Our enemies are our greatest teachers. ~The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet to avoid being imprisoned or killed by the invading Chinese. For decades, he has lived in exile. If anyone has a right to be unforgiving or hateful towards enemies, he does. And yet he doesn’t exercise that right. Instead, he offers compassion. He knows, as Buddha said, that hatred does not end hatred. Only love ends hatred.
In my martial arts school, we avoid adversarial language. For example, we spar with a “partner” instead of an “opponent.” We don’t compete for points. There is no winner or loser. Sometimes, when one partner uses a particularly effective technique, the other person might say “thank you.” Why? Because the technique revealed a weakness or vulnerability that allowed the attack to be successful. We learn from these “failures.” As one of our training slogans says, we “invest in loss.”
I used to spar with a guy named Billy. Billy had a great side kick that got through my defenses every time. Even when I knew he was going to use it, I still couldn’t get out of the way or deflect it. So when I sparred with him, I always asked him to use that technique so that I could learn. I didn’t shy away from it or get upset with him for using it. I thanked him for it. And when one day I managed to defend myself against it, we were both very happy.
In a sense, Billy was my sparring “enemy” but really he was my teacher.
The world today seems so full of enemies. What could I learn if I took one individual or group that falls in that category, and instead applied the label of teacher instead of enemy? What would I see in myself that needs work?
I had a supervisor once who was, in a word, mean. He seemed to go out of his way to keep the people he supervised on edge, wary. He delighted in bringing attention to mistakes (sometimes real, sometimes not) in a way calculated to embarrass the person. His own mistakes were always blamed on someone else. A request or suggestion to him was often met with a knee jerk denial, but if the suggestion was a good idea, he would then promote it as his own. You get the picture.
I dreaded going to work, and tried to avoid him as much as possible. Over time, however, I realized that he was not going to change, and so it was up to me to find a way to succeed in this environment. I gradually learned to adapt in a way that kept me out of direct confrontations. For example, if I needed his okay on something, I would go in his office and propose the opposite. He would predictably shoot that down and demand the option I supported. I would praise his insight and march off with the approval I needed to proceed with what I had originally wanted.
Rather than fighting him, I learned from him, and in the process became much better at my job, which involved a lot of negotiating. While we never were buddies, I had a successful working relationship with him, and his tactics no longer bothered me. Years later, after moving on to other jobs, I could look back and appreciate how much I had learned from him. He was indeed one of my greatest teachers.
Is there someone in your life you consider an enemy? It might be a family member, a neighbor, a coworker, a person who voted for (fill in the blank), a person who belongs to a group you oppose. Try for just a moment to think of that person as a teacher. What can you learn about yourself from this person? And if you can’t bring yourself to feel gratitude towards this person for what you can learn, can you soften enough to feel compassion, both for the person and for yourself?