As you let go of negative states of mind, you create the space in your mind for the cultivation of positive thoughts. Skillful Thinking means that we replace angry or hostile thoughts with thoughts of loving-friendliness. Loving-friendliness, or metta, is a natural capacity. It is a warm wash of fellow-feeling, a sense of interconnectedness with all beings. Because we wish for peace, happiness, and joy for ourselves, we know that all beings must wish for these qualities. Loving-friendliness radiates to the whole world the wish that all beings enjoy a comfortable life with harmony, mutual appreciation, and appropriate abundance.
Though we all have the seed of loving-friendliness within us, we must make the effort to cultivate it. When we are rigid, uptight, tense, anxious, full of worries and fears, our natural capacity for loving-friendliness cannot flourish. To nurture the seed of loving-friendliness, we must learn to relax. In a peaceful state of mind, such as we get from mindfulness meditation, we can forget our past differences with others and forgive their faults, weaknesses, and offenses. Then loving-friendliness naturally grows within us.
As is the case with generosity, loving-friendliness begins with a thought. Typically, our minds are full of views, opinions, beliefs, ideas. We have been conditioned by our culture, traditions, education, associations, and experiences. From these mental conditions we have developed prejudices and judgments. These rigid ideas stifle our natural loving-friendliness. Yet, within this tangle of confused thinking, the idea of our friendly interconnection with others does come up occasionally. We catch a glimpse of it as we might glimpse a tree during a flash of lightning. As we learn to relax and let go of negativity, we begin to recognize our biases and not let them dominate our minds. Then the thought of loving-friendliness begins to shine, showing its true strength and beauty.
The loving-friendliness that we wish to cultivate is not love as we ordinarily understand it. When you say you love so-and-so, what you conceive in your mind is generally an emotion conditioned by the behavior or qualities of that person. Perhaps you admire the person's appearance, manner, ideas, voice, or attitude. Should these conditions change, or your tastes, whims, and fancies change, what you call love might change as well. In extreme cases, your love might even turn to hate. This love-hate duality pervades all our ordinary feelings of affection. You love one person and hate another. Or you love now and hate later. Or you love whenever you feel like it and hate whenever you feel like it. Or you love when everything is smooth and rosy, and hate when anything goes wrong.
If your love changes from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation in this fashion, then what you call love is not the skillful thought of loving-friendliness. It may be erotic lust, greed for material security, desire to feel loved, or some other form of greed in disguise. True loving-friendliness has no ulterior motive. It never changes into hate as circumstances change. It never makes you angry if you do not get favors in return. Loving-friendliness motivates you to behave kindly to all beings at all times and to speak gently in their presence and in their absence.
When fully matured, your net of loving-friendliness embraces everything in the universe without exception. It has no limitations, no boundaries. Your thought of loving-friendliness includes not only all beings as they are at this moment but also your wish that all of them, without any discrimination or favoritism, will be happy in the limitless future.
Loving Your Enemies
Some people wonder how they can extend the feeling of loving-friendliness toward their enemies. They wonder how they can say sincerely, "May my enemies be well, happy, and peaceful. May no difficulties or problems come to them."
This question arises from mistaken thinking. A person whose mind is filled with problems may behave in a way that offends or harms us. We call that person an enemy. But in actuality, there is no such person as an enemy. It is the person's negative state of mind that is causing us problems. Mindfulness shows us that states of mind are not permanent. They are temporary, correctable, adjustable.
In practical terms, the best thing I can do to assure my own peace and happiness is to help my enemies overcome their problems. If all my enemies were free of pain, dissatisfaction, affliction, neurosis, paranoia, tension, and anxiety, they would no longer have reason to be my enemies. Once free of negativity, an enemy is just like anybody else -- a wonderful human being.
