Goodwill (metta) is a wish for happiness that you can extend to yourself or to others. One of the Buddha’s most basic meditation practices is to take goodwill—which in its natural, human state tends to be partial to those you like—and extend it to all beings everywhere. He calls this unlimited state of goodwill a brahmavihara, a sublime attitude in which human goodwill is lifted to the immeasurable level of goodwill felt by Brahmas, the highest level of heavenly beings.
This takes effort. After all, ill will—the opposite of goodwill—is no less natural in the human heart. It’s just as natural to feel ill will for those who have betrayed you as it is to feel goodwill for those who behave in ways you like.
Because training your goodwill to be unlimited takes effort, it’s a type of kamma. This means that to do it skillfully, you have to understand both the kamma of happiness and the kamma of developing mind states in general: what you’re wishing for others and how to best go about it.
As the Buddha notes, happiness comes from acting on skillful intentions. And all skillful intentions start with heedfulness, the recognition that there are dangers in life but that your actions can determine whether you’ll succumb to those dangers or not. This attitude contains a rudimentary understanding of kamma—that your actions will decide whether you suffer or not—and a measure of goodwill for yourself: you want to keep yourself safe.
To stay safe, you always have to act in harmless ways, which means that you always have to act with goodwill toward all beings. This requires developing goodwill for all regardless of how they have treated you and regardless of whether they “deserve” to be happy. Remember the example of the Buddha, who taught the way to the end of suffering to all beings, regardless of whether they “deserved” to suffer or not.
Goodwill takes effort. After all, ill will—the opposite of goodwill—is no less natural in the human heart.
Then you reflect on how other living beings will have to act to be truly happy: Like you, they’ll have to create the causes for true happiness. So when you extend thoughts of goodwill to others, you’re not thinking “May you be happy doing whatever you’re doing.” You’re thinking “May you understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them.” This attitude you can extend to all beings, without hypocrisy, regardless of how they’ve behaved in the past.
Now, in cases where people have been particularly cruel, this may be hard. You might want to see them suffer first before they change their ways. But you have to remind yourself that people rarely see the connection between their misbehavior and their suffering, so wishing for them to suffer—even when it seems to serve the cause of justice—rarely fosters the causes for true happiness in the world. It’s better to wish that people come to their senses and have a voluntary change of heart and that you be willing to aid in that process in whatever way you can. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to come to your senses without having to be punished first for your past wrongdoings? Allow others the same measure of grace.
Of course, there will be those who are misbehaving and refuse to change their ways, and there’s nothing—at least at the moment—that you can do about it. This is why unlimited equanimity is also a necessary part of brahma-vihara practice. You reflect that beings are free to choose their actions, and you’re in no position to guarantee that everyone will choose to be skillful. Not even the Buddha could do that. So to keep your attitude always skillful, you have to develop equanimity in cases where influencing other people in a skillful direction is beyond your ability.
This thought focuses on the inner work that needs to be done to develop the brahmaviharas in a skillful way. This is where the kamma of developing a mind state comes into play.
Mind states are primarily shaped by two types of sankhara, or fabrication: the way you talk to yourself in phrases and sentences, and the labels you place on things, either as images or individual words.
The Buddha recommends using both types of fabrication to give rise to universal goodwill and keep it in the mind at all times.
Here’s an example for how to phrase thoughts of goodwill:
“May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!”
—Majjhima Nikaya 41
Notice how this sentence ends with a wish that all beings will be able to depend on themselves in their search for happiness. Mature goodwill accords dignity to others, recognizing that they are the agents responsible for their happiness. Your role is to wish them well in that pursuit and to influence them, wherever appropriate, to choose their actions wisely. That’s how your goodwill can be most effective.
Of course, you can express goodwill in your own terms, the important point being that you always keep in mind how goodwill relates to kamma: your own kamma and the kamma of everyone else.
The discourses offer further reflections for extending goodwill to all. For example, when someone does something unskillful that you find displeasing, you can avoid giving in to anger or ill will for that person by remembering skillful things that the person has done in the past. This makes it easier to foster thoughts of goodwill even in difficult cases.
In addition to phrases, the Buddha recommends images to keep in mind to strengthen your goodwill.
The most striking images stress the importance of protecting your goodwill in the face of difficulties. For instance, just as a mother with an only child would protect that child with her life, in the same way, you should protect your goodwill for all beings no matter what they do. In one of his more graphic images, the Buddha says that even if bandits have overpowered you and are cutting you up with a two-handled saw, you should develop thoughts of goodwill starting with them and then extending to the entire cosmos (MN 21). Better that you die protecting your goodwill than that you die with a heart of ill will, for ill will would take you to a bad destination. As the Buddha adds, it’s good to keep this image always in mind, so that when people mistreat you in ways that are less drastic, it’ll be easier to endure with goodwill.
Other analogies that aid in strengthening goodwill emphasize the fact that as you make it vast, you also make it powerful, impervious to other people’s misbehavior. Perceive it as being like the Earth: A man can come and try to make the Earth be without earth by digging here and there, spitting here and there, urinating here and there, but he’ll never succeed, because the Earth is so much larger than his puny actions.
Or you can perceive your goodwill as being like space: People can try to write words in space, but the words don’t stick, because space has no surface for them to stick to. In the same way, you can make your mind so vast and spacious that other people’s hurtful words have no place to adhere.
The Buddha also recommends perceiving goodwill as being like wealth. He expands on this analogy with a comparison: Just as a wealthy person is hardly affected by a small fine, in the same way, if your mind has been made expansive by universal goodwill, you’re hardly affected by the results of past bad actions.
And you can expand further on the analogy yourself: Because you can produce goodwill simply by thinking it, you can make this inner wealth as abundant as you like. It’s like having your own press for printing money with an unlimited stock of paper and ink. Unlike worldly currencies—where the more money is printed, the lower its value—the currency of universal goodwill keeps on growing in value the more you produce and share all around.
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