Love Your Enemies at Work

Here are five basic tips to help us all recognize the power of compassionate communication -- with our colleagues, clients and ourselves (and well, everybody else).
04/23/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

A few weeks ago, I sat on a packed uptown 2 train in Manhattan at 9 a.m., rush hour. A suited man gripping a briefcase came aboard at 28th street and began to grumble about the crowd, all the while glaring at fellow passengers. Between 34th street and 42nd street, the conductor announced that we were "being held momentarily by the train's dispatcher." The man proceeded to punch the air in front of him aggressively and spill hot coffee on his leg.

This anecdote resonated with particular force that morning given my reading material: Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman's new book Love Your Enemies, an inspiring and practical guide for how to "break the anger habit" and find emotional freedom from the four kinds of enemies in the world around us and within ourselves. Based on my reading, I felt better able to make sense of the situation: The businessman seemed to identify the situation of the delay and the crowd as a kind of situational enemy -- external harm, threat, a catalyst for tremendous anger and frustration. His anger and frustration then joined forces to become another enemy, a propeller of negativity that lead the man to spill coffee, make a scene and, more likely than not, pile self-blame onto the whole scenario. In this situation alone, four enemies are at work.

First is the "outer enemy," perhaps the most obvious of the four: These are the people, institutions and situations that harm, threaten or frustrate us. Next is the "inner enemy," the feelings that arise in response to the outer enemy: anger, hatred, fear and so on. These are the destructive impulses that encourage us to abide by the "Us vs. Them" mentality, which only preserves our feelings of separation and alienation. Then is the "secret enemy," our tendency to fixate on who we are in terms of an unchanging self-perception: "I am like this,"or "I will never be like that." This enemy only exacerbates the "Us vs. Them" mentality, keeping us from recognizing the possibility for change and emotional freedom. Finally is the "super-secret enemy," the mechanism of inner judgment, that force of self-loathing, that which leads us to become, as the saying goes, our own worst enemies. After all, spilling coffee on yourself doesn't make the crowded subway car move faster or become any less crowded.

There are a striking number of ways in which Love Your Enemies can be put into powerful dialogue with Salzberg's other new book, Real Happiness at Work, an inspiring and practical guide for how to find "real happiness" in the workplace through cultivating balance, concentration, compassion and other so-called "pillars of happiness." According to recent research, eight out of 10 Americans report feeling work-related stress. The struggles we face with our outer and inner enemies that Salzberg and Thurman outline in Love Your Enemies are dynamics we have all experienced on the job at one point or another, regardless of profession or particular work-environment. They are also dynamics that affect our state of being in situations surrounding work -- such as riding to work on a delayed, crowded subway car.

I have considered the question of how to Love Your Enemies as a way to access Real Happiness at Work. Here are five basic tips to help us all recognize the power of compassionate communication -- with our colleagues, clients and ourselves (and well, everybody else).

1. Choose acceptance over avoidance.

Sometimes when we feel great antipathy toward a person, an "outer enemy," we want to look the other way and avoid the issue all together. This can become especially exaggerated in the confines of an office environment, where the prospect of a confrontation with a colleague just a few doors down seems like too much to handle. However, research has shown that when we attempt to suppress our anger, we can end up turning that anger inward. Suppressing anger can lead to chronic symptoms such as hypertension, high blood pressure and depression.

That's why it is beneficial to confront the negative scenario rather than avoid it. This doesn't mean storming into your colleague's office and yelling or becoming physically aggressive. But there are ways of acknowledging feelings of negativity and dealing with them -- without becoming emotionally or physically aggressive. Specifically, we can use the practice of mindfulness to change our relationship to our negative experiences and feelings regarding this person. Recent research has even shown that mindfulness meditation can bring about measurable effects on our sense of self, empathy and stress levels. This simple exercise is an opportunity to recognize that we are not so different than our enemies -- that the stories our minds create are primarily responsible for how we relate to our experiences and emotions.

