The Near Enemies

In the Buddhist tradition, there are four “divine states,” four ways of being, described by the Buddha. The states are Loving-kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic joy – truly appreciating the joy of another – and equanimity, being at peace. The “divine states” are spiritual states – that is, they are “feeling” states, ways of being that involve the whole person in relation to the whole of reality – persons, creatures, and the earth. As in the meta sutra prayer, “let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.”

We begin to approach true maturity as we move toward these states, perhaps by engaging in some spiritual discipline or by having our natural inclinations nurtured by parents, teachers, mentors, or our religious community. If we aspire to what might be thought of as a ?spiritual? life, and if we want to be emotionally mature and healthy, we would want to be truly loving. We would want to be compassionate. We would want to be so content in our own living that we are able to truly share the joy of others. And we would want to be at peace, to experience acceptance in relation to life as it is.

In the Buddhist teaching – and in many ways in the teaching of the Hebrew prophets, of Jesus of Nazareth and even of contemporary psychology – each of these spiritual, ideal states has a “Near Enemy.” A “near enemy” to these spiritual, emotionally mature, and healthy states is a way of being that masquerades as that spiritual quality. It is an imitation of the spiritual state, but it is a way of being that actually separates us from our selves and others, rather than uniting us.

The near enemy of Loving Kindness, for example, is attachment. Attachment may look like love, but is something quite different. Love that is mature, love that is a spiritual state, that is proceeding from one’s whole being, is open and accepting of the other. One who has a deep sense of self-acceptance – self love, really – is able to relate to another person in a way that says, “I love you as you are, without expectations and without any demand that you change who you are to meet my needs.”

Most love relationships at least appear to be that way: after all, few relationships would get started if we approached another by saying, “Hello. You’ll do for starters and I think I could love you after you’ve made a few changes.” The needy person has to set aside his or her needy, attachment behavior at least long enough to “hook” someone into relationship. This is called “courtship.”

Perhaps we’ve all had relationships that felt like true love in the beginning, that felt as if we were loved for who we are: but then, gradually, it became more and more clear that the other did not love us so much as need us – and need us to be other than who we were. What true love loves is the uniqueness, the special-ness, the true and free being of the other. True love wishes for, wills for, and contributes to the separate personhood of the other.

Like a monkey on the tiger’s back, the harder we try to shake off the near enemy of love, the tighter it clings. Attachment, the near enemy of true love, fears the separation to which another’s freedom may lead. One who needs to be attached to others, experiences the other’s freedom as a moving away, as abandonment. Years ago, I wrote a Benediction for Wedding Services and, though I give couples I marry several choices of readings for each part of their ceremony, it’s interesting that this is the one chosen most often. The Benediction is: “Do not seek perfection in each other. Do not seek to make the other into your own image or to remold yourself into another image. What each most truly is will be known by the other. It is that truth of you which must be loved. Many things will change, but change is not the enemy of love. Change is the enemy only of any attempt to possess.”

Near enemies are so close to the spiritually true way of being that they are easily, then tragically, embraced. Attachment can, at first, feel like love. It can be gratifying to be needed. Many a song and poem has been written that idealizes the almost frightening need of the lover for the beloved. What we must learn, before we literally give ourselves away, is that real love loves what is true in us. Attachment needs us to be someone else.

Compassion is another of the “divine states.” Compassion is a “feeling with” the other. It is a “being with” the condition of the other. The near enemy of compassion is pity. Pity feels sorry for “that person over there,” that person who is not me, not like me. Pity separates us from the other by separating us from the suffering of other – putting the suffering “over there.” There but for the Grace of God go I, or the prayer that Jesus scorned, “Oh God, I thank thee that I am not like other people.”

True compassion is to know the other’s sorrow, to know the other’s suffering and to suffer with the other. Compassion is a divine state – a spiritual quality – because it unites us with each other and, in fact, unites us with all beings. In James Russell Lowell’s hymn he writes, “If we do not feel the chain when it works another’s pain, are we not base slaves indeed, slaves unworthy to be freed?” The chains may be actual or may be metaphors for whatever binds the mind, soul, and spirit.

Pity will not set free the captives because pity does not feel the captive as being of one’s own soul, but as foreign, separate, and unconnected. Pity, the near enemy, may masquerade well as compassion but only compassion knows the pain so intimately as to be unable to rest until the other is free of it.

The third divine state in the Buddha’s teaching is sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is the true joy we experience in the happiness of another. Think of the joy we would experience if we truly experienced the joy of others! The near enemy of sympathetic joy is sometimes called “comparison.” It is also envy. Sympathetic joy is a powerful test of love and a powerful indicator of one’s own sense of contentment. And this is a tough one. Sympathetic joy is easy if what makes someone happy is something we already have or something you yourself can easily do without.

I remember when one of my friends could barely hold back his excitement as he told me about the ski cabin he had bought. I was able to be, as we say, happy for him – actually happy with him, truly sharing his joy: and that wasn’t difficult. It didn’t require a lot of spiritual discipline because the last thing in the world I would want is to crawl out of some freezing shack, buried in the snow in the middle of winter, slogging around with two boards strapped to my feet.

