In everyday life we’re torn between fierce attachment to our loved ones and anger at those that give us trouble. But Buddhism, democracy, and social justice tell us that all people deserve the same rights and freedoms: we’re all equal and we all deserve happiness. The Buddhist meditation on equanimity, applied to our everyday relationships and the painful daily news, teaches us a technique of “spiritual democracy” for developing healthy feelings of connection to others—even those we most despise.
This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. In this week’s episode we’re talking about an analytic meditation technique called equanimity. I’ve also started to call this technique by another term, Spiritual Democracy, because it’s rooted in the principle of universal human rights.
Equanimity helps us balance out our feelings toward the people we label as friends, enemies, and strangers. It’s a radical extension of the slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” where you begin first with your own mind, genuinely cultivating a sense of respect and acceptance for all people.
Equanimity is an amazing and powerful technique, and it’s one of my very favorite meditations. It’s a technique we don’t hear as much about, when compared to meditating on compassion or mindfulness. But in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, equanimity is seen as a step that you must undertake before cultivating compassion or love. Because otherwise your mind remains biased in its feelings toward others. And true compassion or loving-kindness is impossible.
We can easily observe our bias when we read the news each day. How do we feel when we read the news about the latest injustice in the world? Each of us has likely done this today, or certainly this week. And usually, we feel angry. And not just abstractly angry, but often directed at a particular person who we blame for the problem—a politician, a CEO, a corrupt police officer or a criminal, a terrorist, or a racist—a person we could easily describe as our enemy.
This person is harming us, they’re harming others, they’re harming the country, they’re harming specific genders and races, immigrants, refugees, public health, or the environment.
In our personal life, how do we feel when someone hurts us? This happens regularly to many of us in our intimate relationships. But we tend to quickly forgive our friends or family members or co-workers, because the benefits we receive from them outweigh the harms.
The people that hurt us habitually, or severely, we start to consider our enemies. People who compete with us unfairly at work, who say hurtful things to us, who slander us behind our backs. Or even in our immediate family, a partner or a child or a parent’s actions can cause such sustained pain that we eventually need to find some distance from them, to build up protective walls, to consider them not someone who helps us, but someone who harms.
Many of us have experienced this pain through an ex-partner who now thinks only of our worst qualities, who spreads negative gossip about us with others, who hurts our reputation.
Or we have neighbors that we fight with over sound, space, parking. Or we have conflicts with colleagues and family who have differing beliefs than ours. We can’t understand how they could believe—and vote—for people and causes that we consider unjust and cruel.
When we’re angry, when we’re thinking heatedly about our enemy, does it feel good? Is this a state of mind that’s beneficial? Is this a state of mind that we want to repeat?
Many people firmly say, “Yes.” Many people—on all sides of an issue—say that anger and righteousness motivate positive action and catalyze change. But is it really necessary to feel angry in order to be motivated for your cause? In order to do the good the world needs?
Once, at a teaching right here in San Francisco, I heard someone ask the Dalai Lama whether anger wasn’t powerful and motivating, helpful to drive you to fight for your cause. His Holiness paused for a while. And then he said, sure, it’s motivating, but it’s like taking a drug. Like amphetamines that give you energy but have negative side effects that in the long-term are harmful to your everyday well-being.
Anger doesn’t feel good. Anger is motivating, but it can quickly spiral out of control, clouding our good judgment and making us feel terrible and even do terrible things. The persistent anger that we feel toward enemies can spill out to break up our good relationships with friends and family. And science says that the stress of habitual anger can lead to physical illness and even death.
What the Dalai Lama said is that there’s a purer motivation, one that gives you just as much energy, but doesn’t have the side effects of anger, and that’s compassion, a topic we’ll take up a little bit later. First comes equanimity, the topic of this week, where we simply try to equalize our feelings toward others.
I was listening to Tara Brach’s beautiful podcast last week and she addressed this topic in a way that was so gentle and embracing. She said that, yes, a period of anger is necessary to energize and to armor ourselves, especially if we’ve been abused or traumatized.
