Whenever I come across spiritual advice to “love your neighbor” or “love all beings without exception,” my first thought is, “Of course.” After all, one must be exceptionally cold and small hearted to be against love, right?
But then thoughts of a neighbor float through my mind. She’s the one who called the cops during my kid’s 8th birthday party, claiming that the kids’ joy was in violation of the town’s noise ordinance. In the summertime she walks around wearing only a bikini and neon sneakers. Did I mention that she happens to look like the Mattel Barbie?
And, for some inexplicable reason, teenagers idle their cars in front of my house while one of them runs to her house to retrieve something. They, without fail, leave fast food trash in our yard. Sometimes they leave packaging for Clearblue Easy tests.
For many years I’ve found her hard to love, and I’m not proud of it. After all, if I can’t warm my heart to her, what hope is there that I’ll be able to love people who wrongly criticize me, spread rumors about me or, much worse, harm others? Jesus, The Buddha and other spiritual leaders didn’t tell us to love only the neighbors we like.
They told us to love all of them.
The Buddha even suggested we bring ourselves to love mosquitos.
That’s why, every single morning, I sit down on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, and I wish my neighbor happiness for as long as it takes for the hard ice to melt off my heart. Then I go on to wish happiness for that girl who made fun of me and spread nasty rumors about me in 7th grade. I wish it for a former coworker, too.
The hard-to-love list goes on.
By the end of the meditation, my heart is warm, my mood is joyful, and I’m able to pick up all the litter from my yard without losing the smile from my face. I’m also better able to deal with life’s many annoyances. For instance, when my dog whines to go outside during the precise moment I’m inspired to write the most beautiful sentence in all of creation, I don’t yell at the dog. No, I lovingly purr, “Just one minute little one with a full bladder!”
And when a driver refuses to merge so I can get onto the highway, I don’t curse or tense up with anger. I just think, “Be safe dude who is in a hurry!”
You get the idea.
There are some people who argue that the ability to love all beings equally is impossible. They say that we humans evolved to love our in-group-our friends and family-and to absolutely despise our out-group-teens in hoodies, bikini-clad neighbors, mosquitos, and basically anyone we think of as different from ourselves. Trying to tinker with our evolution, such people say, is like trying to spin the Earth in the reverse direction: pointless.
I disagree, and here’s why. I have grown to love Barbie the Neighbor as well as several other people I once swore were completely unlovable. I will even go so far to say that I find them downright delightful.
You might ask: Why even bother to love difficult-to-love people? Shouldn’t these annoying people learn how to not be so annoying? That way everyone would find them easier to love and the whole world would be a better place, right?
Well hold your breath and count to infinity, because waiting for certain people to suddenly become less annoying is exactly like trying to spin the Earth in the reverse direction.
The only way to not be annoyed by difficult people is to change our hearts. Once we learn to love them, we no longer find them annoying. When we love others equally, we are happier, calmer, and more peaceful. What used to tense us up with anger instead makes us laugh. We’re also less lonely because, when we love all living beings, we’re never alone. There’s always a mosquito around to keep us company. And if we can’t find a mosquito, surely we can find a stinkbug.
So meditate on it. Think of how every single living being wants exactly what you want: to reduce suffering and to increase happiness.
No one enjoys pain, stress, traffic, sickness, or aging, not even mosquitos. That mosquito isn’t out to get you. He’s only trying to eat dinner.
The driver who cut you off doesn’t hate you, either. He’s only trying to get to work on time. It’s either that or he needs glasses. Either way, like you, he doesn’t want to suffer while on the highway.
And that neighbor in the bikini? She only wants to be happy, too.
In the end, we all have more in common than we think.
Alisa Bowman is a meditation teacher, journalist, and author of Project: Happily Ever After. She’s also the creator of ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com. You can connect with her on Facebook.