‘This is how you should train yourself: “Kindness … compassion … appreciative joy … equanimity as my release of awareness, will be developed, pursued, made into a vehicle, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken.”’( A. 8,63)
Begin with yourself
Why prioritize goodwill towards myself? Because this is where it gets most direct and real. You can imagine other people – when you're so inclined and for chosen periods of time - but you're faced with yourself night and day. And in practising with your own mind states, you’re meeting stuff that isn’t publicly available; you’re gradually liberating your heart from self-criticism, despond, guilt, anxiety and perfectionism; and you're sampling the results. And as goodwill transforms the heart through which you experience the world, this changes your whole world. That includes how you experience other people. (Believe it or not, your experience of other people is not an accurate representation – it’s tainted by your own mental attitudes.)
Get the real thing
So what is this ‘mettā’? Loving-kindness and goodwill are its more attractive features. But be careful! A big ‘I should be’ lurks at the tail-end of these concepts, and ‘should be’ doesn't get you there. That’s the snag. We can all imagine what and how we should be – but how do we come to terms with, and stop feeling bad about, who we seem to be – or more accurately, about what's happening in our minds? How do we meet painful memories that we ‘should have got over by now’; or anxiety attacks that we know are ungrounded and irrational? If you learn to set up a way of being present and sensitive to any of that, the chances are you're practising the real thing, no sugar coating.
Another hint: it doesn't always feel that good. ‘Love’ sounds nice and sweet, but mettā isn't a feeling, it’s an inclination. Its energy is associated with giving, healing or nourishing that which seems needy, sick, exhausted or dried up – in oneself or in others. Its fundamental inclination is non-aversion. So one result, and aim, of that is to enable one to be aware of various forms of ill-will (more on that later) without blaming oneself or others, and without concealing, or even fixing it. In this way, goodwill makes it possible to meet and not react to some unlovely stuff. In such a meeting, the suffering of fault-finding, resentment and despond can be transmuted into compassion and deep understanding.
In terms of liberation, mettā sustains the heart in its efforts to expel the dart of suffering. That is, we may indeed want to stop suffering, and we may acknowledge that the craving to have some mind-state that is constantly cheerful and bright is a basis of suffering. We may even get to see that craving to escape from the painful, pathetic or ugly aspects of mind is also suffering – but then what do we do about this messy stuff? In terms of insightful attention, it’s a matter of differentiating between what is affecting the heart-mind and the heart-mind that is being affected. (The basis of Buddhist meditation is a ‘stepping back’ or disengagement (viveka) from events and moods in the mind – a step that reveals the watchfulness and spaciousness that are the essence of the heart-mind.) Following on from this, replacing the aversion to suffering with goodwill to the heart that gets affected by it is a powerful strategy. Just be with the disappointment, loss, irritation (etc.) – and empathy will start to arise. When empathy arises in the watchful space, it enables us to abide with a steady heartfulness – and also to realize that a lot of our difficult mind-states will peter out if we don’t add negative energy to them. ‘All conditioning energies (sankhāra) are subject to change’: the way of release involves us going against the set patterns that these energies catalyse. With regards to negativity, this entails replacing the blaming and the tribunals with goodwill.
Goodwill is one of the 'measureless' (appamāno) abidings, because it is an intention that doesn't measure who deserves it, and what the results should be. Appamāno also means ‘non-conceiving’, so the lawyer and the accountant mind-sets have to go. It's a free-will offering of empathic presence with what is happening. In the presence of pain it transmutes into compassion (karunā) in the presence of skilful qualities, it becomes appreciation and enjoyment (muditā) and in the overview of kamma it becomes equanimity (upekkhā). Overall it doesn't ask for results, it's ‘abundant, exalted and immeasureable’ : it's free and there are no deals. This is revolutionary.
Why bother, I'm OK?
Goodwill may seem like an accessory to practising for liberation, but all four aspects are taught as ‘doors to the Deathless’ (M.52). That is, they're on a par with the four jhāna. Goodwill and its associates operate in the same way as samādhi in that they fortify the citta to the extent that it can rest free from craving. That’s the door; to pass through that door requires insight, but insight has to be held at the door – of the craving to be some fixed thing – in order to open it. Because it can acknowledge all mind-states without complaint, goodwill can provide that support.
Moreover, if you aren't fully enlightened, the chances are that your heart is affected by ill-will, or one of its undercover forms or latencies. The revealing and undoing of these hidden potentials is one of the aims of mettā. It's about more than being a nice person.
For instance, let’s imagine a well-meaning person: ‘I wouldn't hurt a fly, but from time to time I do get annoyed by idiot politicians. I live in a moral way (as best I can) and so I think criminals deserve punishment on account of the terrible things they've done. I’m a friendly person; so of course, I wouldn’t like to make a nuisance of myself and be a burden, so I don’t feel comfortable about asking anyone to help me. No way: I should look after myself, pay my way and set a good example. Yes, I feel that I should live up to others’ expectations – although I don't really know what they are; so I look out for warning signs – like silence or any signs that others aren't at ease – because that means that I’ve done or said something wrong, or I’m not welcome. So I keep up a patter of lightweight conversation, produce some good humour, and excuse myself if I run out these. And when I get home, I review what I've done or left undone to check if I might have got something wrong, and I think of how I could get it better next time, although with looks like mine and my lack of social skills, then to be honest, I'm never going to be as popular as ... But maybe it's just my kamma to be like this, after all, when I was a kid I did lie to my father – several times in fact; maybe that’s why when I try to meditate my mind never calms down. I’m probably not going to get enlightened anyway, so what's the point? Anyway, I may be neurotic at times, but I can get by OK on my own.’
