2020-12-08 Brahmavihāras: Loving-Kindness (2 of 5)
6:32PM Dec 8, 2020
This is the second talk on this week's theme of loving-kindness as one of the divine abodes, the immeasurables. The Pali word – the Buddhist word – for loving-kindness is mettā. It's a cognate to the word mitta, which means friend. Part of the connotation of mettā is friendliness. Friendliness is a basic attitude of respecting, being kind to, and appreciating people – being open to a friendly, kind exchange with people. It's possible to be friendly with people whom you don't really like or who are challenging in a variety of ways.
The word loving-kindness – which is, I think, a beautiful concept and word in English – might not really represent mettā as fully as other English translations. For some people the idea of love is a very high bar. To have loving-kindness – kindness filled with love – is hard to do with people who are challenging for us. Maybe there are people whom we find difficult to love. I don't have to explain why, but we encounter challenging people in our lives. To love them might be unreasonable. To hold ourselves to some kind of standard that we're supposed to love everyone might not be realistic.
But it is possible to have goodwill for everyone – to be friendly with everyone. We can be friendly toward strangers, having a sense of hospitality for anybody we encounter. So perhaps an English word that translates mettā more appropriately might be the word goodwill. There is an aspiration, an intention, a willingness to spread our goodness – to extend our goodness to others so they feel safe with us. They feel happy with us. They feel that we have their best interests in mind. We're there to support their welfare – not there to support their ill. We are not there to try to undermine them, be critical of them, or diminish them in some way.
So goodwill. I also like the word kindness as a translation of mettā because, for me, kindness implies more than just a feeling or attitude. Kindness has connotations of an extension toward other people. It's an expression implying that we have kind words, a kind gaze, kind action. Goodwill can just be that you radiate a sense of well wishing for someone. But kindness implies a bit more action. So I like the word kindness, just simply kindness as a translation for mettā.
In the ancient Buddhist texts, mettā is described this way: "The primary characteristic of mettā is to promote the welfare of all beings. To promote beneficial conditions for others." There is the idea of wanting to benefit, wanting things to be beneficial. It says beneficial conditions, so it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be the one to provide these conditions. But there's a genuine wish: "May the conditions of their life be such that they have happiness and well-being. May they experience welfare."
And while there's a big difference between simply wishing that and doing something about it, we shouldn't underestimate the tremendous value of having goodwill for others. I know I've been the recipient of people's simple goodwill, and it makes a difference. Something inside me opens up – is buoyed or inspired by – knowing people are thinking well of me.
It says that the core of loving-kindness is focusing on what is beneficial. This requires some sense of what is beneficial. To simply wish for someone to win a very big lottery ticket, and to get amazingly wealthy, is that really for their benefit? As I've often said, there have been studies showing that people who win big chunks of money in a lottery are less happy a year later than they were before they won it. We can wish people what's genuinely beneficial, supportive, and nice for them. It might not be wealth. It might not be status. It might not be material goods.
Sometimes it can be so simple. Some of the simplest things are some of the most fulfilling and happy. I think that learning how to breathe with an easeful breath is a phenomenal wealth. The Buddha said that for a monastic (who is not supposed to acquire or have money or wealth), wealth is mettā, loving-kindness, goodwill. This is a wonderful juxtaposition, that having goodwill for others is wealth for oneself. There's so much goodness in that aspiration, that the goodness of the aspiration benefits, feeds, or nourishes something in us.
We are focusing on the beneficial, both for others and for ourselves. It is mutual. And this is why I really love the English word aspiration. As I've said earlier, aspiration is a beneficial desire that Buddhism champions. Aspiration is a good thing. It's an opening, freeing desire, which helps us feel more connected. It contains within it beneficial seeds, beneficial goodness. When we breathe with aspiration – inspiration – we get filled with something good. It nourishes something in us. So, by having the aspiration for others' welfare, we are benefiting ourselves as we're benefiting others.
The description goes on and says the manifestation of mettā is the removal of malice, the removal of ill will. We know that loving-kindness is present in a stable, strong way when there is absolutely no ill will. There is only good will.
The proximate cause of mettā is "the loveliness of beings." What a great expression! The proximate cause – the condition – that brings about mettā is seeing the loveliness in beings.