We can practice loving-friendliness on anyone -- parents, teachers, relatives, friends, unfriendly people, indifferent people, people who cause us problems. We do not have to know or be close to people to practice loving-friendliness toward them. In fact, sometimes it's easier not to know people. Why? Because if we don't know them, we can treat all people alike. We can look at the many, many beings in the universe as if they were specks of light in space and wish them all to be happy and at peace. Though merely wishing may not make this so, cultivating the hope that others might enjoy loving-friendliness is a skillful thought that fills our own minds with contentment and joy.
If everyone holds the thought that everyone else enjoys loving-friendliness, we will have peace on earth. Say there are six billion people in the world, and each one cultivates this wish. Who will be left to cultivate hatred? There will be no more struggle, no more fighting. Every action comes from thinking. If the thought is impure, the actions that follow from that thought will be impure and harmful. The opposite is also true. As the Buddha told us, the pure thought of loving-friendliness is more powerful than hatred, more powerful than weapons. Weapons destroy. Loving-friendliness helps beings live in peace and harmony. Which do you think is more lasting and more powerful?
Dealing with Anger
The main obstacle to loving-friendliness is anger. When anger and hatred consume us, there is no room in our minds for friendly feelings toward ourselves or toward others, no space for relaxation or peace.
We each react to anger in our own way. Some people try to justify their angry feelings. They tell themselves again and again, "I have every right to be angry." Others hold on to their anger for a long time, even months or years. They feel that their anger makes them very special, very righteous. Still others lash out physically against those who anger them. Whatever your style, you can be sure of one thing: Your anger ultimately hurts you more than it hurts the person you're angry with.
Have you noticed how you feel when you are angry? Do you experience tension, pain in your chest, burning in your stomach, blurred eyesight? Does your reasoning become unclear, or your speech turn harsh and unpleasant? Doctors tell us that these common manifestations of anger have serious consequences for our health -- high blood pressure, nightmares, insomnia, ulcers, even heart disease. The emotional toll of anger is equally grim. To put it bluntly, anger makes us feel miserable.
Anger also disrupts our relationships. Don't you generally try to avoid people who are angry? In the same way, when you are angry, people avoid you. No one wants to associate with someone in the grip of anger. An angry person can be irrational, even dangerous.
Moreover, anger often does no damage to the person toward whom it is directed. In most cases, your anger with someone who insulted you harms that person not at all. Rather, it's you who are red in the face, you who are shouting and making a scene, you who look ridiculous and feel miserable. Your adversary may even find your anger entertaining. An attitude of habitual ill will and resentment can adversely affect your health, your relationships, your livelihood, your future. You yourself may even experience the terrible things you wished upon your adversary.
Since it's clear that anger can hurt us, what can we do about it? How can we let go of anger and replace it with loving-friendliness?
In working with anger, we must first determine to restrain ourselves from acting on angry impulses. Whenever I think about restraint, I remember my uncle's elephant. When I was a little boy, my uncle had a big, beautiful elephant. My friends and I used to like to tease this animal. We would throw stones at her until she became angry with us. The elephant was so big, she could have crushed us if she had wanted to. What she did instead was remarkable.
One time when we threw stones at her, the elephant used her trunk to grab a stick about the size of a pencil and to spank us with this little stick. She showed great self-restraint, doing only what was needed to make us respect her. For a few days after that, the elephant held a grudge against us and would not let us ride her. My uncle told us to take her to the big creek, where we scrubbed her skin with coconut shells while she relaxed and enjoyed the cool water. After that, she completely let go of her anger toward us. Now I tell my students, when you feel justified in reacting violently out of anger, remember the moderate response of my uncle's big, gentle elephant.
Another way of dealing with anger is to reflect on its results. We know very well that when we are angry, we do not see the truth clearly. As a result, we may commit many unwholesome actions. As we have learned, our past intentional actions are the only thing we really own. Our future life is determined by our intentional actions today, just as our present life is heir to our previous intentional behavior. Intentional actions committed under the influence of anger cannot lead to a happy future.
