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.
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