Near Enemies of Mindfulness

True enemies may be easy to spot, but what about “near enemies“? If near enemies were people, we might call them “frenemies”. A near enemy is a subtle quality that we may miss or confuse as useful or helpful when, in fact, it can become an obstacle to practice that is hidden from us or in disguise.

Far enemies are often very obvious because they seem to be the total opposite of the beneficial qualities we are intending to cultivate. Near enemies, on the other hand, tend to be subtle because they appear similar to the beneficial mental state on the surface, Its only upon closer inspection that we discover they are not. Near enemies often involve comparison (especially self-referencing) and elements of insincerity or even hypocrisy.

For example, the far enemy of lovingkindness is ill-will or hatred, which is unmistakable in ourselves and others. Once we have been practicing mindfulness for a while, we learn to spot this aversion fairly quickly and choose to apply an antidote when appropriate. A near enemy of lovingkindness is attachment or greed – this can be harder to spot. When we offer well-wishes to others primarily because it benefits us in some way or we are expecting some specific outcome, this hidden intention can distort our thoughts and actions and lead to unhelpful ripple effects.

Flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds spring up with our aversion. – Dogen (Zen Master)

A near enemy of appreciative joy might include exhilaration – an over-the-top feeling of exuberance about another’s happiness that really just serves to pacify our own sense of lack. Another near enemy might include pride – when we appreciate others’ success merely in how it reflects upon us. We can contrast this with the more obvious far enemies of appreciative joy, which might include jealousy (the fear that others will take what we perceive as ours) or envy (the resent-filled desire for what others have).

Compassion has near enemies as well, which include pity, sympathy, despair and something I call firefighting.  When we allow our sorrow about the sufferings of the world to overcome us, we can shut down and feel hopeless, preventing us from taking action – or causing us to take unwise action. A sense of equality and interconnection accompanies true compassion, while pity arises from a view of the other as disadvantaged, unfortunate, separate, or less than in some way. These wrong views can perpetuate unhelpful habits and subtly undermine our efforts to benefit others.

Sorrow is a near enemy to compassion and to love. It is borne of sensitivity and feels like empathy. But it can paralyze and turn us back inside with a sense that we can’t possibly make a difference… But compassion goes about finding the work that can be done. Love can’t help but stay present. ― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

A near enemy of equanimity is indifference or callousness. Mindfulness means being with what is non-judgmentally, not hardening ourselves against what is unwanted. How can we respond open-heartedly from a foundation of nihilism? Another near enemy to equanimity is ignorance, meaning that we are mistaking not knowing for calm and serenity. Facing an obstacle with courage requires a true understanding of what one is up against – otherwise, its merely foolhardiness.

True equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things. Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the pleasure and pain. It eliminates clinging and aversion. – Jack Kornfield, Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are

Just like anything else we encounter in life, near enemies are workable. It may help to remember the quote, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” A dedicated mindfulness practice awakens us to ever-subtler layers of consciousness – our habits, patterns, biases, and blind spots. By acknowledging and examining near enemies as they arise, we are better equipped to respond to them with wisdom.

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1 reply
  1. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    There is one serious flaw in any discussion of “near enemies” and that is that no two people have the same understanding of ANY word. One person understands “pity” in the way described here in this article but another may understand pity in a more biblical way, as empathy or, indeed, compassion. Don’t believe me? If you plug “pity” into the VERY FIRST synonym is… wait for it… “compassion”. Human communication is a VERY MESSY thing. We must all be wary of this disconnect when we may seek to teach others. And the very first lesson is to say, “well… you’re not wrong”.


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