On the other hand, I was driving through the Big Sur in California this past week, certainly one of my favorite places – offering vision after vision of soft, green mountains and miles and miles of sea and breaking waves. As I rounded a curve, there, perched on a hillside was a long, low house, glass walls facing out to sea; a wide terrace surrounding it on which a man stood, glass in hand, firm in his paradise, gazing out to sun setting off at the horizon: the epitome of contentment. As I passed by, I called out, as if he could hear me, “Sir, you are blessed and my happiness for you and your life in such beauty is boundless!”

I know you don’t believe that.

I have a long, long way to go toward Enlightenment. My near enemy of my unenlightened soul cried out rather, “O God, why didn’t you give me that?!”

If you want to test yourself on this one, imagine that your brother or sister or a close friend calls you this evening and screams over the phone, “God, you’ll never believe it – I’ve won ten million dollars in the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes!” It would take a saint of the highest order to say, “Wow, I’m so happy for you” – and mean it.

But, let’s be clear about this, lest we get too depressed about the less-than-fully-enlightened state of our being: there are no saints – at least, none we are likely to rub elbows with on a regular basis so as to suffer by the rude comparison. For as long as we cling to our humanness, the near enemies will mingle freely with whatever levels of spiritual strength we manage to achieve. If the true joy we experienced in the joy of another is, later in the day, tinged with a little envy, that ordinary humanity does not diminish the true feeling we also experienced. For most of us, to “come alive” is not to spring out of one way of being into another, rather coming alive is to enter a process of becoming. It is not to be saved, sanctified, and finished into perfection. But to become aware is to be able, some times, to rise to the occasion. Becoming enlightened begins with that occasional joyful awareness that we are actually, in these moments, being our best.

The fourth state of spiritual maturity is equanimity. Equanimity is being at-peace with what is. Equanimity is Acceptance, with a capital “A.” The near enemy of Equanimity is indifference. Equanimity is the spiritual state which has been the most difficult for me to approach. I think it fair to say that the lack of equanimity came close to killing me. I spent much of my life – in every sense of spending a life – in being unable to accept what is to the extent that I would drive myself and, to whatever extent I could, everyone around me, to bring about what I wanted to bring about – to make the world what I wanted it to be.

The near enemies are all grounded in fear: attachment grows from the fear of separation; pity from the fear of suffering; envy from the fear of not having enough; and striving is heavy with the fear of failure. I have said in my own defense – to myself and to others – that if I once was driven, it has been by a commitment to be my best and to make the best of what is in my reach to do. But envy, ambition, and the fear of failure are the near enemies of equanimity.

Not caring is the near enemy of equanimity; the two states are easily confused. I was not able soon enough to be able to imagine a way of being between passionate striving and not-caring. Some of the synonyms for equanimity are balance, poise, serenity, and patience. “Equal” is in the root of equanimity. Balance. The balance to be achieved is between desire and acceptance: desire that sees a good end, a worthy goal, and works to achieve it and an acceptance that can be at peace with whatever the outcome may be.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded and directed the stress-reduction clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. His program follows the principles of the discipline of Mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we ask of every endeavor that causes us stress, “Is it worth dying for?” It’s a useful question. There are many tasks, projects, purposes, and pursuits that are worth working for, worth working hard for, but that are not worth dying for. In that, I think, is the balance of caring and acceptance.

As equanimity is not the same as not caring, not caring is not the same as equanimity. One should not deceive oneself that his or her not caring is some kind of spiritual achievement. Not that there are no ends worth dying for. Humankind has benefited immeasurably from the passionate, heedless striving of those for whom the end has been so just, so necessary that there could be no equanimity, no balance. And action must be taken, regardless of outcome. That is probably a definition of a hero – heeding the demand of the Good and the Just at any sacrifice, even the ultimate.

Albert Schweitzer wrote of Jesus of Nazareth that he sought to turn the wheel of history and, when it would not move, he threw himself upon it. And it turned, and crushed him. Then there was Gandhi. And Martin Luther King, Jr. No acceptance there. No equanimity. And there were all those who died for their own freedom, who felt the chains of others and died to set them free.

Balance. There must be balance in the individual and, so it would seem, there must be balance in humankind. There must be the vast majority of us who must learn equanimity and all the divine states or die – and there must be those who simply must die in passion and righteous tumult for they were made, not for their own peace, but for ours. The Nazarene teacher in the quiet garden before his executioners came prayed, “If it may be, let this cup pass me by: Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.”

The near enemies, then: Attachment grasps and clings when love has failed; pity sets us apart from the suffering so we need not bear it; envy grows out of our discontent, leaving our friend to celebrate without us; not caring walks too close sometimes to equanimity and denies compassion and the need for justice.

None of this is judgment. It is to be human to mix the divine with its enemies. And that is acceptance. It is not not-caring. The great gift is the gift of self-awareness. We can learn to see ourselves – sometimes even as others see us. We can learn to be aware of ourselves. By knowing the near enemies as our intimates, we can learn to love, rather than need. We can risk true compassion and endure the pain of humanness. We can find the contentment that allows us to rejoice in the happiness of others.

And we can come to live with equanimity loving the self that moves from ordinary day to ordinary day in the shadows between simple dark and simple light, simplistic right and simplistic wrong, and we can accept the pain that scatters joy as a stone scatters the water trusting that, like the water, joy and pain settle together again in wholeness.