The Flow of the Four Brahmaviharas

As we explore the Third Noble Truth and begin to understand the nature of the promise it offers, we can look at the Four Brahmaviharas, the Heavenly Abodes that are the gift of the practice, and understand them in a deeper way.

To review, the Four Brahmaviharas are:
Metta — Loving kindness to all beings
Karuna – Compassion for all beings
Mudita — Sympathetic Joy, the ability to feel happy for the happiness of others
Upekka – Equilibrium, the ability to balance our lives even when challenged

(If the Four Brahmaviharas are new to you, please read more about them before proceeding, as this post is an additional layer to our understanding, not a detailed explanation of them.)

To continue from the last post, when we shift our perspective from seeing ourselves as individuated, solid and separate to a more scientifically-aligned understanding of the vibrant interconnectivity of all being, we look at these four states of being, these Four Brahmaviharas, with enriched understanding and deeper insight.

From a solid, individuated perspective, metta is most likely a feeling we try to create by remembering our feeling of love for someone specific, then trying to imagine feeling that same sense of love for others, even those for whom we feel just the opposite. This is a fine attempt, and the best we can do when we are operating from a sense of separateness and isolation. From this perspective we try hard to be kind, loving and generous to all beings, but it isn’t easy. In fact it is full of pitfalls. Can we understand the nature of infinite loving-kindness from the feelings we have toward one individual with whom we have a strong bond arising out of chemical attachment, similar world views, physical attraction, shared interests, shared personal history, etc.? I certainly struggled with that for years, imagining metta to be some finite resource that I reserved only for my closest loved ones, not wanting to squander my well-wishing and not have it when I most needed it. I just didn’t get it! And it’s now easy to understand why I didn’t. I was stuck in a sense of solid separateness, where even emotions are commodities that must be conserved to have real value.

Now, with this subtle but profound shift, we can see that metta is infinite and vast. It is the very sea we swim in, the air we breathe, and the fabric of all being. How sweet it is to break free of the bondage of fear that contracts us into a sense of separation! How rich and bounteous is this sense of metta now! There is no way to hoard it even if there was a reason to try. Instead we allow ourselves to be loving conduits of this infinite life energy that expresses itself through us and through all beings.

Opening to this spacious loving kindness is often our first real glimpse and understanding of the infinite nature of being. We can test it out for ourselves and see how when we send metta to those beyond our little circle, even to those we judge harshly, whose world view is so different from our own, whose behavior causes us discomfort or even harm. Challenging our limited view of the nature of loving kindness seeds the possibility of awareness of the spacious nature of being.

Karuna, the second of the Brahmaviharas, means compassion. Even locked in to our perspective of being solid and separate, we understand from our practice and the teachings that feeling sorry for someone else is not compassion, though it is certainly better than scorning them. We recognize the importance of developing compassion in ourselves, compassion both for ourselves and others. Our ability to do so varies to a great degree on the circumstances and the particular person. Often we find our true feelings to be more pity than compassion, and, if we are honest, a sense of relief that we are not in their situation.

From this separate perspective, our sympathy is an expression of our fear of such a situation some day happening to us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we tell ourselves in order to encourage the behavior in ourselves that we think we would appreciate from others were we in that situation. And this is the best we can do from our separate solid sense of life. In fact, most of us aren’t even that gracious! We may find when we look closely at our thoughts that we need for each person’s situation to be his or her own fault because for us to think their situation could be beyond personal control means it could as easily happen to us. We are terrified of not feeling in control of our lives. Fear keeps us separate, judging and blaming. (As we discover these thoughts, of course it helps a great deal if we have compassion for ourselves, and understand that we are not our thoughts.)

We may admire compassionate people like Mother Theresa and use her example as a gauge. Perhaps we see Hitler on the other end. She was good, perhaps in our view ‘too good’ and he was bad, the very definition of evil.

(For some of my students hearing the name Hitler in the middle of a dharma talk was very jarring. So we paused and sensed in to our bodies and noticed the jarring sensation at the sound of that name. We noticed the physical constriction that arises out of a complex network of fear-based emotions being suddenly activated. In our practice we are not creating a space separate from life where we can get away from it all. We are finding spaciousness in ourselves to be able to open to it all in a fearless and compassionate way.)

With a shift of perspective to a fluid interconnected state, where loving kindness is the air we breath and the fabric of life, we can see clearly that Mother Theresa was not just a person bent on being ‘good.’ Goodness arose from her like a sweet scent arises from ripe fruit, effortlessly. She was simply aware of her connection to all beings, and was therefore fearless in easing the pain she sensed around her. It was not always easy. At times she was undoubtedly locked into a separate sense of things and questioned everything she was doing. But some deeper perspective was sufficiently available to her to keep her clear of her path in life. Since she was religious, she saw this connection as the infinite nature of God’s love in all being. But whether we define it that way is not important. What is important is opening to this shift of perspective, however we define it.

Now Hitler saw separation everywhere. He was so afraid, so isolated, that he had to exterminate millions of beings he perceived as ‘other’ and therefore threatening to his safety. The very possibility of there being another perspective, a fluid open expansiveness, would probably frighten him, threaten him with extinction. Thus he was held in a prison of his own making, in solitary confinement, without possibility of parole.

