How to Dissolve Enmity

Enmity encompasses ill will, rancour, hostility, envy, bitterness, resentment, animosity and much other mind-disturbing, guilt-inducing stuff. We may feel it in ourselves, or may be on the receiving end of it, or both. We may feel it towards a parent, child or spouse, towards a co-worker, or towards a public figure. Enmity can give Buddhists a lot of trouble. In many instances our enmity may make us feel doubt, regret, guilt or even pain, especially when someone close to us is involved. At work it may add a disagreeable complication to the everyday demands of the job. And a sense of outrage about the public figures we love to hate does little for our sense of well-being and peace of mind. It is also likely to get in the way of a more objective understanding of what they are up to and hence of doing something effective about it.One response is that we may try to deny our feelings, or feel guilty about them. We may even develop a corrosive enmity against our own selves, because we don’t feel as a good self should feel. This is the path of spiritual lobotomy, of the saint as zombie.

The difficulty with enmity is that in many cases there may be very evident grounds for it, whether it be felt or received. We may be trapped in strong feelings of the injustice done to us, of the unreasonableness of another person. Surely we have some right to feel enmity towards them ? Why not give them what they deserve, in a bloody good row, a thorough humiliation, a well-merited sacking, or even a bloody good revolution ? And sometimes the sheer force of righteous outrage may appear to flatten the other party and resolve the problem.

However, badly hurting with our violence of word or deed a person, or a social class or movement, or a nation, or a natural environment, commonly has a price, paid over the years, and poisoning perpetrator and victim alike. There is more than pious homily in the warning in the Dhammapada that “Hate is not conquered by hate; hate is conquered by love. This is the eternal law.” The twentieth century has the appalling social example of the so-called 1914-1945 “war”. The Treaty of Versailles that concluded the First World War so humiliated and punished the Germans as to lead directly to the even more destructive Second World War. Usually, whether on the public or personal level, there is no outright victor and only a deepening polarisation, as in the long running enmities of Northern Ireland. And, on the personal level, the unforgiving rancour of divorcing parents can blight several childhoods late into life.

Dissolving enmity through emotional awareness

There is a third response to enmity, beyond either denia, guilt or letting it rip. For Buddhists the golden rule is always first to look within, to be scrupulously self-aware. For the present, forget the other. The feelings we experience are our feelings, not theirs. It is our problem (whoever else’s it also is), something that we are carrying around with us and which is disturbing us. Just to get to this point of turning the question round may itself bring some relief.

We do not respond to others as if we were dispassionate reflecting mirrors. We respond as precarious, needy beings, struggling in the world to affirm some reassuring sense of self-identity. It is this that characteristically drives our feelings, perceptions and behaviours, and, largely unbeknown, distorts our mirror view of others.

In this connection the Buddha likened our discomfiture to being struck by two arrows when we felt we had been struck by only one. The first arrow is the objective ground for our enmity – the incident, the alleged injury or whatever. The second is how we experience the blow – what it feels like for us. To be aware of this distinction is a vital step in the development of the practice of emotional awareness.

Sometimes enmity may arise on the merest pretext. Probably most of us carry around with us in one pocket or another at least a bit of enmity ready for use. After all, surely someone or something must somehow be responsible for the mess ? The perpetrators of endemic, low level enmity may be largely unaware of their acerbic manner, their abrasive style, their waspishness. Some books do have a quarrelsome smell about them. I recall a letter to the editor of one of the more fundamentalist ecological magazines. The reader complained that “though in complete agreement with the substance of what you say, there is a spirit of aggression emanating from the pages that makes me recoil from it. I can understand this – there is good reason for anger; the anger appears to have curdled, however, and become vengeful and spite ridden.”

The most difficult and important stage in dissolving the experience of enmity lies in cultivating a level of awareness in which we are able to open ourselves clearly, intimately and profoundly into the bare acceptance of that experience. Such emotional honesty can appear hurtful and threatening to our self-esteem, to our very sense of self. We therefore need to be no less aware of our characteristic evasions – fixating on the injury done to us, projecting our indignation on the perpetrator, trying to rationalise our emotional discomfort away (or just denying it altogether), beating ourselves up with guilt, and so on. (Further guidance on the practice of emotional awareness can be found on the website of the Network of Engaged Buddhists).

