Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.
quoted in “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön 2001
Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hatred alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.
The Dhammapada: Teachings of the Buddha translated from the Pali by Gil Fronsdal 2008
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.
“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html
Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.
“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html
These are four translations of the same verses from the Dhammapada, a collection of short sayings attributed to the Buddha. They’re a distillation of one of the key principles of the Buddha’s teachings – the principle of non-harming – and no matter how the central message is translated here, I still find it to be a challenging statement.
Over the last few weeks, because I’ve had a few conversations with people who are struggling to deal with hatred, I’ve been inspired to contemplate this teaching again, to try to find ways of engaging with it as a practice and not only a statement of principle. Part of the challenge of these verses for me is that on first reading, they can appear so black and white that they unconsciously reinforce a kind of hatred towards my own hatred. Because if I was practising right, hostility just wouldn’t come up any more, would it? Instead, I’d be abiding healed by love, happily ever after …
With this assumption, when hatred does come up the tendency is to disown, deny, suppress, ignore it – anything to get away from the discomfort of it! And in Buddhist circles, one very common strategy is to use metta practice to try to get rid of even the slightest trace of hostility. Metta (usually translated as “loving-kindness,” but more accurately good will or benevolence), is one of four skilful mind-states known as the brahma-viharas, that can be cultivated through specific meditation practices. The other three are compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity (or balance of mind), but metta is seen as the foundation of all four and it tends to get the most emphasis in Western vipassana teaching. It’s often presented as a kind of universal antidote to all negative emotions or mind-states, so it’s not surprising that many meditators tend to jump to metta as a way to bypass difficult feelings.
I’ve often tried this strategy myself, but sadly, it’s never been very successful. If anything, it’s tended to make me feel worse, because not only is the original hatred untouched, there’s now a whole pile of self-judgement and shame on top of it, due to the failure of my metta practice to make any difference whatosever!
Recently, what has been more effective is to first recognise the hatred of the hatred, and then to apply the ancient truth of non-hatred to the hatred itself. This means being willing to explore the unpleasant feelings in the body and the heart-mind, with as much compassion – rather than metta – as possible. Compassion is the courage to face into what’s difficult: to be with the uncomfortable sensations in the body and the distressing emotions in the heart-mind, without feeding or suppressing them. This means not rehashing the story of what happened, not trying to resolve the situation in our heads yet again, not getting caught in replaying what should have been said or done. Instead, it’s consciously bringing the attention down into a more embodied awareness.
This can be done as a formal meditation practice, by making a resolution to simply be with the hatred for a set period of time, and to investigate all of its physical and mental symptoms. I’ve found that lying down to do this can be helpful, because it’s easier to relax the whole body when lying down. In the same way, placing one hand on the heart-centre and one on the belly can help to connect with a more embodied and intuitive understanding of hatred. Then, when any uncomfortable physical or mental feelings come up, try to stay with them with an attitude of kind curiosity, gently opening to whatever arises with as much compassion as you can.
This is definitely a practice, because having compassion towards oneself in this way is not something that comes easily to most people. Often when I suggest it, the first response is almost one of horror, because self-compassion often seems to be mistaken for a form of self-centredness. So it’s important to have patience for the process, and recognise that because it’s not our usual way of relating to hatred, it will take time to develop this new approach.
And, if the hatred is very strong, it might be necessary to put a strict limit on the amount of time you’re willing to be with it in meditation. That way, it won’t wear you down so that you end up getting lost in the story of it again. For example, it could be helpful to set a timer for perhaps only thirty seconds to begin with.
When the time is up, you can bring the meditation to a close by deliberately changing focus to contemplate something positive for a few moments. This helps to establish a positive feedback loop in the mind, that strengthens the willingness to be with discomfort. For example, you could think of a situation in your life where you feel safe and at ease; or a person or pet that you naturally feel good will towards; or an aspect of your character that others appreciate; or simply acknowledge your own courage in having faced into the hatred for a few moments. All of these are forms of the brahma viharas mentioned above, and they can help to reduce any negative residue that might be left from having explored the hatred a little.
The goal of this practice is not to get rid of the hatred, but to cultivate a wiser relationship to it. Being with the hatred in small doses, we start to see that like everything else, it’s impermanent, it’s stressful, and it’s not under my control. It becomes possible to take it less seriously, and with repeated practice, we develop the capacity to be with it more fully, for longer. At some point, we might be able to set the timer for sixty seconds, then two minutes, five minutes … Eventually, instead of hating the hatred, we start to see the pain that hatred causes more clearly. Then, we start to care not only about our own pain, but the pain of the person or people we formerly hated, too, and our compassion extends to include their suffering. In this way, hatred does become “healed by love alone:” but as a natural process, one that takes all the time it needs and can never be forced.