More from Ajahn Thanissaro’s article, Head and Heart Together
In the Buddha’s most famous example of how to express an attitude of unlimited good will, he doesn’t just express the following wish for universal happiness:
Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.
He immediately adds a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness:
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
— Sn 1.8
So if you’re using visualization as part of your goodwill practice, don’t visualize people simply as smiling, surrounded willy-nilly by wealth and sensual pleasures. Visualize them acting, speaking, and thinking skillfully. If they’re currently acting on unskillful intentions, visualize them changing their ways. Then act to realize those visualizations if you can.
A similar principle applies to compassion and empathetic joy. Learn to feel compassion not only for people who are already suffering, but also for those who are engaging in unskillful actions that will lead to future suffering. This means, if possible, trying to stop them from doing those things. And learn to feel empathetic joy not only for those who are already happy, but also for those whose actions will lead to future happiness. If you have the opportunity, give them encouragement.
This section of Ajahn Thanissaro’s article makes me think of inner vs. outer beauty. What we’re being asked to do here is to look for behaviors, beyond the surfaces. Although we are instinctively drawn to people who are tall, slim, handsome/beautiful and young, these characteristics (and their opposites) have nothing to do with real happiness. Can we shift our vision away from “eye candy” (or revulsion) and towards seeing the causes of happiness and unhappiness? People, including ourselves, are continually creating the conditions for either happiness or unhappiness. When we behave selfishly, allowing our greed and aversion free rein, the inevitable outcome is distress. When we behave with good will and compassion towards ourselves and others, joy will be the result.
Likewise, when we see others doing things that create problems for themselves and others, we can broaden our scope and have compassion for the suffering they are generating. I once read about a Tibetan monk who continually said prayers of forgiveness for his torturers, while he was being tortured. He was trying to mitigate the bad karma they were generating for themselves. Paradoxically, this activity eventually made it too difficult for them to continue the torture.
An everyday beneficial practice is to spread stories of goodwill. When we hear of (or witness) someone doing something good, we can show our appreciation and then tell and re-tell the story of their action. It’s a natural way of getting the good word out, of propagating good will and compassion in the world.