In the forest tradition, it’s rare that someone would practice goodwill as a basic practice. As Ajaan Mun said, you have to focus on the body as your basic practice and deal with the mind’s issues around the body if you’re going to get really far in the practice. But he would also recommend that people develop goodwill as a framework practice. In other words, first thing in the morning, spread goodwill to all beings; last thing at night, goodwill to all beings. That frames the day to remind you why you’re practicing.
The fact that you want happiness is something taken for granted. The fact that you want a happiness that doesn’t harm anybody is an attitude that has to be cultivated. So, as you think about what you’re going to do and say and think in the course of the day, have in the back of your mind that “I don’t want anybody to be harmed.” That gives a structure to your practice.
Then, within that context, you do the rest of the practice. You’re generous. You observe the precepts. You try to train the mind to get rid of its greed, aversion, and delusion, because this practice is a way of showing goodwill to yourself and all other living beings. These are ways of finding happiness that harm no one.
The problem is that even within the framework, no matter how much you do goodwill practice, there are times when anger comes up. Now, anger is different from ill will. Ill will is wishing to see someone suffer. Anger is simply aversion. It can come in many levels of strength.
Even though you set your mind on goodwill, you find it slipping back. So you have to look at why. Part of it, of course, is that we’re very good at anger. It comes very easily to us. It can go from zero to outrage in one sixtieth of a second. But you have to remember that it’s something fabricated. It’s a habit you’ve developed. I remember watching my niece, Gigi, grow up. For a long time, she was very docile and reasonable. Then one day she visited another family. One of the kids in the family threw a tantrum. And two days later, Gigi threw her own tantrum. She’d gotten the idea from the example she saw.
The thing is, if you live with people who are easily angered, it’s very easy to pick up their habits. It’s very easy to think that if you don’t show your anger, people are going to push you around. So your way of freeing yourself from what you don’t like is to get angry. That’s a perception you have to look into, because if you allow your anger to take over, there are a lot of things you don’t see. You can do a lot of damage to yourself and other people.
Here it’s good to remember the Buddha’s way of analyzing emotions into those three kinds of fabrication: bodily fabrication, the way you breathe; verbal fabrication, directed thought and evaluation, which means the way you talk to yourself about things; and then mental fabrication, feelings and perceptions.
When you fabricate anger, one, you breathe in a certain way that gets the breath all constricted. Two, you talk to yourself about why it’s good to get angry and why that particular person deserves your anger and why it’s perfectly okay to think those thoughts and act on them. Then, three, there are perceptions. What images are you holding in mind? One might be that if you don’t show your anger, you’re going to be victimized. Another might be that in passing judgment on others, you’re very far away from them, way above them, so you won’t be affected by your judgment. As for feelings, the way you breathe, even though you may not consciously think of it, aggravates a sense of having something oppressive inside you that you’ve got to get out. Part of you will say, “Well, the only way of getting it out is either to express the anger or to bottle it up and get cancer.” So you just let it out into the world.
The Buddha offers alternative ways of fabricating these things. But first you need to have the motivation to follow his alternative. This is what goodwill does: It reminds you that, for the sake of your own true happiness and the happiness of others, you’ve got to get some control over your anger.
So look at the way you breathe. Can you breathe in a calm way even though other people are doing outrageous things? Remind yourself that, at the very least, if you can breathe more calmly, you can think more calmly. And calm thinking doesn’t mean not caring. It means looking at the situation as it really is rather than through the red eyes of anger. Wherever you see that you’ve built up feelings of tension or tightness in the body through the way you’ve been breathing, breathe through them. That gives you the alternative to getting it out by expressing the anger or bottling it up.
Here’s a third way of dealing with it. You dissolve it. You dissolve those feelings in the body. Then you look at the way you think about things. Goodwill is not the only antidote to anger. You can try samvega, thinking about how petty a lot of the issues are that we get angry about. Someday we’re all going to be in our graves and today’s issues won’t matter, yet here we are creating kamma with one another and it just drags us down.
Think of the Buddha’s image of human beings as fish in a dwindling pond. The water’s drying up, and the fish are struggling over that last little patch of water. But it doesn’t really matter who wins. They’re all going to die. When you think about that, it gives you a sense of real compassion for those poor fish and then compassion for the people who are struggling and struggling and struggling, trying to snatch happiness away from others, and they’re going to suffer as a result.
