There is a tradition on the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog. Every Monday, I cite a quote or a poem that is related to mindfulness and psychotherapy in some way and then explore it a bit and how it is relevant to our lives. For me, quotes and poetry can often sink me into a state of greater understanding. So for today, here is a quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.
First, in order to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s define hostility. Hostility, in the way I am using it, is a sense of internal ill-will toward someone: In other words, wishing someone harm. When it is hostile action, it can be identified as aggression.
At the core, we are all human being that are born into this world with a set of genetic predispositions, but also with a brain ready to be shaped by its environment. If you have a spiritual background, you also have your own beliefs as to what a baby in this world is born with.
However, somewhere along the way, babies and children come into contact with some of the potential harsh realities of life. We all experience trauma (less severe) or Trauma (more severe) growing up, and this affects our ability to discern and regulate ourselves as we get older. Maybe the parents were so overstressed that there was very little empathy that came toward the child and, as Dan Siegel has said many times, the child didn’t “feel felt.” Or maybe there was physical or sexual abuse, leaving the child to internalize shame and anger toward him- or herself and project it out onto the world. Or maybe the child was overweight and so was made fun of growing up, only to leave a deep wound of insecurity.
Everyone has a story and those that react with violence or in a way that hurts others are more than likely feeling major hurt and pain themselves. This is not to condone their actions, but it is meant to allow us to relate to them differently, in a way that reduces our sense of hostility because, at the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves, where does hostility get us? How does wishing someone harm work for us?
In my experience, it creates a burning in my chest and pressure in my head. It distracts me from what is most important in my life and, therefore, I allow the person to continue to harm me, but now it’s me doing it, not them. That’s the net effect for me. That doesn’t mean my anger goes away, but there is a difference between anger and hostility. Anger is a pure emotion that tells us something is imbalanced, but hostility adds the element of wishing ill will and is more likely to lead to aggressive actions.
What would it be like to see this person as a little baby, with all their life afflictions? As a potential extreme act, what would it be like to have compassion for this person? What would be the net effect of this for you? This may be easier to do if the experience is a small trauma or someone cutting you off on the freeway. However, there are many triggering thoughts that may arise if you have experienced severe trauma at someone’s hands (e.g. death of a loved one, physical abuse, sexual abuse).
I am not suggesting some Pollyanna quick shift in perspective; this takes practice in come to terms with the feelings that are present and actively considering that the other person is a human being potentially deeply wounded and suffering greatly. A compassion practice likes this may take quite some time to begin rewiring the brain to think in this direction.
The lovingkindness practice is an entre into compassion work. The reason it is a way to move toward this is because it doesn’t solely focus on the person who has committed the aggressive act. It focuses first on us and then moves out to many people, wishing them what we deeply wish for ourselves.
Click on the link above to see the practice and try this out in general and see what you experience, whether you have a specific person that you feel hostility toward or not. You can also do this informally throughout the day.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and question below. This is a place where your words become a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.