Recently I led a workshop with my friend, Bob Thurman, on working with your enemies. The workshop was in Washington DC, which seems a particularly apt place to explore the consequences of being stuck in a tight worldview of "us" and "them"; many would say it is a notable spot to examine the corrosive effects of habitually relating through fear, anger, and alienation.
I started by telling a story about a time I was on a train going down the Hudson Valley to New York City, and found myself sitting between a woman having a moderately loud conversation on a cell phone, and a man growing increasingly agitated at the volume of her call. As the ride went on, accompanied by the steady sound of her voice and the minute details of her plans, he wiggled, and grunted, and muttered, then finally exploded. "You're making too much noise!!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
I looked over at him and thought, "Well, so are you!"
What came to my mind next was the quotation widely attributed to Albert Einstein, "The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."
It takes strong insight and often a good deal of courage to break away from our habitual ways of looking at things, to be able to respond from a different place. Risking a new level of seeing enables us to try out new behaviors, like not shouting back or reflexively seeking revenge. Instead we might use ways of communicating that clearly convey our feelings without damaging ourselves or those around us.
To work with how we feel about a perceived enemy doesn't mean to succumb or give in, to be stupid or careless. There are those who are harmful, sometimes terribly so, and we need to do our best to protect ourselves and those vulnerable from them. But it does mean an enormous adventure of consciousness, a readiness to step into new terrain, to be right at the edge between those we include, care about, feel responsive to, and those whom we wall off, exclude, automatically reject. It means taking an honest look at what really constitutes power and strength.
Shouting to drown out someone else's noise, returning belligerence for belligerence may be automatic, but it is exhausting. Inflexibly categorizing those we encounter as good or bad or right or wrong helps us feel secure, but if we look around, we realize that relating in that way doesn't allow us to really connect to anyone, and we are in fact quite lonely.
Perhaps, instead of adding to the din by yelling at the woman on the train, a new way of thinking would mean protesting loud cell phones on public transportation, and working to rectify injustice, and watching out for those we are responsible for -- but in a way that listens, that lets the world come alive beyond categories of us and them and self and other, a way that explores fresh ways of seeing.
If we are willing to go to a new level of thinking, we discover that we are capable of so much more than we usually envision. Imagine if we dropped our rigid need to be right, our easy perpetuation of what we are used to, our compulsion to take the easy way and just be like other people, and actually tried to practice what the Buddha taught: "Hatred will never cease by hatred, it will only cease by love." It would be a whole new way of living: vibrant, creative, and perhaps quite surprisingly effective.