Love Your Neighbor

Love Your Neighbor

What’s Nearby?

The Practice:
Love your neighbor.


This practice might sound extreme or pushy, and I want to tell you what I mean by it.

Everyone has lots of neighbors, and they come in many shapes and sizes. Obviously, the people living across the street are neighbors, but in some sense, so are the people you live with. Friends, relatives, co-workers, all the people you know are neighbors. So are the people at the market or walking past on the street. Other living things are neighbors as well, such as cats and dogs, birds and bees, ants on the kitchen counter, and plants and trees.

There’s also a neighborhood inside each of us. The human body contains about 100 trillion cells – and at least as many microorganisms that are neighbors, too. Plus consider your mind. My own mind is like a village with many characters at different stages of biological and psychological evolution, chatting or arguing with each other. All the parts of your mind – the pushy internal critic, the playful child, the longing for lasting happiness, the calm voice that talks you off the ledge – are neighbors of a sort.

In the largest sense, the neighbors of your neighbors are your neighbors, which means that every living thing is your neighbor – and mine. Wow. Walt Whitman got it right when he wrote: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

What should we do with our neighbors? Ignore or hate them? Or recognize and love them?

The latter is sure more moral – as well as much wiser in terms of cool clear self-interest. Mess with your neighbors, and they will mess with you. Treat your neighbor with respect and goodwill – in a word, with love – while also standing up for your own fences, needs, and rights . . . and you’re most likely to build a lasting peace with them, with benefits for both of you.

The value of loving our neighbors is true at all scales. As you may know, the longer quotation I‘m drawing on comes from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, in which it is said, ”Love your neighbor as yourself.” I understand this as both moral instruction and a clear statement that what we do to our neighbors we do to ourselves.

If you hate or push away parts of yourself, they go underground and get smelly; the mind is like a septic tank, not a flush toilet. If you are a bad neighbor to people you know, you burn bridges and end up alone. In terms of your country and world, as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” And if humans drive neighboring plant and animal species into extinction, we poison the wellsprings of our own survival.

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I’ve written already about making peace within a sense, loving – the parts of your own mind; if you like, check out Forgive Yourself, Embrace Fragility, Know You’re a Good Person, Don’t Beat Yourself Up, and Trust Yourself. I’ll leave the topic of neighborliness with the human microbiome – all the little critters inside – to others who (unlike me) know what they’re talking about. And I’ve written a fair amount about relationships with our closest neighbors – friends, family, and co-workers – including Put No One out of Your Heart, Accept Them as They Are, Speak Wisely, Admit Fault and Move On, and Forgive.

So I’ll focus here on wider circles of neighbors: the other humans in a country and world, and our planet’s other living things.

We begin with compassion. I once asked a teacher of mine what he was focusing on in his personal practice, and he said, “I stop for suffering.” It takes both benevolence and courage to keep your heart open to the pain of another being – especially those who have harmed you or others. Even if you can’t do a single thing, your compassion is still real and still matters.

Next, we recognize injustice. We try to be strong enough to tolerate the alarm, moral disgust, and outrage that’s natural to feel when hearing about hungry children, tsunamis and famines, and bombs falling on refugees to prop up a dictator. And big enough to recognize injustices suffered by our adversaries, whether at home or abroad.

Then we do what we can. That could be political action, such as encouraging more people to vote; for example, about 100 million Americans could have voted in the recent Presidential election but did not do so. Or it could be supporting a cause close to your heart. Personally, I feel strongly about the religious persecution and oppression in Tibet, and contribute to the International Campaign for Tibet.

We can also take local actions related to global issues. For example, human activity currently produces about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide a day – 40 billion tons each year – roughly half of which stays in the air to cause global warming while a quarter sinks into and acidifies the oceans. Among other consequences, this will cause mass extinctions of plant and animal species. It’s easy and eye-opening to calculate the “carbon footprint” of your own household. In addition to shrinking it, you can “offset” it through organizations that plant trees or build clean energy projects; it costs just $30 or so a month to offset the footprint of a typical American household.

Loving your neighbors – all of them, the great and the small, seen and unseen, liked and disliked – expresses inner freedom. Watching politicians on the news, sometimes I think to myself, “You can’t stop me from loving you – or from doing what I can to defeat you the next time around.”

Hate in all its forms poisons the heart, while love protects and feeds it – and strengthens us to stand up for others and stand up to others. The more bitter the times and the more divisive the conflicts, the more urgent it is to be neighborly, with clear eyes and a kind heart. Then in a deep sense, you’re at home wherever you go.

Know Someone Who Could Use More Neighborly Love?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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