Cultivating a sense of universal love and compassion is the main objective of all the world’s major religions. It’s not just a Buddhist thing.
It’s right there at the core of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and all the rest. The problem in the world isn’t the lack of this ideal but the difficulty in maintaining this kind of attitude towards others on a daily basis.
This is where (in my biased opinion) Buddhism truly shines. It doesn’t just offer us platitudes, feel-good sound bites and commandments but rather, a practical and detailed method to change our minds and hearts in a fundamental way.
Here’s the question: Why should I love everybody in the first place? It’s a valid question. Many people are really kind of mean and stinky, right? They can be rude, disrespectful, violent, thieving, conniving, troublesome little bastards at times. They cut you off in traffic, shortchange you at the drive-through, treat you like cattle at the doctor’s office and certainly don’t give you all the attention you deserve.
What Buddhism suggests is that we take some time to reexamine our relationships with others on a truly deep level. I mean really deep. We do this by meditating on three things: the equality of all beings, the beginningless nature of consciousness and the kindness all beings have shown us throughout all that time.
Let’s take the first one for starters. Take a moment to get comfortable. Sit with your back straight. Let your breathing settle into its natural rhythm. Let your mind settle down. Now, imagine there are three people sitting directly in front of you. These are real people who you know, or have at least seen. One is a friend. One is an enemy. One is a stranger.
Now take a few moments to examine the qualities of each person. What makes them a friend, an enemy, a stranger? A friend shows you kindness, listens to you when you are having difficulties, bakes you cookies and is generally nice to be around. But think about it a little bit more. Was your friend always a friend? Wasn’t there a point when you didn’t even know her? Can you imagine any circumstances when a friend ceased to be a friend?
When we meditate like this, eventually, we may come to the conclusion that the labels we place on others are just that: labels. They do not mean that the people in our lives have any permanent qualities. In fact, even in our short lives, people can be strangers to us one day, friends the next and enemies the next. Nothing is fixed.
Once we have come to this conclusion and our minds have become a little more pliant, we can take this meditation to the next level. Are there any qualities that all three of these categories of people actually share? If we look closely and honestly we many find that everyone we’ve ever known or even passed by on the street does have something in common.
Each and every one of us have the persistent wish to be as happy as we can possibly be and to avoid suffering at all costs.
Isn’t this true? The alcoholic homeless woman in the park is, in her own way, according to her best wisdom, seeking happiness and relief. She doesn’t want to be afraid, cold, hungry or alone. She wants the good things in life just as badly as you do, as your friends do, as your family does. How is she fundamentally different from any one else?
The same goes for the people who harm us. This is, of course more difficult to see, because of our tendency to want to protect ourselves (justifiably so) from harm. But when we take our seat in the safety of our meditation practice and open our hearts just a little bit, we soon see that even our enemies are not so different from us.
These realizations are not intuitive. They do not come naturally or easily. Think about how reactionary you are in most of your dealings with people. I know I am. I make assumptions and prejudgements all the time. Sometimes I even fly off the handle. What we have to do to counter that is to meditate on these things over an over again, gradually changing our long-held attitudes, questioning their validity and hopefully coming to new and more reasonable conclusions that bring us more ease, happiness and joy.