We all want to be loved, yes, but our most heartfelt wish is to love, deeply and universally. If this seems like an unreachable ideal, says Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the place to start—and often the most skillful response—is the simple attitude of goodwill.
Love is a word that contains multitudes. It covers some of the finest qualities of the heart—such as the care and attention that parents give to their children—as well as a multitude of sins, such as the possessiveness of clinging and craving, or the urge to take responsibility for others’ happiness. That is one reason why the Buddha talked about universal metta instead of universal pema, meaning love. “Metta” is usually translated as loving-kindness, but often it is more helpful to think of it as goodwill.
Goodwill is a wish for happiness—true happiness. The difference between goodwill and love is well illustrated by a story I was told by my teacher, Ajaan Fuang. He once discovered that a snake had moved into his room. Every time he entered the room, he saw it slip into a narrow space behind a storage cabinet. Even though he tried leaving the door to the room open during the daytime, the snake wasn’t willing to leave. So for three days they lived together. He was careful not to startle the snake or make it feel threatened by his presence. Finally on the evening of the third day, as he sat in meditation, he addressed the snake quietly in his mind. “Look,” he said, “it’s not that I don’t like you, but our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are plenty of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.” And as he sat there spreading thoughts of goodwill to the snake, the snake left.
If Ajaan Fuang had shown overt love for the snake, trying to embrace it with intimacy, the snake would have attacked him. The simple attitude of goodwill was just right for the situation. And, when you stop to think about it, goodwill is right for all situations. The idea of expressing love for everyone sounds very noble and emotionally satisfying, but sometimes that is not the skillful thing to do. Many beings in the cosmos, like the snake, would react to your love with suspicion and fear; they’d rather be left alone. Others might try to take unfair advantage of your love, reading it as a sign either of your weakness or of your endorsement of whatever they want to do. In none of these cases would your love lead to anyone’s true happiness.
This is why goodwill is so often the best place to start— wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for ourselves.
This attitude is borne out in passages from the Buddha’s discourses, in which he recommends phrases to hold in mind when developing thoughts of metta. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the emotional quality that underlies goodwill, but also to an understanding of happiness that explains why it’s wise and realistic to develop goodwill for all.
The first set of phrases comes in a passage where the Buddha recommends thoughts to counter ill will. These conclude with the wish that all beings “look after themselves with ease.” In other words, you’re not saying that you’re going to be there for all beings all the time, because most beings would be happier knowing that they could depend on themselves rather than having to depend on you.
Another set of metta phrases, in the famous Karaniya Metta Sutta, includes a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness:
Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere,
Or through anger or resistance wish for another to suffer.
In repeating these phrases, you remember that for people to find true happiness they have to understand the causes of happiness and act on them. They also have to understand that true happiness is harmless. If it depends on something that harms others, it’s not going to last. So again, when you express goodwill, you’re not saying you’re going to be there for them all the time. You’re hoping that all beings will wise up enough to be there for themselves.
The same sutta goes on to advise protecting this attitude in the same way that a mother would protect her only child:
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child,
her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
It’s important not to misread this passage. The Buddha’s not telling us to cherish all living beings the same way a mother would cherish her child. He’s drawing a parallel between protecting the child and protecting your goodwill. This is to make sure that your virtuous intentions don’t waver. Harm can happen most easily when there’s a lapse in your goodwill, so you do whatever you can to protect this attitude at all times. For this reason, as the Buddha says toward the end of the sutta, you should stay determined to practice this form of mindfulness, keeping in mind your wish that all beings be happy, to make sure that this motivates everything you do.
This is why the Buddha explicitly recommends developing thoughts of metta in two situations where it’s especially important— and especially difficult—to maintain skillful motivation: when others are hurting you, and when you realize that you’ve hurt others.