The best antidote to feelings of anger is patience. Patience does not mean letting others walk all over you. Patience means buying time with mindfulness so that you can act rightly. When we react to provocation with patience, we speak the truth at the right time and in the right tone. We use soft, kind, and appropriate words as if we were speaking to a child or a dear friend to prevent him from doing something harmful to himself or others. Though you may raise your voice, this does not mean that you are angry. Rather, you are being skillful in protecting someone you care about.
A famous story illustrates the Buddha's patience and resourcefulness when confronted by an angry person:
Once there was a Brahmin, a person of high rank and authority. This Brahmin had a habit of getting angry, even for no reason. He quarreled with everyone. If someone else was wronged and did not get angry, the Brahmin would get angry at that person for not being angry.
The Brahmin had heard that the Buddha never got angry. One day he went to the Buddha and abused him with insults. The Buddha listened compassionately and patiently. Then he asked the Brahmin, "Do you have any family or friends or relatives?"
"Yes, I have many relatives and friends," the Brahmin replied.
"Do you visit them periodically?" the Buddha asked.
"Of course. I visit them often."
"Do you carry gifts for them when you visit them?"
"Surely. I never go to see them without a gift," said the Brahmin.
The Buddha asked, "When you give gifts to them, suppose they do not accept them. What would you do with these gifts?"
"I would take them home and enjoy them with my family," answered the Brahmin.
Then the Buddha said, "Similarly, friend, you gave me a gift. I do not accept it. It is all yours. Take it home and enjoy it with your family."
The man was deeply embarrassed. He understood and admired the Buddha's compassionate advice.
Finally, to overcome anger you can consider the benefits of loving-friendliness. According to the Buddha, when you practice loving-friendliness, you "sleep in comfort, wake up in comfort, and dream sweet dreams. You are dear to human beings and to nonhuman beings. Deities guard you. Aren't these prospects more pleasant than the misery, poor health, and ill will we get as a result of anger?
As your awareness of your mental states increases, you will recognize more and more quickly when you are becoming angry. Then, as soon as angry thoughts arise, you can begin to apply the antidotes of patience and mindfulness. You should also take every opportunity to make restitution for your angry actions. If you said or did something to someone in anger, as soon as that moment has passed, you should consider going to this person to apologize, even if you think the other person was wrong or acted worse than you did. Spending a few minutes apologizing to someone you offended produces marvelous and immediate relief for both of you.
In the same spirit, if you see that someone is angry with you, you can approach this person and talk in a relaxed way to try to find the cause of the anger. You might say: "I am sorry you're angry with me. I'm not angry with you at all. Perhaps we can work this out as friends." You might also give a gift to the person you think is angry with you. A gift tames the untamed and makes friends of foes. A gift can convert angry speech into kind words and harshness into gentleness.
Here are some practical steps you can take to overcome anger:
* Become aware of your anger as soon as possible.
* Be mindful of your anger and feel its strength.
* Remember that a quick temper is extremely dangerous.
* Bring to mind anger's miserable consequences.
* Practice restraint.
* Realize that anger and its causes are impermanent.
* Recall the example of the Buddha's patience with the Brahmin.
* Change your attitude by becoming helpful and kind.
* Change the atmosphere between you and a person
with whom you are angry by offering a gift or other favor.
* Remember the advantages of practicing loving-friendliness.
* Remember we all will die one day, and we don't want to die with anger.
Copyright 2001. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Wisdom Publications, Boston. www.wisdompubs.org
Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha's Path
by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.
With easy-to-understand and specific advice, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness offers skillful ways to handle anger, find right livelihood, cultivate loving-friendliness, and overcome the mental hindrances that prevent happiness. Whether you are an experienced meditator or someone who’s only just beginning, this gentle and down-to-earth guide will help you bring the heart of the Buddha’s teachings into every aspect of your life.
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About The Author
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana was born in Sri Lanka and ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twelve. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from The American University, and has taught courses in Buddhism at several American colleges. He lectures and leads meditation retreats throughout North America, Europe, and Australasia. He is the abbot of the Bhavana Society monastery in West Virginia. Visit the society's website at http://bhavanasociety.org