And also, that it’s a setup for shame to think that we have to immediately forgive someone that’s hurt us. But overall, she said that what we need to realize is that anger is an initial powerful signal of something deeper that underlies the anger. And at some point, we need to connect with what that is:
The technique we’re sharing today is for that moment when you’re ready. When that initial flare of energizing, armoring anger has dissipated, and you’re ready to courageously dive below your surface feelings and beyond a view centered on yourself to take in the bigger picture. It’s a bigger picture that offers massive rewards, enlarging our feelings of connection with everyone, even our enemies.
With practice, this type of meditation offers a sustained sense of happiness and peace of mind that can’t be disturbed by others’ words and actions. Yet this practice doesn’t leave you indifferent to harmful actions, or without discrimination between right and wrong.
With a motivation of the equality of all beings, you become an even more powerful force for good in the world who doesn’t get tripped up in whirlpools of strong anger or attachment toward enemies or friends.
We realize that friends and enemies and strangers are far more changeable and impermanent than our mind tricks us into believing.
Why do we call some people friend, enemy, or stranger?
The Buddhist view is that we categorize people into a friend, enemy, or stranger, based on how they treat us.
What is a friend?
A friend is someone who helps us; who we feel happy when we see them; someone we go out of our way to help; who seems to only want our happiness, and in return we only want them to be happy.
“Friendship” can extend to people we don’t know personally, but who we admire: people we see as benefiting the world, advocating for causes we believe in, bringing about positive social change, caring for others like Tara Brach, or taking care of our planet. In this framework, a “friend” is anyone who strives toward actions and beliefs that we identify with, that we approve of, that we see as benefiting ourselves and the people who we care about.
What is an enemy?
An enemy is someone who harms us; who goes against our wishes; who says things that displease us. They may do this because they have different beliefs than us, or different values; or they may harm for more personal reasons, motivated by past conflicts, resentment, jealousy, or revenge.
It’s funny how some of the gentlest people come to talks and meditations about how to deal with anger. I’ve even had people come up after a guided meditation and say the hardest part for them was coming up with an enemy!
But an enemy doesn’t have to be personal. We each have broader enemies in the world: leaders who pursue policies we hate, criminals like mass shooters who kill innocent people and children, police officers who violate the rights of the communities they’re supposed to protect; or anyone opposing what we believe is right and just in life. Each of us can name specific people in the world doing what we feel is drastic harm to our country, immigrants, minorities, women, the environment, or humanity as a whole.
I like to think that you can listen to this podcast wherever you are on the political spectrum and benefit from it. These meditations work whether you’re far right or far left, Republican or Democrat. Suffering from anger and benefiting from its antidotes seems to cross party lines and is another way in which we’re all equal.
What is a stranger?
And then what about strangers? Strangers are people who don’t harm or help us: people who we pass on the street or in our cars; clerks in stores; the person beside you on the bus or in a movie theater; workers at the side of the road. Since they don’t seem to directly impact our life positively or negatively, we tend to have indifferent feelings toward them. We hardly notice them, and we’re generally unconcerned about their welfare.
Equanimity as universal human rights
The Buddhist point of view is that the biased way of feeling differently about friends, enemies, and strangers is at odds with reality. That our labels of “friend,” “enemy,” and “stranger,” are only based on how those people, at any moment, harm me, hurt me, or are of no concern to me.
It’s a self-centered point of view that mistakes the momentary personal value of someone to our immediate well-being as a hard and fast label of their very nature.
At the dawn of the founding of the United States of America, there was a radical innovation in thinking about human rights. It’s hard not to look back at this now cynically, where many of these founders were slaveholders, and where voting was limited to property-holding white males in a country that disenfranchised its indigenous population.
But the founding principles themselves are simple and profound. They were copied around the world, and other democracies inspired by these principles in many ways implemented them better than we did. Now, in the United States, we are gradually advancing to uphold the universal human rights they embody in words.