a. Bring a person you consider an "outer enemy" into your mind and acknowledge your feelings for that person.
b. Put yourself in your enemy's shoes. Try to imagine looking at yourself from his/her perspective, even if it means summoning jealousy, envy, condescension and so on.
c. Recognize that in performing the previous step (b), you made yourself vulnerable to the judgment and ill will of your enemy by seeing yourself as fundamentally different from them.
d. Try to enumerate in your mind the basic ways in which you and your enemy are the same -- namely, that you both share a desire to be happy deep down.
e. Try to imagine how your enemy's friends and family regard him/her.
f. Then try to imagine your enemy being happy and being happy to see you.

2. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

It really works -- there is a reason the idiom exists! Salzberg and Thurman encourage us to be grateful to our outer enemies for inviting us to practice the virtues of patience, courage and determination. If you find yourself overwhelmed by a demanding array clients or condescended to by a supervisor, try integrating a mindfulness practice into your routine. Take five breaths before each phone call on your agenda. Take a quick walk around your office, noting how each foot feels as it makes contact with the floor. Whatever the practice, recognize that emotional freedom is available to you. We can choose to fixate on negative people and scenarios or let go of them. Plus, feelings like anger and frustration don't even make us stronger. Instead, they cloud our judgment and make us exert our finite supply of energy toward negative ends, rather than use it to make ourselves more productive or at ease.

3. Jump for joy.

When those around you experience something positive, experiment with the Buddhist practice of "sympathetic joy." We typically think of "sympathy" as related to pity, feeling bad for somebody. But here we mean it in terms of feeling good about someone else's positive experiences. In that sense, it may more aptly be called empathetic joy, as empathy refers to the ability to share the feelings of another, rather than simply acknowledge them. When a co-worker gets a raise or promotion, it can invite feelings of heightened competition and jealousy, classic examples of the inner enemy. This stems from the false assumption that the co-worker in question is taking away our opportunities for a raise or promotion. These feelings definitely reinforce the false and painful "Us vs. Them" dynamic. Cultivating good relationships with colleagues is not just a mildly pleasant alternative to feeling disdainful of coworkers; rather, it is a powerful means of becoming happier and more productive at work.

This doesn't mean we won't feel any jealousy, but it is a matter of how we respond to jealousy. Rather than cling to it and allow it to fuel feelings of anger, deluded self-perception and eventual shame, recognize it and let it go. Use the opportunity of feeling jealous as just that -- an opportunity.

4. "Give and Take"

It is admittedly easy to confuse the virtuous practice of self-care with self-preoccupation, the less-than-virtuous habit that keeps us locked into perceiving ourselves, our behaviors and attitudes, in a stubborn and rigid way. This "Give and Take" meditation is one of the valuable exercises Salzberg and Thurman outline as an actionable way to neutralize our hostility and fear of our enemies. All it takes is breathing and an open heart.

a. On the in-breath, we use our imaginations to envision ourselves taking in the pain of others -- including our enemies.
b. Then, we imagine their suffering dissolve into our open hearts.
c. On our out-breath, we recognize the feelings of happiness that well up in us as we recognize the possibility of emotional freedom from our self-preoccupations, of turning our suffering into growth.

5. Visualize Infinite Alternatives

Meditation can take on various forms, one of which is called visualization or guided imagery meditation. In whatever form we practice, meditation allows us to observe the intricate ways in which our minds contour reality, convincing us to believe in an immutable self and reality. This is limiting, and prohibits us from recognizing our common humanity. This exercise is geared toward challenging our assumptions about other people and ourselves as always distinguished by the staid "Us vs. Them" dynamic. From there, we can recognize our common bonds, and prioritize our tasks at hand over our personal ego.

a. Begin by focusing inward.
b. Recognize that you can't find a fixed identity everywhere; there is infinite potential inside of you to enact new behaviors and establish new attitudes toward experience.
c. Draw upon this infinite energy to imagine yourself manifesting whatever it is that you and all those you love want and need.