The most fundamental thing you have in common with any other being
There’s a verse in an ancient Buddhist text that says something to the effect that we all want to be happy, and yet we destroy happiness as if it was an enemy, and we all want to avoid suffering, yet run towards it as if it were a dear friend.
This really resonates with my experience, and recently I’ve been incorporating a reflection based on this into my lovingkindness practice.
I start with myself. I recollect that I do in fact want to be happy and acknowledge how difficult it can be at times to experience joy and wellbeing. And then I ask whether some part of me is prepared to root for my own happiness and wellbeing. The answer is always “yes.”
The phrase “some part of me” is important here, because if you just ask yourself “am I prepared to root for my own happiness,” you might get an ambiguous or negative response. We’re complex beings, and on the surface we may not detect much self-metta (lovingkindness) but one some level there’s always some part of us that’s looking after our interests, protecting us from harm, and keeping us going. Even when you’re depressed, you take care not to walk under a bus while crossing the road.
It’s this self-care, which is intrinsic to our being, that’s the basis of lovingkindness toward others. The Buddha put it like this:
Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
In the same way, others
are dear, each to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.
He also expressed a similar reflection in the Dhammapada:
Life is dear to all. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither strike nor cause to strike.
So I then apply the same reflection to others, starting with the friend: “Do I want to support this person in the struggle they are engaged in to find happiness and to avoid suffering? Is there some part of me that’s willing to root for them?” Again, the answer my heart gives is always “yes.”
Then the neutral person — the person we don’t really know as a person but perhaps as a role, such as a post-office worker, checkout clerk, or colleague. Although I don’t know this person, I’m considering something very fundamental about them. In fact it’s probably the most fundamental thing you could know about any being: they want to be happy, and find it hard to achieve that. They don’t want to suffer, but keep stumbling into suffering. And again, a sense of being prepared to root for this person tends to come quite easily and naturally.
And then the difficult person. Same thing. They are driven to find happiness, but find happiness elusive; impelled to avoid suffering, and yet they keep experiencing suffering. They’re just like me. Is there some part of me that can support them, root for them? And this is where the “some part of me” comes in handy again.
You don’t have to like the person you have conflict with. You don’t have to love them. You don’t have to think they’re a nice person. You don’t have to forget bad things they’ve done for you. It may actually cause you pain to call this person to mind (accept that pain!). But you can acknowledge that they want to be happy and find happiness hard to attain, and want not to suffer but cause themselves a lot of pain. And it’s not hard, recognizing that they’re just like us in this regard, to find that some part of us wants to support them.
I find this the most powerful way to connect with metta as something inherent. Although metta is something that needs to be developed, it’s not conjured from thin air. It needs first to be uncovered. This reflection helps reveal the lovingkindness that’s already within us. At our core we don’t want others to suffer, and want them to be happy, because in our hearts we know that what is true for them is true for us as well.