The second of the Eightfold Path is Wise Intention, which asks us to look deeply into our motivations for action and the consequences that follow from them. Whether things go well or go poorly, we ask ourselves what our intentions are and how they play a role in outcomes. We look closely at the relationship between our states of mind and the way that we act physically and mentally. With consistent practice and sincerity in our desire to become better human beings, we begin to see that intentions of clinging, anger, or resentment tend to yield unwanted results, and that intentions of kindness, generosity, and compassion tend to bring about wholesome results. We begin to see the way that karma works in our lives.
In order for us to transform the unease, fear, and suffering of our lives into joy, equanimity, and contentment, we must transform our intentions. One way to do this is by simply renouncing anger and ill will – but nature abhors a vacuum and one can only push away unwholesome intentions for so long before they find their way back in. Pushing away anger isn’t enough. Letting go of resentment isn’t enough. They will always come back if something isn’t done to transform our hearts. As the teacher Ajahn Sumedho has said, “It is not enough to follow the heart. We must train it”.
One of the ways that we can train our hearts is by practicing metta, which is often translated as “lovingkindness”. The word also carries with it ideas of benevolence, friendliness, and care for the well-being of others. Key to the concept of metta is the element of unconditionality, that is, we are loving and friendly towards all beings regardless of who they are, where they are from, and, most importantly, what they have done. We learn to love no matter what. As with all forms of training, this does not happen overnight. It takes practice.
Informal metta practice happens when we set the daily intention of being kind to people regardless of circumstance. Sometimes it is helpful to remember the adage that “hurt people hurt people” and that those who cause suffering are usually suffering very much themselves. Another way of bringing lovingkindness to difficult situations is to understand that in any given moment, people are generally doing the best they can given their life experiences and the resources available to them. Finally, it can be helpful to “rewind the tape” and recall the times when we have caused suffering ourselves, allowing us to see our own failures in the past as similar to those plaguing the people we encounter. This is not an easy task.
When we practice unspecifically, we bring a sense of kindness to our hearts and use that as an object of meditation, while simultaneously wishing wellness to all different types of beings. Thus, we might repeat a phrase such as, “May all beings be free from ill will, anxiety, and distress, and may they all experience happiness”. We could then use the same phrasing for “all breathing creatures”, “all people”, or “all animals”.
When we practicing specifically, we again bring a sense of kindness to our hearts but instead direct it toward specific people or groups of people. Thus, we might repeat a phrase such as “May all people in the throes of addiction find peace, happiness, and freedom from bondage”. We could then use the same phrasing for “my mother”, “my grocer”, or “my local politician”.
Finally, when we practice directionally, we bring a sense of kindness to our hearts and direct it towards beings in specific directions or locations. Thus, we might repeat the phrase “May all beings to the north be happy and free from suffering, may all beings to the south…” and so forth. A common way of practicing this way is by bringing a sense of kindness towards everyone in the room with us, and then to everyone in the same building, and then to everyone in the same neighborhood, the same city, expanding outward until all beings are included.
A popular way to formally practice metta is actually a mixture of the three ways described by Sariputta. It begins with well-wishing for someone we already have great love for, then moving on to someone for whom our feelings are neutral, and then on to someone with whom we have difficulty or resentment. The meditation then takes up people geographically, eventually expanding to include lovingkindness for all beings everywhere.
Metta practice is considered the antidote to anger, hatred, ill-will, and even fear. This does not mean that, after just a few sessions of meditation with lovingkindness, one can expect to be free of such unwholesome states of mind. Heart practice is a gradual practice. If it took us many years to harden our hearts and react with enmity towards people we feel justified in disliking, it may take us just as many years, or more, to soften our hearts and grow in love and understanding toward those same difficult people. The key to starting this practice is to set the intention that we may, one day, meet each person as if they were an old friend, even if such a goal seems impossible. We must remember that happiness and resentment cannot occupy the same space, so if we are to truly be happy we must also truly be free from anger and resentment.