Liking Your Neighbours

Monday April 2, 2007


I do not know who first said it, but there’s that famous comment that although in the New Testament one is enjoined to love one’s neighbours, it does not mean that one should necessarily like them. This thought has been in my mind for some weeks now in relation to the metta bhavana, or the cultivation of loving kindness. In the context of metta practice, does cultivating this sense of well-wishing for all mean actually liking people?

The wit’s famous comment about the New Testament makes a certain amount of sense: who, after all, likes everyone? But at the same time, dislike is something that we can often cultivate, and the cultivation of our dislikes seems to me (although we all do it, perhaps) an unhelpful thing. The trouble with the idea of loving your neighbour and disliking them is that it can lead to a kind of pious sufferance in which we maintain our right to dislike whilst at the same time claiming to love; and this, it seems to me, can’t be right either.

The more I think about it, the more I think that when it comes to metta, liking and disliking are both beside the point. Likes and dislikes are conditioned by the particular perspectives that we have. They are, in a sense, negotiable. They can change from one to the other. Metta, I think, has not much to do with either liking or disliking. It is a putting of concerns about our agendas to one side, and a recognition of more fundamental, simpler realities: that here before us is a being who suffers, that here is a being who wishes their lives to go well. It is on this basis, rather than on the basis of our likes or dislikes, that metta operates.

In this sense, then, metta is not something that somehow transcends our likes and dislikes or that is set against them as a counter-force; but it is more a case of that which we have access to when we refuse to play that tedious (but curiously appealing) old game of “I like” and “I don’t like”, that endless pushing and pulling.

And so, if we talk of loving our neighbours and disliking them, then it seems to me that we risk giving too much airtime to our dislikes. We risk holding on to a right to dislike, with all the justifications that go along with this. No, we need not like everybody. But the cultivation of metta is about training oneself to take our likes and dislikes less seriously, to not grant them the status and the gravity that they seem to demand.

# · Tom

I am troubled by your distinction, here, Will.

I will first set the Bible aside. Not a manual I bother with.

But if you are going to love your neighbor, that also mandates that you like them as well. Our feelings are simply not so finely sorted that we can dish out love and withhold like, IMHO.

We can disagree with our neighbors and find their activities ghastly, but to find our way ‘in’ to love them, we must like them. For loving and liking both have to do with appreciating the other’s way of functioning and identifying with the other’s frailty and humanity and hidden grace.

# · Craig

I agree with Will, Tom. My experience of loving-kindness practice like the metta bhavana is that it’s less about ‘love’ as we know it and more about recognising that we’re all in together, that suffering is universal, and that those people we would otherwise be averse to are suffering as well. The sooner we all acknowledge that, the more peaceful we will all be.

# · Will

Thanks for the comments, although I’m not sure why this distinction should be troubling, Tom. What I think I am saying is that responding on the basis of metta is responding on an entirely different basis from that of liking and disliking. I don’t think that we can transform everything we don’t like into a something that we do like. But I do think that we can see that our likes and dislikes are not, in fact, a sufficient basis for acting in one way or another. And the more we can see this, the more these likes and dislikes may perhaps simply become contingent facts about ourselves (like the colour of our eyes, or our shoe sizes), facts with which we do not too eagerly align ourselves or harden into intractable positions.
All the best,

# · Kenny Mah

Dear Will,

I came to know about your blog from Yang-May Ooi. I’m a lapsed Buddhist myself and perhaps more of a layman, but would welcome any discourse on Buddhism. This seems a great way to delve into it again, albeit in a more digestible manner, if you don’t mind me saying so.

I do see a distinction between liking and loving. I may love my parents but may not like certain attributes of theirs and vice versa.

I appreciate that you say “we risk holding on to a right to dislike, with all the justifications that go along with this” for I feel that is very true for me now. Excuses do come easy, not so the efforts to do things differently.

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