The American cartoonist, Walt Kelly, seems to be remembered largely for the utterance of his possum cartoon character, Pogo, who proclaimed, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Kelly contrived Pogo, who lived in a swamp, to say this to highlight the human degradation of the physical environment.
I am not denying that was an insightful statement but if he had been a little more prescient he might have recognised that the statement was also true of how we manage our psychic environment. Certainly from my point of view most of our human suffering results from our own wrong-minded thinking. Our pain emanates from our own aberrant thoughts.
I have written in previous essays about the fact that we ascribe meaning to our worlds and the events that transpire within them. As the good Dr Phil says, “Nothing comes to us with its meaning attached.” The meaning we attach to things is largely fashioned by our world-view. Our world-view in turn is an internal construct. Thus in many ways how we experience our exterior world is determined by the state of our interior world. It is therefore a truism to say that if we don’t like our world it is not usually the world that has to change but us!
So it is therefore easy to agree with Pogo in a far broader sense. And how often have we heard people say, “He is his own worst enemy!” not understanding how broadly true this is if a person holds an inappropriate world-view.
Buddhism talks of Kleshas which are the afflictive emotions we all experience that cause us pain including such things as greed, anger, hate, delusion, conceit and so on.
Most of us in our ignorance and lack of awareness believe that we are the passive receivers of such emotions. Buddhism understands that these afflictions arise from an untrained mind and offers techniques to demonstrate how the mind might be conditioned to resist such emotions. In essence it recognises that the problem is not “out there” but “in here”!
Let us take a example.
Suppose in my discourse with someone they utter some derogatory remark.
How am I to deal with this?
There are probably at least three responses.
The first response, which is typical from the unaware and those who are ignorant of the true nature of humanity will be to be offended. My fragile sense of self is threatened and I respond angrily, self-righteously and defensively and as a result mount an attack against my supposed accuser. The person, responding with anger, sees you as an enemy to be protected against or overcome.
The second response is probably a little more enlightened but also a response in defence of my ego. It reflects the fact that I believe I am better than my protagonist and as a result I am able to “turn the other cheek”. They behave badly towards me out of malice and they need to be corrected. Because of my righteousness I will allow them some latitude because they are not as enlightened as I am. Because I know what is “right”, it is obvious what behaviours I should approve of and what I should abhor. It is then obvious who I should praise and who I should condemn. A person using this response does not see you so much as an enemy but acts more like a parent disapproving of your action and seeking to have you change.
The third response would be to acknowledge that I am just as vulnerable as the other. Their mistake is one I can just as easily fall into if I drop my awareness. Such a response results in us being non-judgmental, quiet and reasonable in all our interpersonal relationships. Would not the lack of judgment enable those with behavioural problems to assess them more objectively without rancour or the distraction of ego-defense?
We need to be vigilant. There are parts of our psyche lying in ambush which if unnoticed will cause us to act in the same unproductive way driven by wrong-mindedness. We are then of course our “own worst enemies” driven by ego, accentuating separation and divisiveness and sacrificing our equanimity.
The good Dr Phil, many years ago now, introduced me to his Four Factor Model of human behavior. I have shared this with you previously and indeed it was included in our little book “The Myth of Nine to Five”. The first three factors which help determine our behavior are:
- Our biological history.
It is well understood in today’s world that genetics have a substantial impact on human behaviour.
- Our socialization
We know that we learn many of our behaviours from an early age because of our human desire to want to belong and be approved by significant others.
- Our environmental circumstances
Our environment provides stimuli we have to respond to and offers opportunities for certain behaviours and constraints for others.
By and large we have no control over these three factors, and if these were the only three factors the model would be quite determinist and our behaviours could not in any way be said to be due to our own volition.
The fourth factor however, whilst not often brought to consciousness, is our world-view. We can modify our world-view and it has a huge impact on our behaviour. Whilst I won’t have the opportunity in this short essay to demonstrate this to you, there are in fact only two basic kinds of world-view. (I have addressed this in previous blogs or you might want to read our book The Myth of Nine to Five to learn more.)
Our two basic options are either to view the world through a paradigm of Fear or a paradigm of Love.
Many of us, identifying with our physical being, feel vulnerable and as a result put in place defense mechanisms to shore up a misguided sense of security. When I strive to assert my separateness, I naturally seek to compete, prove my superiority, emphasise my specialness and so on. From this point of view I need to win and succeed at any cost. This paradigm is ego driven. As a result we need constant reassurance that we are somehow special and important. It is this world-view that largely drives us to be subject to the kleshas mentioned above. This is the world-view of Fear.
An alternative world-view occurs when we realise that at our essence we are spiritual beings and our other differences are but matters of fate. All those things that we mistakenly take pride in – our nationality, our religion, our gender, our intellect, our physical prowess and so on – were largely delivered to us through good or bad fortune and therefore are hardly things we should take pride in. As spiritual beings we can look through all this other clap-trap and realise that at our essence we All are One. From this point of view there is no need to assert my separateness. Instead of contending with egoic projections, we view our fellows with empathy and compassion knowing that other than for superficial differences we are the same. This is the world-view of Love.
I vividly remember a comment on a previous blog canvassing these issues by my good friend (and now deceased) Father Robin, who responded perceptively, “Love makes the world go round. Fear makes it go pear-shaped!”
So as I asserted earlier when Pogo stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” he said something even more profound than he suspected. It is that part of us we know as the ego that lies in wait to ambush us. If we allow ourselves to be dominated by its influence, our world-view will inevitably be one of Fear which results in profound damage not only to ourselves but to our fellow beings.