Meditation 9: The hindrance of ill-will

Ill-will, or hatred, is not that different from sense-desire really. It’s just positive desire turned the other way round so as to reject someone or something. Just as there’s an incremental progression from sense-desire to love, there’s a similar progression from hatred to wisdom. You don’t have to be an obviously hate-filled person to come across ill-will as a hindrance in meditation, just have a critical tendency which leads you to dwell in a slightly obsessive or unbalanced way on what’s wrong and ought to be put right.

So, having distanced myself slightly from stereotypes of hatred, I’m now able to admit that ill-will is my biggest hindrance. In my case it consists almost entirely of sitting in meditation thinking of things I should have said, or might say, to people so as to show they’re not entirely correct about things. For a long time, my experience of trying to practise the Middle Way has often consisted of having  subtle arguments with both sides representing the extremes instead of just one side – which is sometimes conducive to a bit of a siege mentality. Perhaps it’s only since the society started that I’m beginning to find it easier to think primarily of the Middle Way as offering something positive: but I’m aware that I still have a tendency to over-emphasise the negative.

One way of trying to manage ill-will is just to reflect that the object of your aversion has too much power over you. Your aversion itself doesn’t want that, so the energy it consists in may thereby be directed into less obsessive channels. After all, if you hate something, or someone, why are they worth so much attention? In fact, giving that b*****d so much emotional energy (whoever it is) is a lot more than he’s worth! That’s one reason why, if you hate God, strong agnosticism is a much more effective way of “getting your own back on him” than atheism or anti-theism. People who hate God tend to spend a lot of time thinking about him, and in the process give him a lot more reality. Aversion taken to a rational conclusion tends to lead you into wisdom, where you start criticising your beliefs about the hated object rather than just the object. Nevertheless, subtler forms of hatred may still hang around such an intellectualisation, and you tend to discover these when you meditate.Angry_woman Lara 604

Another relatively effective approach to ill-will in my experience is merely to focus on one’s physical experience. Hatred (especially in the form of anger) has a very narrow mental focus, and just remembering that you have a breathing, feeling body can take you a long way out of it. That’s obviously why taking deep breaths is a popular way of controlling anger.

Alternatively, you can reflect on the object of your ill-will so as to give that object a wider meaning than the narrow one you are probably obsessed with. When we hate someone, we tend to think of them only in one sort of situation, having one sort of characteristic, or saying one sort of thing. We focus narrowly on a particular experience we may have had of that person, even though we may have experienced other aspects – or, if not, can at least imagine them. The Buddhist metta bhavana  (cultivation of loving-kindness) works in this sort of way to get you to expand the meaning of your ‘enemy’. So, instead of thinking of your evil boss in the office being odious, you can imagine him on the beach throwing a ball back and forth to his children, or taking his dog  for a walk on a spacious wind-blown hill. My own experience is that if I am wrapped up in ill-will I am unlikely to be able to focus on such visualisations, but they may work better for some other people.

Whatever approach you find works best, the underlying point seems to be that ill-will is just energy following habitual channels. For the moment, it’s your ill-will, in the sense that you need to do something about it rather than projecting it onto others. No, it’s not his or hers – they didn’t “make you angry” – it’s yours! There may be a genuine problem out there, but ill-will won’t help you to resolve it.  However, in the longer term the ill-will is not even yours: it’s just the direction your energies have taken. You can take them somewhere else. If more direct approaches don’t work, use more indirect ones. Stop meditating and go for a walk. Keep walking until you actually start experiencing the trees and the bird-song instead of hatred.

Picture: Angry woman by Lara 604 (Wikimedia Commons)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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