But still, it’s worth stating these principles from the Declaration of Independence plainly, to show how simple and profound they are. And how much they parallel the Buddha’s insights:
- Everyone is equal
- Everyone has the right to their life
- Everyone has the right to be free
- Everyone has the right to pursue happiness
This was a new, radical, idea at the time, when for thousands of years before, your rights were wholly determined by the whims of which dictator you happened to be born under.
These points have many similarities with the Buddhist understanding of both suffering and equanimity. Where our democratic values trail off is in the pursuit of happiness, because people’s delusions can drive them to pursue their own happiness in ways that harm others, even to the point of wholly depriving others of these same rights through grotesque actions like slavery, the vast unequal hoarding of wealth, or destroying our shared environment.
We can see how many of the worst atrocities in the world were committed by people who firmly believed that what they were doing was for the greater good of humanity, like Hitler or Mao or Stalin: people of strongly held values, people in the pursuit of their own conviction of what would bring global happiness. But most of us would agree that they had a profoundly deluded understanding of the true causes of happiness.
What Buddhism offers is a particular path to the fourth point, a path to genuine happiness. We all have the right to pursue happiness. But we often pursue happiness with ill-conceived actions that instead causes suffering for both ourselves and for others.
Buddhism also has a particular take on the first point, that everyone is equal. We don’t tend to see others equally, as we just finished discussing, but rather from a biased point of view based on whether they are helpful, harmful, or useless to us personally.
The Buddhist view is that the realistic pursuit of happiness requires seeing through our bias. We don’t just limply parrot the abstract principle that all people are equal. And we don’t rely on the government to equalize all people either, while firmly clutching our wallet as we rush past a homeless person. We cultivate a heartfelt everyday experience of genuinely seeing people as equals, feeling this in our own heart.
The Buddhist term for this meditation—and the feeling it brings about in us—is equanimity. But I also like to call it “Spiritual Democracy,” because it’s so wholly aligned with the secular principles of equal rights and universal human rights. The Buddhist view is that cultivating a deeply felt everyday view of seeing people equally brings us a profound sense of everyday well-being.
There’s a way to cultivate this view, a mental exercise that gets us out of our biased point of view and into the minds of others through the power of imagination and empathy. It’s a path to seeing the ever-changing nature of relationships, avoiding getting stuck in a fixed view of our fluid relationships to others. We’ll go over this way of seeing right now, as a kind of story, and next week we’ll dive deeper with a dedicated meditation on equanimity.
How do others see our enemies and strangers?
One approach to cultivate equanimity is to look at how our enemies and strangers appear to others.
Our enemies aren’t universally despised. Each of our personal enemies has a mother, a father, often a loving partner, possibly children who love them more than anyone in the world. They have best friends and friendly colleagues. They are loved, and they love.
Think about a personal enemy, if you have one, and notice how you may have completely forgotten this: that your enemy is surrounded by people who love them. Notice how, in your biased view based on a personal conflict that’s a tiny percentage of your shared lives, how this conflict has completely warped your ability to have a three-dimensional understanding of this person, your enemy.
Also consider those you see as bigger threats to the world: politicians who are doing harm, people destroying the environment, corporate leaders. Each of these people has a mother, a father, perhaps a loving partner, children. People with great power have thousands, and often millions of admirers. The politician you hate has millions, maybe even hundreds of millions of fans, fans who think that he or she is one of the greatest people on earth. For many of these admirers, it would be a lifelong dream to shake your despised enemy’s hand. And to commemorate that event on the wall of their home in a framed photograph.
You may notice that your mind twists away from this understanding, that your mind clings to its bias. But following this train of thought is coming to accept reality.
With nonviolent communication, we learn how, in a healthy conversation, you can repeat what someone said without agreeing with it.
And, similarly, here you can accept that your enemies are loved and admired without loving and admiring them yourself. Doing this helps you achieve a more balanced view of the person and may even help you gain insights into how to more effectively oppose your enemy’s beliefs without falling into the trap of angry, polarizing delusion.
