~ Reflection on Universal Friendliness ~
In Buddhism, universal friendliness is considered a foundational meditation practice that was originally taught by the Buddha. Here’s the story:
One year, some of the Buddha’s monks went to spend the rainy season in a forest, so that they could meditate in a calm and peaceful setting. But the tree spirits inhabiting the forest did not want the monks to stay, so they started to scare them away. Over time, the monks became very frightened of the spirits, and they eventually decided to leave the forest. So they returned to the monastery and told the Buddha what had happened.
In response, the Buddha taught the monks the Metta Sutta and advised them to return to the forest, equipped with this sutta for their protection. So the monks went back to the forest and practiced the instructions the Buddha had given them, offering the tree spirits metta or universal friendliness. The tree spirits were so moved by the power of the monks’ love that they allowed them to stay and meditate in peace.
Universal friendliness is an antidote to fear and other types of aversion. It’s about wishing happiness and contentment to all beings, without bias or prejudice and without looking for specific outcomes or anything in return.
The starting point for universal friendliness is intention. You don’t need to feel universal friendliness, just have an intention to feel it. This is important because sometimes we don’t feel kind or compassionate to ourselves or others.
That said, it's easier to be kind towards to our friends and families than it is to be universally friendly towards everyone, especially people we don’t know or don’t like. But in my experience, it is possible to offer goodwill to people without liking them or knowing them. This is because when we look deeply, we see that other people are just like us.
If we put ourselves in their shoes, we can understand that everyone wants to be happy and healthy, just like us. Everyone has hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, just like us. Everyone gets angry, fearful, frustrated, and confused just like us. And everyone gets sick, old and dies, just like us.
We have so much in common with other people that is possible to feel friendliness towards them. By recognizing our shared human experiences, we can see that at a very basic level others are not so different from us. So we can feel kindness towards everyone because we are all in the same boat. This does not mean that we want to spend time with everyone, or agree with them. And it doesn’t mean that you approve of their actions, excuse them or ignore any harm they have done. But it does mean that you can open up to the possibility of offering them goodwill and friendliness.
To practice universal friendliness, it is traditional to express the intention to offer it to five types of beings in turn:
- We start with ourselves. Or if this is too difficult, you can imagine a benefactor (a kind teacher, counselor or spiritual guide) offering you their friendliness and goodwill.
- A dear friend. Someone who you love or care for wholeheartedly and completely.
- A neutral person. You can also think of this person as a familiar stranger. Someone who you might see regularly but don’t know well, such as a neighbor, ta grocery store clerk, the person who delivers your mail.
- A difficult person. Someone who you find challenging relationship with. It doesn’t have to be your worst enemy, just someone you find it hard to be with. For example, when I practice kindness towards a difficult person, I often bring to mind someone I worked with who regularly interrupted me when I was talking.
- All beings everywhere. Those we know and those we don’t know. This can include people, animals, and even plants and places.
Whoever you are focusing on, the idea is to evoke the intention of kindness as strongly as possible. You can do this using several techniques including visualizing the person or being you’re directing kindness to, and perhaps imagining them smiling back at you or being joyful. Or you can generate a felt sense of the person or being you’re directing kindness to. Sensing their presence close to you.
Another way is to reflect on the person or being, including their positive qualities and the acts of kindness they have done. And you can also reflect on how they are the same as you – they want to be happy, free of suffering and so on, just like you.
Then when you have done this, you can silently repeat 3-4 simple phrases towards them. You can choose you own phrases but it’s best to keep them very simple so you can remember them. Mine are “may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease, may I feel safe” and then altering the pronoun. “may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease, may you feel safe”
Offering universal friendliness is not always an easy practice because our minds are often judging, evaluating or comparing ourselves with others. If this happens, just surround whatever you are thinking or feeling with kindness. And remember that there is no way to do this practice incorrectly. All you need is an intention to be loving and friendly, and some patience!