How do we see the beauty in other people? I think that one things this requires is slowing down – taking the time to pay attention. Our minds go fast. They pay attention to all kinds of things. We have a lot of desires, a lot of wants, a lot of preoccupations, concerns, and fears. When we encounter someone, sometimes all these different things are swirling around and making the mind go fast or get caught up in things.
But stop and take time. It doesn't have to be that anybody notices you're pausing that long. But learn to appreciate the loveliness of beings – the beauty of other people. Everyone has loveliness. Everyone has it. Begin to tune into that.
And that's why, again, if we go back to meditation practice, we discover our own loveliness. Sitting we start opening up to our beauty – the beauty within, the capacity for integrity and wholeness, the lack of conflict, ill will, hostility, and greed. We discover this beautiful place inside where a whole other way of being lives within us. As we recognize the beauty in ourselves, then it's easier to see it in other people. It's there.
If we don't see it in other people, one principle you might want to consider – as a principle, not as a truth – is that maybe, just maybe, you don't see it in others because you haven't seen it in yourself. And if you really see it in yourself, you'll see it even in people who are quite difficult. You'll see there the seed. Maybe it's hidden even from them. But it's a seed. It's a potential. It's something lovely to appreciate in others.
In the last part of this description it says that mettā fails when it leads to – the translation here is – "a sticky affection." Affection for others that is needy, wanting, or grasping. That's not mettā. Mettā is open handed. The hands don't grasp – don't hold on to anything – with mettā. It's just freely offered. Things are offered freely, and "Here. You can have it. You can have my goodwill. It's offered freely and I'm not going to hold on and demand anything in return."
Mettā is an aspiration. For all the emphasis in mindfulness about being in the present moment, that's not really the full story of a full, liberated life. There's also a place for having a sense of potential and possibility for others. And for wishing that for them. We certainly wish for them that they could have it now. But there's a sense of the possibility that they can grow into it, and "May it be so. May it be." That aspiration. This is what I would like: "My wish – my heartfelt wish, my wholehearted wish – is really that other people feel well and happy."
You don't have to tell people that you have this wish for them. You don't even tell people you have goodwill for them. Sometimes, some relationships are such that it's too complicated to tell them, because there are people with sticky affection, or people who are even mean sometimes, and have all kinds of difficult ways of being. So the wonderful art of mettā is knowing when to do it privately.
But just have goodwill for others. I've had goodwill. And I've heard stories of people saying that they have a very difficult person in their lives. And they decided to just have goodwill for them, privately. Sometimes they hold them in loving-kindness when they're not together. When they are together, they're just reflecting on their well-wishing for that person. Nothing special is said. Nothing special is done that expresses the goodwill. But just that attitude seems to change the circumstances, and the person seems to become kinder, less threatening, or less difficult to be with.
Finally, this brahmavihāra – the practice of loving-kindness – is an expression that can be in the present moment. Just to express, to live with loving-kindness, goodness, and wishing well-being or friendliness to others.
But also, as I keep saying, it's an aspiration. An aspiration is a choice. It's possible to marshal together a choice, a decision, a wish. "Yes. I want to be kind here. I want to be friendly here. I want to wish this person well. I see what's beneficial. I see their loveliness." To live a life in which we choose to have that aspiration – to be part of what rises out of us and opens us.
What this means is you don't have to feel loving-kindness. You don't have to feel friendly. Maybe those feelings will follow in the wake of the aspiration. But the wish is something deeper than a feeling. And we do have some choice over that. So don't wait to have the feeling to have the wish. And if the wish is an aspiration, it will carry with it goodness and welfare. You will benefit from having that wish, if it's sincere. May all of us have the sincere wish to benefit ourselves and others. May we be carried, expanded, and come to fullness in our kindness and goodwill.
For the next twenty-four hours until we meet again, why don't you do some experiments and take some risks? See if you can make mettā, loving-kindness, goodwill, a theme you carry with you throughout the day. Reflect on it. Think about it. Extend it to others. See what you learn about loving-kindness in the next twenty-four hours that you didn't know, that you don't know right now.
Thank you very much. I look forward to our time tomorrow.