Peace on Earth,
Goodwill Toward Men
Every year when I was young my mother, brother, sisters and I would head off to the local Primary School Christmas concert. My father would stay home, and when we got back the tree would be up and the living room of our house would be decorated. It always felt magical, and for us children it marked the beginning of our Christmas. It was only as I got older I realized my father's genius in avoiding having to attend the concert!
I am sure that many of you have similar stories, and for those of us brought up in the Christian tradition memories of the carol concerts and nativity plays are burned deep.
Thanks to these I can probably recite the whole of Luke's account of the Nativity off by heart. And a core part of the story is the appearance of the host of angels, who tell us:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.As we head into Christmas it can sometimes seem like this, the central message of the Nativity, has been lost. The world around us appears more divided that ever and the primary Christmas message according to many is whether or not PS5s are in stock.
Of course, there is much going on to be positive and thankful about, whether it is the quiet heroism of front-line workers or the many people who have chosen to ignore the dominant rhetoric and work towards easing the suffering of others.
The word 'metta' is most often translated as loving-kindness. At first it seems a tricky word as the Pali doesn't have a single, simple translation into English. Often we use multiple words - love, friendliness, goodwill - to try to include all of the aspects of metta. As we progress with our practice we learn the subtleties of the word and why it doesn't quite translate into a single word.
Using the word 'goodwill' for metta used to not quite fit for me, as I found it a little weak. However as I practiced more and read more teachings it started to make more sense. This idea that deep down we wish the best for all people, regardless of whether we felt it was deserved, simply because of our shared humanity - that is metta. The teacher Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu explains it beautifully like this:
[...] These different ways of expressing metta show that metta is not necessarily the quality of lovingkindness. Metta is better thought of as goodwill, and for two reasons. The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. It recognizes that people will become truly happy not as a result of your caring for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness that comes from dependency.When we look at metta in this way we can see how this fits with the angels' message. By generating goodwill for all beings we lay the groundwork for peace.
The second reason is that goodwill is a more skillful feeling to have toward those who would react unskillfully to your lovingkindness. There are probably people you’ve harmed in the past who would rather not have anything to do with you ever again, so the intimacy of lovingkindness would actually be a source of pain for them, rather than joy. There are also people who, when they see that you want to express lovingkindness, would be quick to take advantage of it. And there are plenty of animals out there who would feel threatened by any overt expressions of love from a human being. In these cases, a more distant sense of goodwill—that you promise yourself never to harm those people or those beings—would be better for everyone involved.
This doesn’t mean that lovingkindness is never an appropriate expression of goodwill. You simply have to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you truly feel metta for yourself and others, you can’t let your desire for warm feelings of love and intimacy render you insensitive to what would actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.
As we continue through the holiday period I would like to encourage us all to focus on cultivating goodwill for all. The message is an ancient one, but it is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Wishing you all a peaceful holiday,
A quick note: I will NOT be releasing a 'metta letter' or linking a meditation for next week - I will be taking a short break. I will next send out one of these the weekend after next (January 2nd/3rd).
For this week a few of us have committed to press 'play' on the guided meditation linked below at 7pm PT on Sunday 20th December. You are welcome to join us if you wish, or you can listen yourself at any time.
Bible verse from Luke 3:14 (KJV)
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - Metta Means Goodwill - Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/BeyondAllDirections/Section0007.html December 20th 2020
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