In a worldly way, it is normal and praiseworthy that people are attached to family and friends. We are expected to display emotions that imply deep attachment and concern for our loved ones. In a Buddhist way, we try to remove attachment to all things including family and friends because any attachment is unsatisfactory and leads to suffering. For example, when the loved ones get sick, die, have set backs or when they are blamed or otherwise suffer we also suffer due to our attachment to them. When strangers suffer we may not suffer as much.
Sentimental attachment in human relations is often regarded as an essential characteristic of being human (as in “it is only human to …”). Buddhists believe that it is possible to transcend ordinary human nature and ordinary conceptual realities. It is possible to develop the mind and remove attachment to everything. This does not equate to becoming a heartless android. Buddhists aspire to regard (with love, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity) all beings equally whatever their kinship, physical appearance, cultural and demographic features.
The path doesn’t necessarily mean you need to leave a householder’s life and become a nun or monk. It does mean that we can make choices, decisions and intentions (cetanaa – intentions are kamma) for actions, speech and thought that tend toward simplicity nekkhama, good-will metta and non-harm ahimsa and non-attachment. This is possible as a lay person and I believe it has been achieved many times by countless lay people.
In daily life we usually have affection, love and good-will for our family and friends and the opposite for troublesome people. We may try developing good-will metta bhavana for both groups but this effort will be mixed with our attachment to views, lust and hatred. Preferences and dullness interfere with skilful mental development bhavanaa.
Beginners may not have mental powers and skills (concentration samaadhi etc.) to be very effective in these circumstances. So instead of using family, friends and enemies as objects for metta bhavana, we may do it for directions or for all beings.
Emotionally neutral objects are less likely to cloud our minds and weaken our mental faculties. Our aim in mental development bhavanaa is to develop powerful mental faculties, so removing unskilful akulsala states from mind is very important. Skilful minds can more easily deal with objects that might provoke like and dislike preferences or dullness.
Beginners should initially avoid developing good-will metta bhavanaa directed specifically at family friends and enemies until skilful enough to practice with harmony and balance. Good-will metta needs the balance of some equanimity upekkhaa to be skilful. Skilful good-will does not discriminate between friends and foes, lovers, ex-lovers and rivals, strangers and comrades, loathsome and cute, human and non-human life. Skilful good-will applies to all beings.
There is a danger in directing good-will only to those we love or admire. Lust and attachment can be the “near-enemy” of good-will. Lust and attachment are corruptions of good-will. Due to a lack of discernment a beginner may confuse lust or attachment for good-will. Lust and attachment is harmful and leads to suffering whereas skilful good-will is harmless and leads to liberation, if not already attained.