The second factor in the Noble Eightfold Path is called “Right Thought,” but a more effective translation from the original Pali might be “Right Intention,” and one of the ways the Buddha the used to explain Right Intention was through the cultivation of good will.
A central technique used by the Buddha in his teachings was the intention of counteracting ill will and hatred with its opposite, metta—often called loving-kindness. Feelings of ill will can cause rancor, resentment, irrationality, aggression, and violence, which are harmful not only to the object of ill will but also to the subject feeling intentions of ill will, so this is dangerous territory.
The solution to developing Right Intention here is to play a trick on the mind by reversing the dark side of human nature and slowing down the flow of negative feelings, replacing them by directing metta toward the object. Depending on the strength and force of the sense of universal love that we are able to develop and cultivate within ourselves, we may eventually become capable of slowing the effects of ill will and resentment to a trickle and finally stopping them altogether.
To reiterate, the secret to success is the more one develops the feeling of metta—and the more one makes this a habit of the mind and the less one allows oneself to feel ill will toward others—the easier it becomes to direct loving-kindness to objects of anger, resentment, or hatefulness. Experience shows that greater happiness arises from this mode of practice and thereby becomes motivated and strengthened. It is important to realize that this is the same loving-kindness that the Buddha felt for all living beings, and in practicing metta one is emulating the Buddha in following his Noble Eightfold Path.
A valuable technique that can help one to develop feelings of loving-kindness is to consciously set aside a period of time each day for the cultivation of thoughts of loving-kindness. This form of meditation proves to be useful to seekers who have problems overcoming feelings of aversion and ill will.
One begins with thoughts of kindness for oneself, because one must first value and care for oneself before one can value others. Then one develops feelings of loving-kindness for those who are closest to one: family members, those who depend on one for support, and so on. Then one thinks about those who are neutral to oneself, and eventually one cultivates thoughts of loving-kindness for all living beings.
One begins with oneself at the center and expands outward in ever-widening circles until one has developed feelings of love for every living being in the universe, in awareness of the world’s need for love—loving others as one loves oneself.
One form of this meditation is to contemplate as follows:
May I be well and healthy
May those near to me be well and healthy
May those neutral to me be well and healthy
May all living beings be well and healthy.
It must be noted that metta is a generalized, selfless, non-personalized love. It is not self-love even though it emanates from the so-called self. It simply means that one loves oneself in the same way that one loves everything else in the world—no more and no less. It is a feeling of great benevolence and magnanimity for all things, and is not to be confused with egocentric love or selfish attachment.
Another device that helps in overcoming cruel, aggressive, or violent thoughts toward an object of repulsion or derision is compassion. Instead of having unwholesome feelings toward someone because of his unwholesome intentions, one places oneself subjectively in his position and wishes that he may become freed from the sufferings caused by his unwholesome kamma.
Developing compassion may be practiced as a meditative exercise: one thinks of a person whom one knows to be suffering because of misguided views or intentions and resultant actions, and one imagines how and why this person wishes to be free of his suffering. One identifies with the person’s suffering until a strong sense of empathy and compassion swells up in one’s heart.
Next, one uses the same method applied to other individuals who cause themselves suffering, wishing that they too may be freed from their suffering. Once one develops the habit of mind of feeling such compassion, one can catch and stop oneself from reacting with resentment to difficult people and replace that resentment with understanding and compassion. Feeling compassion for those who would be our enemies is also very disarming.
The unwholesome thought is like a rotten wooden peg lodged within the mind; the wholesome thought is like a fresh new wooden peg suitable to replace it. The actual contemplation functions as the hammer used to drive out the old peg with a new one. (Bodhi 43)
To use another analogy, through renunciation and methodological contemplation, thoughts of greed and aversion may be shed like leaves from a tree. The change is not sudden and spontaneous. It comes only through persistent and continued practice, dislodging one leaf at a time until the branches finally become bare. This is why Buddhists worldwide do meditation exercises to practice renunciation, metta, and compassion as a way of going against the stream.
The Buddha has warned us that “whatever one reflects upon frequently becomes the inclination of the mind. If one frequently thinks sensual, hostile, or harmful thoughts, desire, ill will, and harmfulness become the inclination of the mind.” (Bodhi 44) How much better it is to train the mind to become positive in its inclinations, for the direction we take invariably leads back to us. The merit we attain determines the course of our lives and the evil we do will always return to us.
Through the cultivation of good will, the practitioner concentrates diligently on a sweeping out of the mind, by noting and whisking away any and all arising mental impurities as they arise in the mind as tainted intentions leading to rancor, resentment, hatred, irrationality, aggression, and violence. Through the heedful sweeping actions of good mental housekeeping, the actions of the mind eventually become cool, calm, pure, clean, and serene—and no more ill will is to be found.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 1984. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to End Suffering. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Ledi Sayadaw. 1977. The Noble Eightfold Path and its Factors Explained. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society