There’s a way to equalize our feelings toward strangers too, when we consider how others view them. These strangers—the people who we buy our coffee from, who we pass on the street, who clean our bathrooms, who build our roads—they are also dearly loved and respected. They likely have a mother who loves them more than anyone else in the world, who’d gladly die themselves if they had to, in order to keep their child alive.
Each of these strangers has a loving partner, admiring friends, devoted children, respected colleagues. They have fun, they have fears, they have dreams. And they each have their own collection of friends, enemies, and strangers.
From their view, you are the stranger, which leads us to the next point, how friends, enemies, and strangers see themselves.
How our friend, enemy, and stranger see themselves
Returning to the Declaration of Independence, we notice how it makes the same proclamation as the Buddha: everyone has the right to be happy, no one wants to suffer. We are all the same in this, and when we recall that our enemy also only wants to be happy, and not to suffer, it softens and humanizes them.
Like us, our enemy wants to be happy, but they choose ineffective methods to achieve happiness. They make decisions they think will cause happiness, but instead causes suffering: others’ suffering, and often their own.
Do the most powerful, fearsome people on earth seem genuinely happy with the torment they cause others, with the criticism they receive? Are the actions they are taking really making themselves happy, much less others?
If we could wave a wand and bestow happiness upon even our worst enemies, wouldn’t we want that? Wouldn’t granting them happiness stop their harmful action immediately, cause them to relax, to become content and open and peaceful? This alone can be a good motivator to wish good on your enemies. If they were truly happy, they’d stop harming others.
Now think of strangers and how they see themselves. Starting with a subset of people can help show off the absurdity of our biased point of view.
When we think of all of the people sick and aging in the world, do we really want to discriminate among them? Imagine facing a hundred people in a nursing home suffering from cancer or infected by Covid-19. Would you really discriminate in helping one or the other based on how well you got along? Each of their suffering is the same.
By seeing from others’ points of view, we can see that it makes no sense to discriminate in our affection and kindness toward others. There’s no logic for us to be biased.
Relationships are changing and impermanent
Another way of dissolving our hard view of friend, enemy, and stranger is to recall the changeability of relationships, their impermanence. Our enemy appears as if he or she will always be an enemy, but in your own life can you recall times that a personal enemy became a friend?
Or, over time apart, as your lives diverged, how they slowly dissolved into a distant stranger, like a bully from grade school, or a rival at college, or from an early job?
Sometimes an enemy can become a friend quickly, when you suddenly find common cause; when you’re unified politically, or with a task at work, or by a larger disaster or conflict like a pandemic or earthquake that forces us to work together.
Or sometimes our enemies even flat out apologize. Have you ever experienced this? It’s jarring, isn’t it, because you feel this cognitive dissonance that in a way wants to keep thinking of the person as your enemy. But they just ended the causes for your holding them as an enemy with a few simple words.
And sometimes you run into an old enemy and they are so nice to you. They forgot that you were enemies. Sometimes we realize, only much later, that perhaps this person never even knew that you considered them an enemy. They hurt you by accident and no one ever told them that you were upset.
So this long-running resentment is revealed to be a delusion that you held onto from your own side, sometimes for many years. You were suffering for no reason, your so-called enemy oblivious that you were even upset.
Thinking of your own personal enemies, and enemies in politics, business, and crime, it becomes helpful to imagine what, specifically, would have to happen for them to no longer be your enemy. Would they have to apologize, or resign, or do some specific thing, or stop doing some other thing?
In the course of making our minds more flexible, of seeing the changeable nature of relationships, it becomes useful to imagine how they could actually do this, what they could do to make amends.
Imagine your worst enemy apologizing, resigning, giving up the views that upset you, reversing their policies. Notice how this softens your mind, how it makes your mind more spacious, more open to even consider this possibility.
This is a mental exercise, a meditation technique, to equalize our mind. But it’s only effective because change is genuinely possible. Our enemy could actually change, and he or she is in the process of changing right now. We just don’t know how.