Freed from our subjective contamination of reality

As we learn to become intimate and accepting of our own feelings of enmity they begin to release their grip on us. We begin to view the objects of our enmity in their own light, as it were, rather than in ours. George Orwell warned that “one cannot get away from one’s subjective feelings, but at least one can get to know what they are and make allowances for them,” so as to avoid falling into “a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matters”.

At this point it will be helpful to reflect as calmly as possible on what actually may have happened. We may then perceive that, for example, a criticism someone made of us was in fact reasonable and well founded. But that it was made by someone whom we believe dislikes us, and was delivered in a disagreeable manner. So we may then dismiss the criticism as “mere carping” coming from someone whom we could not expect to treat us fairly. We may feel belittled by them. Or even treated unjustly. In short, we then experience some enmity towards that person.

Accepting our feelings just as they are, we not only start to accept the other (with their enmity) just as they are, but also start to see more clearly the overall situation in which the mutual enmity occurs. The problem then appears more as a situation to be resolved than another person or group to be corrected or punished or defeated. This revelation is commonly accompanied by a release of tension. Once we get the knack of this practice a new lightness of being is possible. Thus, for example, the divorcee abandons with some relief his or her stressful and futile hectoring that the former spouse should change (and perhaps gives up for the present even trying to forgive them) and is freed to getting down to negotiating a working partnership in the interests of the children.

Whether at the public or personal levels, none of the foregoing implies any endorsement or acceptance of wrongdoing or injustice. Instead it is about a shift in perception which empowers us to respond to the situation with a new clarity. Freed of what Orwell called “subjective contamination” we are in a much better position to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Mahatma Gandhi, in his use of creative non-violence, was very clear about this. He was always adamant that there should be no compromise on fundamental, reasonable and minimum demands for redress. To the extent that the adversary refused to meet such demands the struggle should resolutely be sustained. But it should no less be a struggle to deepen the adversary’s awareness of the suffering and injustice that is being perpetuated, and to do so through mutual respect, genuine communication, and some recognition of common interest.

A willingness to enter into authentic dialogue and a tireless search for an optimal resolution of the problem is the mark of the dissolution of enmity, in at least one party. Where there is a raging confrontation the prospect of constructive dialogue is unwelcome, as a threat to the seamless righteousness with which one or both sides identify. Through such dialogue a constructive and mutually beneficial reconciliation is possible, as in the historic achievement of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, underpinned by the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation confessionals.

Thus, through awareness and acceptance enmity can be dissolved and reconciliation achieved. Beaming loving-kindness (metta) to the next crooked politician we hear posturing on the Today Programme may take longer. However, reconciliation does provide favourable conditions for the arising of loving-kindness and compassion, though best at first to people we can get to know well. And when our awareness practice makes us familiar and accepting of our own frailties, and we come to love ourselves, our hearts are opened more readily to accepting in fellow-feeling the frailties of others.

However, I believe the two most important breakthroughs are when we can distinguish the arrow of affliction from the arrow of experiencing that affliction, and when we can take full responsibility ourselves for the way in which we experience enmity, regardless of the alleged culpability of whoever we may hold responsible. This is nicely illustrated by a parable of the Daoist sage Chuang-Tzu. Rowing across a river our passage may be impeded by empty boats that have got adrift. These we push aside without concern. However, if there are people in the boats, although the problem is the same, we get angry and shout at them for wilfully obstructing us.

The method outlined here may be used on its own or in conjunction with such traditional Buddhist practices as the four-fold metta meditation (evoking feelings of loving kindness successively for oneself, for a loved one, for someone towards whom one feels indifferent, and for an enemy). Also, this essay is primarily about the inner work of dissolving enmity. In group and social situations it can be combined with one or more of the many conflict resolution and interpersonal skills strategies and methods that are available. One which works well with what is proposed here is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (

The parable of the two arrows will be found in the Samyutta-nikaya ,xxxvi.6 (the Sallatha Sutta). The Orwell quotation is from The Collected Essays,Journalism and Letters (eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus) Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1968. v3. pp293-299. Thomas Merton quotes the river crossing parable in his Way of Chuang-Tzu, Unwin Books, 1970, p114.