Outrage, fear, and acrimony are in the air these days. We do have much to be concerned about, though I won’t make a list. These emotions, pent-up or straight-up, are an invisible, toxic soup, wafting like the visible wildfire smoke over the Pacific NW these days, stinging my eyes, wearying my thought processes. And isn’t that the same with the pervasive emotions of our time? Stinging, wearying, poisoning.
Then today, I remembered a protection in a two-word packet. It comes from a poet and philosopher, a champion of the wilderness, native of the Northwest, and a Zen Buddhist—Gary Snyder. I began reading him intensively a few years back on my long retreat, and felt deep gratitude for his being on the planet. I’ve been meaning to go on a little pilgrimage to the Sierras where he lives, to thank him. But by the time people are traveling around again, who knows, plus he’s 90 now.
Here it is: Sacred enemy. Those words jumped out to me from the page, in an interview with Snyder found in the book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi, Conversations With Spiritual Social Activists by Catherine Ingram. It was the briefest of mentions and I had to know more. Later I found another brief mention in his set of essays, The Practice of the Wild.
I wonder if I can sum it up. All types of beings have sacred enemies, and if you’re a non-human, there is a natural acceptance of this relationship. Some humans and cultures also understand this, even the interdependence of this relationship. The idea is that once we incorporate this, even though we continue to take our stands—as we must—the rage, fear, and acrimony drop away. “Sacred” is essential here because the whole of life with its cycles is sacred, and that means that not one iota can be rejected.
In the animal world, this is easy to see. Predators and prey—both necessary to cycles of life. Traditional sacred enemy relationships, like hawks and rabbits, are known to each other over countless millennia. Rabbits don’t resent hawks, haven’t developed extra layers of bitterness or fury. And they also don’t stop checking the air space, nor stop fleeing at the right time. No one gloats when their side wins.
What of the human sphere, where, with adversarial situations, we have a tendency to ladle on layers of complicated emotions? Snyder suggests viewing these relationships in the same way as the animal kingdom. If we view the powerful as a sacred enemy, then at the same time that we’re taking politicians to court, or organizing protest marches, or even forming debate strategies while reading the newspaper, we can take the stance that we’re in a timeless dance. Those who oppress can then more easily be viewed with compassion, that they’re caught up in some thoughtless, automatic trap bereft of their deeper humanity. And in this new perspective, our own counter-actions might be more effective, now no longer blinded by rage, cut down by fear, nor perverted by acrimony.
This perspective is one way we may bring the principles of Buddhism together with political and social activism, incorporating depth of forgiveness, compassion, and big mind to the struggles with our political adversaries – without giving up the fight. It’s by seeing the universal play at work, and we take our place in that play.
Seen from a depth psychology viewpoint, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her tome, Women Who Run With the Wolves, writes about the innate predator found within the psyche…and without. She tells us, the foe is ancient and contemporary, yet it’s not one bit about submitting.
And so, I wonder, why should we be surprised, incensed, and bitter? What if, instead, we employ “sacred enemy”? And shed the toxicity that pollutes our own heart and mind, while retaining the deeply humane and beneficial work of setting things right.
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Note: Somewhere in the murky past I came across other writing of Snyder’s where he actually explains the sacred enemy idea as it relates to the human and political realm, but I cannot now find it. If you know where it lies, what it says, please let me know.
In Pinkola Estes’ book, the points above are found in Chapter 2, “Stalking the Intruder, The Beginning Initiation.”
Photo: Daniel Mott, Stockholm, Sweden. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.