And, of course, a friend can easily turn into an enemy or stranger. Almost all of us have had a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a husband or wife or a partner become a stranger—or even an enemy—after we part ways.
Or we can recall a best friend that we fell out with, who we lost our close connection with, either suddenly or slowly over time.
It’s usefully to recall that, besides our immediate family, all our other relationships started out as strangers. Can you remember the moment that you met one of your dearest friends or your partner? Recall how they appeared to you when you first met them. There was a moment, maybe even a long stretch of time when they were a stranger to you.
Think back to that moment of your first meeting. Maybe they didn’t even notice you. Did they look serious or focused or amused by something else.
Similarly, with your enemies, there was a time they were a neutral stranger, maybe even a mild friend, before your conflict, your pain arose.
And these relationships continue to change. The present moment isn’t the end of change, where all of a sudden our relationships become fixed today. Relationships continue to change.
And for each of us, there might be a stranger out there in the world right now, alive, breathing, walking, talking, who will become a dear friend, or our next partner, maybe our partner through the end of our life, holding our hand as we lie on our death bed.
Imagine this for a moment and see how the possibility for new relationships is a beautiful latent potential in the world around us, one that we play an active role in cultivating.
Equanimity changes your mind, then you change the world
It’s important to remember that this technique of equanimity isn’t some spacey belief that visualizing your enemy changing will really change them, that our mental projection is some form of mind control that will make them do whatever we wish.
The point is to bring your mind into alignment with the ever-changing nature of reality, a universal truth; to realize that your hard views of enemy, friend, and stranger are inaccurate, and that all our relationships are fluid and flexible.
Keeping this in mind, keeping our mind free from anger toward enemies, and biased attachment toward loved ones, makes us more effective at taking care of others, and even changing the world.
Consider beings who have mastered this point of view, like the Dalai Lama. If you’ve ever come face-to-face with him—or someone like him—it can feel disconcerting the equal level of affection and respect that he offers everyone he encounters.
A friend of mine had the privilege of offering the Dalai Lama a gift at the beginning of public teachings, and his gift was a beautiful Buddhist thangka, one of those rolled-up Tibetan paintings of Buddhas that you may have seen. My friend said that, as he handed the Dalai Lama this gift, he felt such a deep sense of love and affection, acceptance and understanding from His Holiness, a sense of being fully known down to the core, loved even for his faults; so happy to offer such a fine gift to his teacher.
Then, in the afterglow backstage, the next person in line behind my friend walked up to him and said, “Look at this beautiful tangka The Dalai Lama just gave me!” And my friend said he actually felt jealous, wanting The Dalai Lama’s affection biased toward him.
I appreciated my friend’s honesty in telling his story. And it echoed similar feelings I’ve had when meeting great teachers, feeling disconcerted at the equal love and attention they freely give. And realizing that I wanted them to treat me as if I were special, more important than other students.
Equanimity is the ultimate non-discrimination, filling our minds with a genuine understanding of how relationships actually are: impermanent, always changing. Our enemy could become a friend; our friend, a stranger; and a stranger has the potential to become the dearest one to us on earth.
The structured analytic meditation on equanimity gradually fills us with respect and affection for all beings, based on both the impermanent nature of relationships, and also upon our universal human rights: that we all want to be happy, that none of us want to suffer, and that happiness for everyone, even our enemies, would make the world a better place.
At first this meditation takes work, but eventually, equanimity moves from an effortful exercise to something we feel instinctually whenever we see or even think about another human being.
Thanks for joining me in this episode. If you’d like to join us in a private discussion group for Skeptic’s Path listeners, there’s a link at the bottom of our web page at skepticspath.org and on our Facebook page.
Thanks to my producer and partner in A Skeptic’s Path, Stephen Butler, for continued audio excellence and insights into our shared efforts to adapt this profound tradition to a modern, secular audience.
And thanks again for listening. If you have any feedback, whether how we can improve, or what’s working for you in these episodes, it’s always welcome at our website or through any of our social accounts.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio