Why develop metta for a bad person?

koi pondThere are some very bad people in the world. Sometimes evil seems to be not too strong a word for some of the actions that are perpetrated, and you may well wonder why should you develop metta towards those who commit evil actions.

Metta is a state of loving others. It’s a state of empathetic awareness that brings about compassion, consideration, and kindness. If those evil people were to experience metta then they would not do the things that we so deplore. Acts of evil come from a failure of empathy.

It makes sense then that if you want the world to be a better place you would want all beings to experience metta — even the very bad ones. In fact especially the bad ones, since if evil people were to experience Metta, there would be no evil done. I’m not suggesting that we can “wish” bad people into becoming good people, simply that it’s rational to wish that those who commit evil were free from the unwholesome mental states that lead to their actions. This implies that we should have compassion even for those who commit evil actions.

A meditation student of mine who is a psychotherapist pointed out to me that most of the actions that we would label as evil are committed by people who suffer from what is known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that scientific research studies have shown that up to 75% of all those in the US criminal justice system fit the diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.

This disorder is almost certain to have a genetic component, so that many bad people are born that way and not made that way, although poor environments almost certainly make these genetically based traits worse. Many people, in committing evil, are therefore passing on the results of a sickness that they suffer from — a sickness that prevents them from feeling empathy, remorse, and anxiety.

Additionally, they may feel compelled to lie, even when it’s not necessary, have difficulty learning from past experience, and have trouble controlling their impulses in the way that most people can.

Evil as an illness

There’s no reason why we should feel any less sympathetic towards a criminal who, because of a genetic defect, has a lower than normal ability to control his or her impulses, than towards a person with any other genetically based physical or mental condition.

If we can feel sympathy for a person who suffers from, say, Downs’ Syndrome, then why not cultivate sympathy in meditation towards someone who has a genetic disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder that ruins the lives not only of its direct sufferers but also those who are unfortunate enough to be exploited or harmed by them.

As an aside, I hope (although I have no personal experience on which to build this hope) that those suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder are able to learn to control their impulses. Some mental health professionals have shown that individual and group therapy can help those suffering from this devastating condition to learn to experience and to deal with their emotions, and to learn to have more moral concern for others.

I don’t want to appear to be saying that those who act destructively should be absolved from all responsibility for their mental states and actions, simply that not everyone is starting from the same place in learning to take such responsibility, and that it is helpful to them and to us if we have sympathy for those in such an unfortunate position.

You might well ask though: how is you doing the metta bhavana towards a bad person going to have any effect on them? Isn’t it just a game that you’re playing inside your own head?

It’s true that your meditation practice is not likely to have much effect on another person (although you never know – some interesting research has been done that shows that this does happen), but at the very least it will have an effect on you. It will help you to be more truly compassionate. It will reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing the amount of intolerance and hatred in your own heart (which is the only place where you can guarantee to make a difference).

8 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi, Teeb.

    Your metta practice has entered the zone of karuna (compassion) practice, which is where we simply cultivate lovingkindness with an awareness of suffering. It’s quite natural for this to happen, and it’s not possible or desirable to try to stop it. Compassion can have that “sad” tinge to it, but that’s not a bad thing. Sadness may be an uncomfortable emotion, but it’s not a negative one.

    I’m from Fife, actually, right next door to Edinburgh, although I don’t have a typical Fife accent, ye ken? I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly posh! I certainly don’t come from a posh background…

    Anyway, thanks for your thanks! I’m always delighted when I hear that my work has been beneficial to someone.

    All the best to you in your journey of healing and growth.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    I’m glad you like my description of emotions :)
    I find anxiety/panic to be the cutest; it’s a small, brilliant white sparkly ball in my sternum, but it’s so fearful it tries to spread and make itself bigger by sending its sparkles to other parts of my body. It reminds me of when my cats try to make themselves look big.

    Thank you for answering my last question and settling my rather over-analytical mind.

    I just received your CD “Guided Meditations: For Calmness, Awareness, and Love.” I managed to go through all the stages of metta, using a much less “difficult” person and, thanks to your advice here, I managed to do stage 5 without any intrusive “except them” thoughts.
    As the metta section was winding up I did feel an immense sadness touching my heart because of the amount of suffering and injustice in the world, so it was exactly what I needed to hear when, at the end, you said cultivating positive emotions was a rare and precious thing and that the listener should appreciate their efforts. It’s as if you pre-empted the sadness the listener might feel.
    I must admit that I wasn’t expecting a posh Edinburgh accent – I had to check your bio to make sure I was right! Your voice is lovely and perfect for guided meditations, it isn’t harsh, commanding or strongly accented, which I personally find distracting at best and annoying and aggravating at worst.
    I’m sure I’ll be using this CD for a while – it’s just what I needed as it helped to keep me focussed and stopped the nagging worry after my session that I wasn’t doing things “correctly.”

    So I wanted to say thank you for your website, which started my meditation journey, thank you for your CD, and thank you for the advice you have given me here. Since I began meditating I’ve noticed that I am sometimes cheerful and I am experiencing moments of serenity and contentment in daily life. I never thought I’d ever feel these emotions again.
    It’s going to be a long and painful journey, probably with many set-backs and relapses, but I think I might now be ready and prepared for it.

    May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be at peace, and may you be free from suffering.

    With gratitude and best wishes,

  • Hi, Teeb.

    I’m glad you find that practice of locating feelings in the body and sending them lovingkindness useful. It’s the core of my practice, these days. I love the description of them as being like a “new and strange, but somehow cute, animal.”

    Yes, you didn’t say much last time about what was actually going on for you. It makes sense that you have internalized your anger. And actually that practice of locating feelings in the body and sending them lovingkindness is very useful for that. It’s so important to recognize our suffering, and to have compassion for it.

    You bring up an amazingly interesting question at the end! If you’re wishing that someone be a fully human being, equipped with a conscience, then yes, they’re going to suffer. I’ve seen this with prison inmates I’ve worked with, who have had to come to terms with what they’ve done. They’ve had to drop all their defense mechanisms and accept the pain of having hurt another human being. And it hurts like hell. But that kind of suffering is just part of the package deal of being (or becoming) an ethical human being. And in the long run it’s more enriching and satisfying, because it opens up the possibility of a truly meaningful life, and of experiencing genuine love and compassion.

    In effect you’re wishing the whole package deal for the other person, not specifically so that they’ll experience the suffering part of it, but so that in the long term they’ll be a happier and more loving person, and not hurt themselves or others.

    Usually, lovingkindness practice is not as analytical as this. Really what you’re wishing is that someone become happier through becoming more ethically aware and compassionate. The emphasis is on the positive that you wish for them. But the other stuff is there, as kind of a shadow.

    I’m very grateful you asked that question.

  • Thank you for taking the time to reply to me.

    I have been offering metta to less “difficult” people, but I thought before I could move on I had to be able to offer it to all the difficult people that have been in my life, so I could include them when I offer metta to all sentient beings.
    Am I mistaken?
    I tried to move on to Stage 5 but I always felt a whisper in my heart and mind that would say, “except for them” (i.e. the people who abused me – and I also found this whisper spreading to other rapists and abusers, and to murderers, tyrants, those violently supporting dictators/hips etc).
    I thought this meant I wasn’t ready to, or capable of, offer metta to all sentient beings yet.

    Although I have been practicing for a while I have had to take it very slowly to avoid flash-backs and my illness relapsing, so I still very much consider myself to be a beginner.

    With regards to your statements about hate, I don’t think I was very clear in my last post. I don’t have much hate for the people who did these things to me. Like many people who suffer with PTSD I have “internalised” my hatred and focussed it on myself. Speaking psychologically, it is very common for the victim, particularly women, to blame and hate themselves for what happened (men tend to “externalised” by lashing out at loved ones). This is one of the things I am working to change with metta and self-compassion – learning to love myself through my love of others, as I care about my friends very deeply.
    Learning that none of it was my fault and that I have no reason to hate myself has been, and still is, hard work, and I believe it may take a long time to overcome fully.
    As such, when I read the article you wrote about resentment (which I enjoyed reading, thank you for the link) I could see more of how I think of myself rather than of my abusers, especially in Nos. 4, 5 and 6 – although I was quite keen on applying No. 12 to myself :)

    I have been practising locating emotions within my physical body and it is fantastic advice to anyone out there who is in a similar position to me! I can not encourage people enough to try this simple technique!
    I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks and already I am noticing improvements in my levels of anxiety, panic and fear.
    When I do it I also notice the emotion’s location, shape, colour, density and texture. I get to know it physically, like a new and strange, but somehow cute, animal – watching with a curious and sometimes gently amused interest.