All this is comes from a mind that isn’t resourced with goodwill. Check it out: if people in public office are failing in their duties, or if members of a society are threatening the safety or well-being of others, an appropriate response is suitable. But do the shortcomings of other people (let alone the malfunctioning of machinery or systems) have to evoke a response of anger or vengefulness? Go down the list: Isn’t the assumption that other people will receive you or your needs with displeasure a sign of inferred ill-will? As well as anxiety over performance, self-criticism and acceptance of defeat? Then add to this imagined list other features such as: regarding any minor mistake or social gaffe to be a major sin; creating overviews of your activites that dwell on undeveloped or unwelcome states as ‘This is what I am’; creating deadlines; comparing yourself with others; or, in relationship with another, assuming that you have to make it work for them, sort them out, or fix yourself to suit them.
The point is that if you’ve been bullied, dumped, deceived or looked down upon, you’ve experienced the hostility of others and been shaped by that. If you haven’t been brought up in a context of safety and free from the need to prove you’re good enough – your heart will dip into the shadow of shame, anxiety, and inadequacy. And trying to be strong, or win approval, or trying to be nice at the expense of presenting how things are for you right now – isn't going to make you feel warm, relaxed or comfortable. Because you haven’t dealt with the results of the actions of others, potential hostility is carried in the heart as a set pattern. That is we have an assumption of what others might say or expect; and because much of our personality is created by the responses of others, our personal self doesn’t know the fullness of the heart-mind. We don’t know ‘who we are’ other than as a personality that's been formed to deal with others. Accordingly, we may hold a view that we aren’t good enough unless we’re universally approved of or understood, and that unless these impossibles are achieved, we will be, and be seen as, inadequate, flawed, unworthy and undeserving of the affection or respect of others. But how good does anyone have to be in order to be worthy of respect? What’s the grade and who sets that standard? Unless you practise mettā towards yourself, then you’re liable to cultivate a form of kindness to others that is based upon trying to be a good person, or on assuming that it’s your duty to forgive and help others. The truth of the matter is that you’re operating from a well-meaning but false basis. You haven’t cleared your own heart – how are you going to clear anyone else’s?
Practice: receive it and give it out
In terms of practising goodwill towards oneself, the first step is to get as settled as you can in your body in a wakeful and aware way.
Access and get interested in the ground beneath you, or more accurately, the contact with the floor, or the surface against which your legs are resting. Acknowledge that its support only requires you to rest on it. Do that. How does that resting into support feel? I’ll call that experience ‘ground’. Dwell in that; keep returning to that simple sense of support, relaxing the inclination to do or understand anything. Instead, practise receiving ground. As is often the case in meditation, the mind gets restless and feels it should be doing something else; so keep returning to the sense of your body being supported by ground. Take plenty of time; liken this to relaxing in a warm bath. The bath doesn’t mind how grubby you are; it’s there to receive you.
Gradually build up the perception of the space that immediately surrounds your body. Notice that the space in front of you is free from obstruction and free from intrusion. Like ground, this space doesn’t ask anything of you. You don’t have to be good for the space to wrap around you. It’s not a very refined point or sensation, it’s just the absence of pressure. Dwell on how that feels, let your chest and breathing open into that space.
Extend the perception of space to include your back; also acknowledge and get interested in the space above your head. Nothing is pressing down on you. There’s nothing that you have to understand, develop or become. You may acknowledge that with a thought, but above all get the mood, get it in the heart, and absorb into it.
In any of these processes, the mind can struggle with their simplicity, their lack of detail. If so, add some imaginative touches: bring to mind a helpful image (such as sitting in warm water or in a light or a cool place); recollect an occasion when another person helped you – in fact recollect many of those occasions. When such a recollection is established, dwell in how it feels, and let the image of the person (etc.) fade. How does it feel to receive goodwill? Hold back for now for praising the benevolent person, or ‘paying it back.’ Just dwell in receiving the goodwill.
When that mood becomes stable, so that you can feel the effects in your body, contemplate it as a mental state. The mood can steady into a ‘sphere’ or domain. Then you can invite your impressions of others into that domain. Begin with those who easily fit: people you already feel grateful to, or respectful of – benefactors, supports and guides. Then on to those who evoke a sense of compassion, and those whose goodness you feel uplifted by.
With people you feel neutral towards, or people in the public sphere, it’s helpful to recollect that they have personal lives with wishes, failings, strengths, concerns and sorrows. And with difficult people, soften the focus on their difficult aspects, take in the broader picture (as above). Imagine them asleep, or having an illness, or going through any one of the 101 mundane experiences that make up the background of your life too. Above all, don’t allow bitterness, spite or fear take over your heart. It can also be helpful to imagine them walking towards you, and stopping them at a distance that feels safe or from where you can sustain non-aversion (if more positive inclinations aren’t possible). Hold them for a long time in that sphere of non-aversion/non-resistence until you can sustain a sense of steady spaciousness whenever you bear them in mind. This doesn’t mean that you condone their actions. In fact it should also inform you of the need to maintain a safe distance from such people. In time your non-aversion may bring around changes in the other person’s behaviour; at any rate by your not bristling or caving in, you stay open to that possibility.
Finally, in the cases of strongly embedded negativity, it can be helpful to practise this by inviting an attuned other person into a shared, dialogue form. In this case, as you express a difficult mood or habit, the role of the other is not to fix or analyse what is being reported, but to maintain their own viveka: to simple acknowledge what is being said, and from time to time to catalyse their goodwill by asking ‘How does that feel?’ The basis of goodwill is the simple empathy to send out that question; its frution is to be able to unwaveringly receive any response.