My teacher glowered at the three of us sitting across from him. Then he said, in a challenging tone somewhere between a question and a statement, “Hate is stronger than love.” At the time, I didn’t know how to respond: Would insisting that love is stronger be mere wishful thinking? Why bother trying to be a good person if hate is stronger?

Those questions have been occupying my mind ever since. Is hate really stronger than love? As the years have gone by I have watched hatred arise countless times in myself and others, born from a toxic stew of fear and anger and blamed on someone or something else (“It’s not fair!”).

In yoga wisdom, hatred is understood as dvesha, one of the kleshas (afflictions). Dvesha is rooted in ignorance (avidya), and interwoven with attachment (raga) and a distorted, limited self-identity (asmita). Together these four feed and are fed by a deep-seated, all-penetrating fear of losing life, livelihood, and identity (abhinivesha). The painful state of dvesha is not inevitable, but we cling to it nevertheless, as we are completely (and wrongly) convinced there is no other viable option.

In yoga wisdom, hatred is understood as dvesha, one of the kleshas (afflictions).

But before condemning yourself or others for not having a fearless, loving, light-filled mind, consider this: the tendency to negativity is hardwired into the functioning of our mind. It’s a portion of the price of admittance—part of the package of being a human being.

In modern psychology, the term negativity bias describes an aspect of this perfect storm of fear and negative thinking. From the neurological point of view, fear and aggression are motivated by an automatic response to perceived threats, the well-known fight, flight, or freeze phenomenon that is wired into our limbic system. This familiar trifecta of stress responses is rooted in the desire to stay alive—as well as to live well and to avoid injury of all kinds, including to our self-esteem, self-identity, and emotional well-being.

This fear-driven motivational system designed to protect us involves the amygdalae, a pair of small structures deep in the brain, which are the center for primitive emotions, including fear. And here’s the thing: two-thirds of the cells in the amygdalae are designed to respond to unpleasant experiences. The amygdalae react far more rapidly and completely to negative than to positive stimuli. To put it another way, the “stick” sticks in your mind while the “carrot” makes much less of an impression. This leaves you predisposed to make negative interpretations and jump to fear-based conclusions.

It’s not hard to see how we might have ended up with this negatively biased hardwiring. In evolutionary terms, natural selection favors the negativity bias. Mistaking a benign situation for a threatening one may be hard on your nervous system, but it is not as immediately dangerous as the opposite mistake—not recognizing a threat. The hypervigilant nervous system survives to produce gloom-and-doom children; in an eat-or-be-eaten environment, the positive-bias nervous system is soon an evolutionary dead-end.

Fear and hatred feed each other, but fear itself is not sufficient grounds for hatred. Devadatta Kali, in his commentary on the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, describes an extra ingredient that elevates fear to hatred: “Fear that fetters, pasha, is not a spontaneous reaction to danger; rather it is a cultivated delusion that manifests as animosity and malevolence toward anything perceived as different, unfamiliar, or threatening.”

Sound familiar? We cultivate and reinforce our ignorance, our selfishness, our fear and anger, and our personal preferences, often without realizing what we’re doing. Thus hate solidifies and takes root in the depth of our being, becoming an integral part of our identity and character.

Yoga is designed to free us from the inherent bias of fear-fueled aggression and hatred.

Hatred is also fed by another motivational mechanism: the reward system, which is a goal-oriented, pleasure-seeking system. This reward system can motivate positive ambition and achievement, but also, as yoga describes it, attachments and aversions that ensnare us (everything from craving recognition and success to heavy-duty drug addictions, or from dislike of peas or pink hair to hatred of entire groups of people). Intense likes and dislikes overpower our discrimination, resulting in fear (of loss of what we have, or of not getting what we want), anger (“How dare you take my job!”) and hatred (toward the perceived perpetrator of the fear and anger we are experiencing).

When we can dial down the threat and reward systems, a third motivational mechanism—the social engagement system—takes over. You may know it as the tend and befriend or rest and digest system. As its name indicates, the social engagement system favors the development of familial bonds, communities, cultures, and networks that protect and nurture us at all levels. Working for the common good, empathy, and compassion can thrive in this environment.

But as you may have deduced by now, both the stick and the carrot can trump the social engagement system. This means that playing nice with your friends and neighbors isn’t likely when you are under the sway of defensive strategies. In spite of good intentions, it is not that hard for an individual—or even an entire culture—to fall under the influence of demagogues, hate-mongers, and purveyors of self-righteous anger.

Finally, the good news: yoga is designed to free us from this inherent bias of fear-fueled aggression and hatred, as well as from the tyranny of the reward system. The physical, mental, and lifestyle practices of yoga work with the nervous system to dial down the out-of-control stress response, and disrupt the habitual thought streams that invite and sustain negative reactions. We gain insight into our patterns of thinking and feeling, and with prolonged practice, we learn to train the mind and nervous system to maintain equanimity in the face of both the positive and the painful experiences of life. We begin to tolerate difficult situations from a vantage point that includes the well-being and feelings of others, as well as our own higher values.

“Never let your brain and lower mind undermine your convictions and your higher mind, your buddhi,” cautions my teacher. “Your brain and lower mind must serve your higher mind, your creativity, your passion, and your values.” When we begin living a relaxed and thoughtful life, skillfully handling our lower-mind motivational systems, and connecting ourselves to a higher purpose in life, we develop empathy, compassion, and the sorrowless, light-filled mind of a yogi.

So is hate stronger than love? After 20 years of deliberation, I think I have an answer: it depends. For the Dalai Lama, who has cultivated loving kindness all his life, and for those like my teacher with mastery of their mind and nervous system, love is stronger than hate. For many others in the world, however, not so much. This turns the mirror back on ourselves. As it turns out, the real question we have to answer is this: “What are you cultivating—hate or love?”

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