Avoiding Your Near Enemy
Any good tool, technique, practice, or philosophy, can help you out of suffering and into greater happiness and love. When that tool, technique, practice, or philosophy is taken too far, it can become a dogmatic trap that creates unhappiness and suffering. That dual edged sword applies to the tools, techniques, and practices I teach as well. The Buddhists refer to this dynamic as a “Near Enemy.”
A hammer can pound a nail so you can hang your picture. Miss the nail and you hurt your finger. A skill saw or table saw can cut that piece of wood just right and help you build a house. But if you cut a board the wrong length it costs you time, money, and you have a pile of waste. That same saw helping you build your house can also take off a finger.
Tools can help you build a home and everything in it so you are warm and comfortable. They can also hurt you if you mishandle those tools. There are techniques you apply to changing your beliefs and emotions so you can be happier. Take them too far, or misuse them, which is what the ego will try to do, and you hurt your self or others unnecessarily.
Acceptance vs. Boundaries
The practice of acceptance can allow you to be gentle with your self. It’s a new inner communication softening the words of the inner critic and even dissolving them completely. It’s a way to relax internally that you feel physically and emotionally. If taken further you dissolve judgmental criticisms in your mind about other people. This can relieve you of lots of toxic thoughts and emotions in your head. If you take the practice of acceptance too far you allow people to be disrespectful to you and take advantage of you. You avoid putting up boundaries with abusive critical people when it is called for.
Then, when you feel the emotional consequence of the other party’s disrespect, your overdeveloped faith in the acceptance tool tells you that you aren’t doing it right. You should be more accepting of people who disrespect you. You end up telling your self, “If I was just more accepting of them and myself then their words wouldn’t bother me so much.” Self judging words inflict more emotional harm. This is the result when you try harder with a tool that you have already taken too far.
It is a fine point of balance to stand in acceptance of your self while you push forward with changes on your emotions and beliefs. You will probably cross over this balance point many times before you stabilize on it. That’s just part of the practice.
Left or Right? Which way do I go?
More than once people have pointed out what seemed to be contradictions or problems with the tools I share. Often the problem is that the understanding of the practice has been exaggerated or taken too far and is no longer helpful. Being mindful that any practice or technique can be taken too far and it becomes harmful will help you be more skillful in your practice.
One student complained to his teacher, “A while back you said I should do more of A. and now you are saying that I should do more of B. That’s almost the exact opposite of A. I think you are contradicting your self. The teacher responded, “Yes I did tell you those things. That’s because last month you were veering too far off the path to the right. So I told you to come left. Now you are veering too far left and leaving the path so I’m suggesting you move more to the right.”
Work Ethic vs. Rest and Play
Lisa has a well developed work ethic. She applies it to everything. When she took on my Self Mastery program she went at it with the same work ethic she applied to her education, her job, and her triathlon training. She made a lot of progress fast. She saw a lot of amazing changes within her self and changes in her relationships and her life. That inspired her to work the program harder. Her discipline and consistent focus of time and attention was reaping rewards. However as hard as she worked, some issues still hadn’t changed.
A conversation with Lisa revealed that no matter how hard she worked, she still wasn’t getting there as fast as she wanted. “Where do you want to get to?” I asked.
Lisa described an extensive number of big changes she still wanted to make, including achieving levels of emotional mastery.
“What is driving you to push so hard to make those changes?” I asked.
Lisa was quiet for a while and then said, “It seems like it is a critical voice in my head of the inner Judge.”
“And how do you feel when it is beating you up for not working hard enough?” I asked.
Lisa took some time to think and feel into the dynamic. “I feel like I’m not good enough. Like I am lazy, like I’m failing,” she said.
“So let me get this straight. There is an image of perfection you have in your mind that your belief system says you should get to. It’s a kind of super spiritual ego image. Your judge is there pushing you to it, criticizing you for not being that image already. All under the assumption that it knows the time line for how long these changes take. And the result of believing in the image of perfection, and the inner Judge is that you push your self hard every day, and feel like a failure of a victim while you do it. Is that about right?”
“That’s about right,” she said.
It turned out that some of the motivation for doing this inner work was being driven by the same judge/victim belief system of suffering that existed in other areas of her life. A strong work ethic has rewarded her well in life and she should benefit from it. It seemed she was over using her “go to” tool and in the process abusing her self with it.
Some of Lisa’s work ethic was driven by the harsh critic voice of the inner judge. The more she followed what it said, the more she reinforced the Image of Perfection beliefs and Victim feelings as well. The result was that the “hard work” dynamic was reinforcing negative beliefs instead of allowing her freedom from them.
Balance and Moderation
Lisa’s new assignment was to take some time off during the week and have fun. Go do things just for enjoyment and pleasure. Maybe it was a day off from the inner work, maybe it was an afternoon here and there where she didn’t need to struggle to be “aware.”
At first Lisa resisted this approach thinking she wanted to go faster.
“It will help you to go faster,” I said. “It’s a different way of accomplishing the same thing. Right now the strong work ethic approach has been corrupted by judgment and victimization. It is inflicting emotional suffering which is what we are trying to alleviate. So it is time to back off that pattern and work on changing those beliefs a different way for now.”
I explained that the new approach of taking time during the week to enjoy your life and have fun is actually a different way to break the pattern of the Judge/Victim beliefs causing suffering. When you are laughing, you are not in self judgment or a victim state of suffering. When you are playing and having fun you are not in a judge/victim state of mind. When you are enjoying you life you are freeing your self from suffering. These are all ways to transcend the emotional suffering of the judge/victim mind. Going out during the week and taking time off to enjoy your life is a direct way to do it.
In one of the early emails you get after signing up for the Self Mastery Course I tell people to make time to have fun. I think many people over look this point or don’t understand the importance at the time.
Practice all things in balance and moderation. Any approach, even the “hard work” approach can be taken too far and trip up your steps down your Pathway to Happiness.
Any self help tool or technique can help you to be free of unhappiness. The same technique can also be misused, abused, and exaggerated and become self destructive to your process. This is why the Buddhists call them “Near Enemy’s” They start out as your friend and you hold it close. But if you hold too tightly it becomes distorted or exaggerated enough to become an Enemy that is hurting you.
It will take time to learn how to properly use the many different techniques effectively. You will no doubt misuse some at times, particularly in the beginning. That’s to be expected and is okay. The over all use of any practice should help more than hurt. And with practice you will become more skillful with each exercise so that after a while you don’t use it against your self, or others, at all.
It’s not just practice that will make you a master, but skillful practice will make you a skillful master. In the beginning things may be a bit clumsy, but so is everyone when they start something new. The way to solve that is to practice and observe what happens. Put the tools into action and allow your self the freedom to change how you use them in a way that works for you. That will help you avoid becoming dogmatic.
As you practice each tool, do so while being aware of the results as best you can. Be aware that you can take it too far, become too dogmatic, or become too attached to its use. If you keep each practice in moderation and balance it with skillful use, you can avoid using these tools as Near Enemy’s against your self.
Hope that helps.
Specific exercises and practices for becoming more mindful and changing beliefs can be found in the Self Mastery Course. The first few sessions are free for you to try.
In summary: a Near Enemy is a Buddhist term used to describe how the ego distorts a useful spiritual practice into one that causes more suffering.1