    I think I understand what you are saying about offering metta to those who hurt me (and I think it would also apply to other people my mind whispers of).
    If these people were to have metta within themselves, and consequently compassion, empathy and love, then they wouldn’t be able to do such terrible things – and it would also mean they could never do to others what they did to me. By wishing metta FOR them it would also be a way of protecting others from them, and protecting them from themselves. Have I understood you correctly?
    If so, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it like that, but it makes perfect sense to me. If everyone had metta in their hearts and minds the world would be a safe and peaceful place where all could live with ease.

    Finally, this may be a foolish question, but if I were to wish metta for my abusers (and others, as mentioned) wouldn’t I be wishing pain upon them, because if they became compassionate, open and insightful wouldn’t they feel pain, guilt, shame and perhaps even horror at their actions?
    Isn’t that the opposite of what offering metta is supposed to achieve? Or is it more complicated than that and I just haven’t learnt the truth and depth of it yet? As I said, I really am a beginner, truly just starting out on this path.

    Sorry this was such a long post, and thank you again for your kindness in taking the time to reply and offer advice to me.
    Best wishes,

  • Hi, Teeb.

    I’m very sorry to hear about what you went through. It’s terrible that people cause such pain.

    I don’t think there’s any question that you can move on with your lovingkindness practice. Apart from anything else, there are presumably other “difficult” people that you can develop lovingkindness for.

    But I have a few suggestions. First is simply recognizing that any anger you have hurts you, and taking that into account. As someone said, resentment is like swallowing rat poison in the hope that the rat will die. You don’t have to feel any love for the people who hurt you, but feeling hatred is only going to hurt you, and not affect them in the slightest.

    Another suggestion is in dealing with hurt. I’d imagine you find yourself experiencing pain, and this can be very unpleasant and even crippling at times. I’ve found it’s valuable to recognize pain when it arises (even when it’s accompanied by anger), to locate the pain in my body, and to wish it well. Treat the pain as if it’s someone else. Wish it well: ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.” I find that when I do this, my mind becomes much less troubled. Pain becomes manageable, and the mind doesn’t get into anger, resentment, depression, etc.

    A third suggestion is to think about exactly what it is you’re wishing when you wish that someone who hurt you be well. You’re not wishing that they simply go blithely on with their lives, with no thought of the consequences of their actions. You’re not wanting them to be let off the karmic hook. What you are wishing is that they become more human: that they develop the qualities of empathy and conscience that make it impossible for them to act unkindly toward others. You’re wishing, in effect, that they develop metta.

    You can take or leave all my suggestions, of course…

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    First of all, thank you for the wealth of information you, and others, have provided on this wonderful website.

    I have been practicing mindful breathing and metta meditation for about 6 months now. The reason I am writing is that I don’t think I can achieve this and, consequently, the next stage of metta, and I was hoping that you (or another reader) could please offer some help to me.

    I suffer from severe PTSD due to an abusive childhood, and an extremely abusive relationship.
    I was emotionally, physically and sexually abused and I can not bring myself to offer any compassion to those who tormented me, and beat and raped me hundreds of times.
    I can not forgive them for the agony they have wrought upon my existence and soul.
    It was hard enough after such demeaning and self-shattering abuse, starting from my earliest memories, to be able to develop metta for my self. But, most of all, I find that I don’t WANT to wish these people well.

    The people who did this to me did not suffer from Anti-Social PD, evidenced by the fact they were/are capable of remorse about other things in their lives (they also lack most other symptoms), so I can not let mental illness be a reason for what they did and develop metta for them as ill people. And I feel that I can not use the development of metta towards them to help reduce my own prejudices, as you say at the end of the article, because the only prejudices I have developed because of them is against rapists, paedophiles, and child and spousal abusers.

    I don’t wish them harm, I don’t care enough about them to do so, but I honestly feel that I can’t offer metta to them.

    Does this mean I will be forever unable to move forward with my metta meditation? Am I always going to be stuck at the Neutral Person stage? Is there another way forward that you could suggest, please?
    I really want to continue to progress with this as it has brought me such wonderful benefits so far, especially regarding my PTSD symptoms, and my appreciation for the world and all the small wonders within it.

    Thank you kindly,

  • Studies have shown that positivity is contagious.


    The conclusion says: “People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”


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