As the Buddha said, if you find someone with no good qualities that you can focus on to help alleviate your anger, then you’ve got to have compassion for that person. He’s really digging himself into a hole. And remind yourself that by expressing your anger you’re not necessarily getting out of a bad situation. All too often, you’re making it worse.
I think I’ve told the story of my grandfather teaching my older brother how to box before he entered first grade. My grandfather didn’t like the names my mother gave to her sons. He was a farm boy and we were farm boys, but my mother gave us fancy names. My brother’s name was Galen, and my grandfather could think of all kinds of ways that the other kids would make fun of that. He had been a boxer when he was younger, so he taught Galen a few moves, and they tried sparring a little bit. As he started getting more aggressive, Galen lost it. He started flailing. Grandpa put his hand on Galen’s head to stop him and said, “Look, when you get angry like that, you’ve got to grow cold. Then you can punch the other guy. If you just give in to your anger, you flail around and open yourself up to all kinds of problems.” So hold that image in mind.
The Buddha’s not saying that when you kill your anger you should also kill your desire to improve things in the world. That’s not the case. It’s just that when you can get past your anger, then you can see things more clearly. So change the story line. And change the perceptions: in particular, the perception that anger is what frees you. Anger is actually what ties you down and skews your perceptions. All this falls under the principle that we tend to fabricate our experience of the world—including our emotions—out of ignorance. As a result, we suffer.
The problem with anger is that it blames that sense of suffering on somebody else. You’re already making yourself suffer and then on top of that, someone does something you don’t like. You feel the suffering inside, you attribute it to what they’re doing, and that just compounds things. So you’ve got to turn around and look: How are you fabricating your present experience? Do it with knowledge and it becomes part of the path.
Look at the Buddha’s teachings on breath meditation. In the first tetrad, you get sensitive to the breath and then you get sensitive to what he calls bodily fabrication, i.e., the impact that the breath has on the body and then, through the body, how it has an impact on the mind. You can calm that. You let the breath fill the body, you let your awareness fill the body, and then you calm the effect of the breath. In the second tetrad, you get sensitive to ways of breathing that give rise to pleasure and rapture, and then you notice how they have an impact on the mind. In other words, you’re sensitive to mental fabrication, seeing how those feelings and the perceptions affect the mind. Then you adjust the feelings and the perceptions so that they calm the mind down.
In the meantime, you’re talking to yourself about this. That’s verbal fabrication. So you’re using the breath as a way of getting more sensitive to how you fabricate things. Look for the way you breathe. Look for the story lines you’re telling yourself. Look for the perceptions, the images, you’re holding in mind. And say, “Okay, to get past this particular habit, I need to develop new habits of fabrication.” The Buddha gives you lots of images as examples of perceptions to hold in mind, he recommends lots of ways of thinking, and he gives you advice on how to breathe. He gives you, basically, instructions for how to fabricate well.
Part of your mind may object, saying, “This doesn’t seem natural.” But your “natural” habits are all fabrications to begin with, and the reason why they seem natural is simply because you’ve been doing them a lot, fabricating them again and again, for a long time. And you can’t really blame the habits you picked up from your parents on them or on your family because, after all, as the chant says, we’re related through our actions. If you didn’t already have those kinds of tendencies, you wouldn’t have been born into that kind of family. So it doesn’t do any good to try to trace back where this habit began.
Trace it down right now: How are you doing it right now? Why are you choosing to do it now? And is it really in your best interest to keep on doing it that way? If you have trouble imagining other ways of doing it, well, look at what the Buddha has to teach. Look around you for good examples. Then start fabricating your experience with knowledge, keeping in mind the larger context that we’re here to find happiness in a way that doesn’t harm anybody.
Goodwill, as the Buddha said, is a form of mindfulness. It’s a recollection. The desire for happiness is taken for granted, but the realization that if we really do want to find true happiness, we have to have goodwill for all, without exception: That’s something we have to train ourselves in. We have to determine for ourselves that this is what we’re going to do. We want to keep this in mind as we speak, as we think, as we act, so that we can straighten out our ideas about where our suffering is coming from and find the harmless happiness that we really want deep down inside.