find the good when we are feeling fear and loathing for another person, no matter the cause. It is in those times when we can dig deep and thank our enemy for the lessons he has taught us, because he has done for us what no friend can: Illuminated a dark area of our minds that can now be freed of suffering and adversity. We should also be grateful to the person who we think has done us so much harm, because he has also given us the chance to forgive him and practice compassion—and that is another great gift.

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