In class we discussed guns. It is my strong belief that a gun is an emblem of fear. That the person who needs a gun to feel safe is locked into a prison of separation and fear, one that has to be defended at all costs. Now I’ve never held a gun in my hand, and one student who has shot a gun said that there is a sense of power, a physical adrenaline rush to shooting at a target. I can certainly imagine this, and for purposes of thrill-seeking in a controlled target range, my only concern would be developing an addiction to that rush. But we are talking about needing a gun to feel safe in the world, even though those that carry guns are statistically more likely to be shot or have a loved one shot by those very guns, than they are to be protected by them. But that doesn’t matter because the gun satisfies some sense of defense from the ‘other’ that is ‘out there.’ Carrying a gun may instill a feeling of control over our situation, and we’ve seen how needing to have a sense of control can control us!

When we think about Hitler or any other person so rooted in separation, it often knocks us back into a sense of separation too. We want to be separate from the Hitlers of the world. We want to connect only with the pleasant parts and set the destructive parts aside, but the destructive parts are of being are the tight knots, the eddies in the flow of life. We need to be aware of them, but the moment we refuse to acknowledge connection with any aspect of life, we create separation and fear.

While we choose to resonate with joy, creativity, vibrancy and ease, it is not skillful to deny the existence of fear and fear-based emotions as they arise in ourselves and others. We may choose not to focus on them, as whatever we align ourselves with, we amplify, but we do not have to hide or suppress any aspect, any thought or emotion. We simply bring ourselves fully into the moment, sense into our bodies, expand into spaciousness and see if we can access a sense of compassion, karuna, for that tightness and fear wherever we find it.

Now let’s see how this shift of perspective from solid and separate to fluid and connected affects our ability to feel Mudita, or sympathetic joy. What a challenge Mudita is when we feel separate! Trying to be happy for another’s happiness when we don’t get what they have seems a hopeless task. It cannot be done from a solid, separate state. As separate beings we can only be happy when things benefit us or someone so close to us that we have an established chemical bond. Being happy for your grandchild when he or she wins a prize, is not mudita. That grandchild is perceived as an extensive of your solid self, part of your solid inner circle. Mudita is feeling joy for the happiness of a stranger, someone with whom you have not bonded, feeling their joy in their grandchildren, even when you have none and wish you did. It is feeling joy for the soaring bird, even though you on the ground cannot know what it is to have wings. It is feeling joy at the sight of the youthful grace of a young body, sensing the ease, even when yours is tight, aging and painful. In other words, mudita is a seemingly impossible task.

Shifting into fluidity, we are astonished to discover that the joy arises naturally. His joy, her joy: it’s all joy. It’s like an infinite flow of joy completely accessible to us at any moment. In this shift to interconnection, letting go of fear, craving for acknowledgment, possession and all else that arises from fear, the ‘prizes’ we had perceived become superfluous. Recognition is nice, but it’s only important if you feel separate, if your are a package that has just gotten a magic added ingredient, another star on its chart, an impressive addition to a resume or simply bragging rights over others. Feeling separate, there’s so much to defend, protect and promote! How exhausting!

Aware of our fluid nature, recognition is just the universe smiling at itself. It’s joyful acknowledgment that we are aligned with a sense of purpose, a good use of our skills and talents, etc. All nice, but not the goal, not the purpose of having done whatever it is that caused us to receive recognition.

If everything is fluid, then we release the idea that accumulating stuff protects us or defines us. If someone drives by in a shiny red car, it is simply eye candy that adds to our pleasure in the day. In this interconnected state, it is not a reminder that we are failures because we don’t have that shiny car.

So the seeming impossibility of mudita, being happy for the happiness of others, becomes a naturally arising phenomenon from a state of fluidity.

Finally, Upekka, equilibrium, is another challenge for us when we are in a state of feeling solid and separate. In this state, all causes and conditions of our life are battering us from some external place, usually put into motion by some ‘other’ individual against whom we spend massive amounts of time railing. If only they were different! If only we were different! If only, if only… When really the only ‘difference’ required is a subtle shift of perspective into focusing not on individuals but on the interactive energy connecting us, and more specifically on the energy we are generating, and whether it is fueled by loving-kindness, infinite metta; or by sharp constricted fear so that we are always embattled, always causing them to put up their defenses.

The wonderful Hindu greeting phrase ‘Namaste’ means basically that the God in me honors the God in you. When we can relate to each other in this way, it is acknowledging this deep connection, and setting the intention to interact in this fluid connected state rather than in the divisive other-making way that seems to create more and more problems and less and less happiness or sense of equilibrium.

Upekka, equilibrium, naturally arises out of a fluid state. How can we become overwhelmed if we are infinite? If we can simply expand beyond our sense of limited separation and fear to take in what is occurring in this moment, whatever it is, how will we get out of balance?
This ability to hold great sorrow and joy at the same time is one of the more amazing moments of our lives, offering true portals to insight. The next time you are faced with such a situation of sorrow paired with happiness – perhaps a son is getting married while a daughter is seriously ill, or a grandchild is being born while a close friend or relative is dying – sit with it for a while in silence and allow for the possibility that you are spacious enough, infinite enough to hold it all in an open embrace. We each have the capacity to be present with all the thoughts, emotions and senses that arise in our experience around any situation. And that willingness to be present with it, rather than try to change anything, is key to this sense of equilibrium.

So that is our little review of the Four Brahmaviharas and how accessible they are from this fluid perspective. That’s why they are the fruits of the practice. No matter how hard we ‘try’ to be loving, compassionate, happy for others, and able to hold our lives in balance, we get caught up in the constriction of the trying, the seeing ourselves as separate objects in need of improvement and change.

So we meditate. We walk slowly in nature. We have insights about the nature of life, and we let go of any sense of striving to ‘get to’ this shift of perspective. We open to whatever arises in this moment, making as much room as we can with as much loving-kindness as we can create, and we trust that this is enough. And it truly is.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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