In the Middle Length Discourses, the Buddha advises that if others are harming you with their words or actions, you should spread thoughts of goodwill to them and then out beyond them, to the entire cosmos, making your mind as expansive as the River Ganges or as large as the earth—in other words, larger than the harm those people are doing or threatening to do. When you can maintain this enlarged state of mind in the face of pain, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming and you’re less likely to respond unskillfully. You provide protection—both for yourself and for others—against any unskillful things you otherwise might be tempted to do.
As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm. So if an apology is appropriate, you apologize, and in any case you resolve not to repeat the harmful action. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.
This accomplishes several things. It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t—in defense of your self-image— revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit harm was done. It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm again. And it forces you to examine all your actions to see their actual effect. If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.
In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with—to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness that’s harmless for all.
Finally, in the Numerical Discourses, there’s a passage in which the Buddha taught the monks a chant for spreading goodwill to all snakes and other creeping things they encounter in the wilds. Strikingly, the chant concludes with the sentence, “May the beings depart.” This reflects the truth that living together is often difficult—especially for beings of different species that can harm one another—and the happiest policy for all concerned is often to live harmlessly apart.
These different ways of expressing metta show why goodwill is often a more skillful attitude than overt expressions of love, and for three reasons. The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. If the people around you haven’t been acting lovably, it’s good to remind yourself that although you don’t condone their behavior—you don’t even have to like them—you still wish them well.
The second reason is that goodwill is a more skillful feeling to have toward those who would react unskillfully to your love. There are probably people you’ve harmed in the past who would rather not have anything to do with you ever again, so the intimacy of love would actually be a source of pain for them, rather than joy. There are also people who, when they see that you want to express love, would be quick to take advantage of it. In these cases, a more distant sense of goodwill—that you promise yourself never to harm those people or those beings—would be better for everyone involved.
The third reason is that goodwill acts as a check on your behavior toward those you love to keep it from becoming oppressive. It reminds you that people ultimately will become truly happy not as a result of your caring for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness coming from dependency. If you truly feel goodwill for yourself and others, you won’t let your desire for intimacy render you insensitive to what would actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.
In this way goodwill protects you from the unskillful excesses of both your ill will and your love—and protects everyone around you as well.
Meditation: Metta Practice
At the start of the day, take time to spread thoughts of goodwill to yourself and others. Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true happiness—and that, in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You establish the intention to further true happiness in any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not everyone will act in line with your wish, which is why it’s important also to develop thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people refuse to act in the interests of true happiness. That way you won’t suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can stay focused on the cases where you can be of help.
Begin by stating in your mind the standard formula for expressing goodwill for yourself:
May I be happy.
May I be free from stress and pain.
May I be free from animosity, free from trouble,
free from oppression.
May I look after myself with ease.
Then spread similar thoughts to others, in ever-widening circles— people close to your heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, and people you don’t like. In each case, say to yourself,
May you be happy.
May you be free from stress and pain.
May you be free from animosity, free from trouble,
free from oppression.
May you look after yourself with ease.
Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.
To make this a heart-changing practice, ask yourself—when you’re secure in your goodwill for yourself—whether there’s anyone for whom you can’t sincerely spread thoughts of goodwill. If a particular person comes to mind, ask yourself what would be gained by this person’s suffering. Most of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are suffering and fearful. Only rarely do people who have been acting unskillfully react skillfully to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they do just the opposite. They want to make others suffer even more. So the world would be a better place if, instead of trying to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong, we could all follow the path to true happiness by being generous and virtuous, and by training the mind. With these thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for such a person:
May you learn the error of your ways,
Learn the way to true happiness,
And look after yourself with ease.
In expressing this thought, you’re not necessarily wishing to love or have ongoing contact with this person. You’re simply making the determination not to seek revenge against those who have acted harmfully, or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift both to yourself and to those around you.
Conclude the session by spreading goodwill for all beings you’ll meet during the day, and then all beings everywhere. But also remind yourself that all of those beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. This is how you develop equanimity as a protection for your metta.
Repeat this practice before going to bed.