How can we put into action the spiritual injunction to love our enemies? Here are ten ideas:
1. Consider the enemy as a brother.
In Richard’s Chilson’s book Yeshua of Nazareth he recalls an incident where he was stuck behind a slow car. Being in a hurry, he was irate until he pulled up beside the person and recognized a close friend. Whenever you get irritated by others' behavior, stop and consider if you would feel the same if they were your dear friends. Try to identify what you have in common with them.
2. End the internal venting.
Some people trigger narratives in our heads no matter what they do or say. The story is already written before we see them or interact with them, leading to an internal venting session. This inner monologue can even continue when we are with them. Kathleen Schmitt Elias experiments with this practice when she catches herself in this state, “I stop the inner narration, gaze consciously at the person I'm with, and in my heart I say Hineini, here I am — and here you are, and here God is. The effect is miraculous. I relax, the other person relaxes, and the difficult moment passes.”
3. Honor your emotions.
Your emotions are always trying to communicate something. Oftentimes, we dismiss them too easily. When anger, discomfort, or anxiety emerge, welcome them and acknowledge they are there. Imam Jamal Rahman suggests, “Just lower your eyelids for a second, take a conscious breath to center yourself, and do your best to remember that God is right there in the middle of the situation. Then, at the earliest opportunity, take time to revisit your unhappy feelings and really be present with them. They are just energy that is begging to be acknowledged, healed, and integrated.”
4. Pray for your enemy.
Think about a person opposed to you right now. Could you pray for them? Praying for our enemies does not mean praying with an agenda such as wishing that harm come to them or asking God to make them see the error of their ways. Rather, try not even using words. “Picture them in the hands of God,” Barbara Cawthorne Crafton writes, “Just lift them up to God for blessing, the same blessing for which you yourself long.” Crafton explains when we do this, a foe becomes human to us: “You will come to understand that there is more to him than the part you despise. This is the beginning of healing.”
5. Do a Self-examination.
Oftentimes when we are in conflict, we focus on the “other.” But what if we turn the attention towards ourselves? As you contemplate a conflict, remember the event. What was the setting? What was the “other” doing? In The Forgiveness Handbook, Nannette Sawyer says to then notice your feelings and sensations. Are your muscles tight? Are you nauseous? Name the feelings you are experiencing like anger, frustration, or sadness. If one emotion becomes more prominent, stay with it and ask where it is coming from? Acknowledge the emotion is there and accept it. As Sawyer explains, “As you practice receptivity and reverence toward yourself, your awareness may expand and your adversarial feelings may begin to loosen their grip within you.”
6. Build a relationship with one person.
Those who oppose us can often feel like an entire group or we can be manipulated to feel that way. Instead of focusing on a large group, attempt to reach out and build a relationship with one person from the “other side.” This could be a member of your family or someone of a different faith or political view. You could start by just praying for the person (see practice 4), but if led to, you could schedule a time to get coffee or lunch. Open the conversation by asking questions about the person's life story. It might be awkward at first, but relationships take time to build. You may not agree on every issue, but remind yourself, as Jamal Rahman says, “The individual's behavior or opinions might seem unacceptable, but the person's being is sacred and divine.”
7. Frame a picture of your enemy.
In holy buildings and even in homes you will sometimes find a picture of a saint, a teacher, or a shaykh. Some frame pictures of Jesus, the Dalai Lama, a guru, or another figure. But what if you frame a picture of someone you are opposed to? By framing a picture of someone who has done something despicable in your eyes, you are inviting yourself to see them every day as an image bearer of God. Perhaps you light a candle next to the picture for a few minutes to invite God into the situation causing you anger and grief. In this way we honor the humanity in the person, but do not need to approve of his or her deeds.
8. Learn from the Dalai Lama.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from the perspective of one who had to flee his country and has seen his people suffer persecution, has many wise things to say about loving our enemies. He suggests a Buddhist practice called Tonglen. In this meditation, you breathe in the “poison” from a conflict: “I breathe in all their poisons — hatred, fear, cruelty. Then I breathe out. And I let all the good things come out, things like compassion, forgiveness. I take inside my body all these bad things. Then I replace poisons with fresh air.” He says an enemy can be an important spiritual guide in our journeys, serving as a wake-up call to invest in practicing patience, kindness, and compassion in all our relationships.
9. Read a children’s book.
We tell children in our circles of life to practice kindness, empathy, and share. We invest in educational programs to stop bullying and increase children's self-esteem. Many good lessons are conveyed in books (and let's be honest: sometimes children's books hit home for adults too). For instance, in The Very Mean Word, Desmund Tutu shares an incident from his childhood. He’s bullied by a group of white boys after receiving a new bike. His local priest tells Desmond that if he gives in to hatred and revenge, nothing will change and the cycle of hatred will go on forever. Forgiveness is a better path. See our list of Seven Children's Books on How to Love Your Enemies.
10. Sing a blessing.
You know those moments when someone cuts you off on the freeway, jumps ahead in a line, or says something hurtful? These are moments, Kathleen Schmitt Elias says, “that raise the blood pressure much higher than warranted.” And you've probably become riled up when dealing with other more potent enemies. Elias takes those moments and transforms them by singing one of the priestly blessings in the Torah “Y'varekh'kha Adonai v'yish'm'rekha — May the Eternal One bless you and protect you! (Num. 6:24).” It might not change the situation, she reports, but it will change you. You will be able to let go of your anger and remember the goodness in all people.
For other practices on Loving Your Enemies and more resources, please visit our Topic on Enemies.