Friends are nice, but enemies are the money.
I have a little Thanksgiving tradition of writing a thank you letter to someone.
Today I’d like to give a belated thanks to a recent ‘enemy,’ and share my “Gratitude System” for how to bring more gratitude into your life.
(ps – the stopwatch read time for this email is 2 minutes and 2 seconds and it reads best in one chunk.)
During the vipassana retreat I did this November (10 days of silent meditation, up to 10 hrs a day), I made some friends, and I made one really special enemy. I’ll call her Sighing Girl.
It was a full course. The meditation hall was at capacity with nearly 100 people sitting in silence in unmoving adhitthana (meaning, you’re not supposed to shift your body position or make any noise whatsoever for each full hour of meditation).
It was hard enough dealing with the noise inside my mind and in my body for an hour at a time, but on the fourth day, I started noticing a constant stream of loud, dramatic sighs erupting from one of my neighbors.
She would sigh every thirty seconds. Like she was the only one going through something uncomfortable. Like she was exempt from adhitthana. Like she was the Princess Meditator who could lay out all her sounds and emotions onto her neighbors whenever she felt taken by the passion.
I visualized my conversation with the retreat manager, imagined how I would assume polite humility and yet still manage to divert appropriate blame onto Sighing Girl for disturbing all of the rest of us.
The next day, during a very sigh-filled afternoon session, Sighing Girl suddenly stopped sighing. Sighing Girl stopped sighing and started sobbing, right there in the middle of the meditation hall, in the middle of the meditation hour, in the middle of the 10-day retreat.
I felt my own throat swell, my own eyes sting.
I felt I wanted to embrace her and pat her curly hair, and I did, in my mind.
I didn’t have time to narrate a rationalization (“She’s just lost her mother to brain cancer!” “She’s reliving a near-death experience!”).
I just felt a love, and I didn’t think to ask why.
I don’t know why she sobbed, why she couldn’t stop despite seeming to try very hard. It could have been her mother’s tragic death. It could have been a self-indulgent “why am I wasting my week here when I could be in Cancun with my boyfriend” moment.
It didn’t matter because it wasn’t about what lived inside Sighing/Sobbing Girl’s heart. It was about what was closed inside my own.
Sighing Girl had shown me a little something hidden about myself; my ‘enemy’ had once again become my teacher. I lifted the rug on a layer of reactivity that I hadn’t touched in the 7 days of meditation that had passed so far. Good, a spot that I’d missed.
But more important, my enemy offered a path of deliverance from that same reactivity.
Sighing Girl gave me a chance to practice, and yet her gift didn’t stop at just the opportunity itself. I got a practice space, a time, and some guidelines. Sitting there in that hall with her day after day, the only way out was through.
Later, after my irritation at her had broken and we had reached the last day of the retreat, I caught Sighing Girl’s eye. She had really beautiful eyes.
She looked at me, and her eyes started to smile. Then her whole face smiled, a huge unstoppable smile like we had both gotten the joke at the same moment.
This enemy — whether it was really her and her sighing or just my own mind doesn’t in fact matter — had carried me through a river crossing, and now here I was on the other side.
How to have gratitude
It’s a big pop-psychology trend these days to talk about having gratitude.
Gratitude is supposed to make you happier, live longer, lose weight, poverty-stricken people in India are happier than affluent people in Atherton, California because they feel thankful for what they have, etc.
But how do you actually do it? Especially when something makes you angry?
Sighing Girl helped me to see that there’s a systematic process to having gratitude — you simply tackle it in stages.
First comes pity — from sighing to crying.
Then, a challenge: can you have not just pity but compassion?
Compassion as in, Hey I can relate to this… I can relate to that feeling of wanting to sob out my sadness.
Then, the next challenge. Can you have not just compassion but gratitude?
Pity opens the door to compassion. Compassion unlocks the floodgate to gratitude. And gratitude isn’t a place, but a road to insight, a fuel for all inspiration, all creativity, all productivity.
Love your enemies because you can relax when you stop fighting them.
Thank your enemies because they’ll carry you to greater clarity, illuminate what was previously darkened and show you the way through. All you have to do is be open to hitching a ride.
Thanks, Sighing Girl.
It could be an annoying person like my Sighing Girl, or it could be an illness, a tedious work project, a financial setback, a hangnail on your thumb.
What enemies are you thankful for?
Like this essay? I’m glad!
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