Reflections on the Brahma Vihara practices

Kuan Yin sunbeam

This article (with minor amendments) was first published in the March 2014 BMIMC newsletter.

Since returning to Australia and New Zealand from the United States eighteen months ago, I’ve been teaching several weekend retreats, day-long workshops and evening classes in New South Wales and Auckland.  Alongside the insight meditation practice, I’ve usually included some focus on the four brahma-viharas: the meditative development of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity (or metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, to use the Pali terms).
At the beginning of my own meditation practice, I tended to avoid the brahma-viharas because I found them so incredibly challenging. As I’ve supported other meditators over the last few years, I’ve observed many people going through similar struggles. And yet, I’ve also often noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between how resistant a person is to exploring the brahma-vihara practices, and how much benefit they eventually end up receiving from them!
Much of the resistance seems to come from the misunderstanding that the purpose of these practices is to cultivate positive emotions. And so there’s a tendency to try to force or manufacture an idea of how that emotion is supposed to feel, which often leads to the exact opposite: unskilful emotions of frustration, self-judgement, tension, irritation, boredom, and various other flavours of aversion.
Rather than trying to manufacture positive emotions though, the purpose of these practices is to cultivate the intention to wish well to others, to care about their suffering, to appreciate their joy, and to stay even-minded in the face of life’s “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Sometimes a positive emotion arises naturally as a result of that intention, but this is a side effect rather than the main goal. Understanding this can take the pressure off, reduce performance anxiety and help develop more patience for the organic development of these skilful mind-states.
“Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man [or woman], gathering it little by little, fills himself [or herself] with good.”
Dhammapada chapter 9 verse 122
A more contemporary metaphor I like to use is that of the Hubble telescope. My understanding is that this highly sophisticated piece of machinery is constantly scanning the universe in search of the faintest signs of life. In a similar way, when I practice the brahma viharas, at times it feels as if I’m turning my own Hubble telescope inwards in search of the faintest signs of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. There’s a deep listening that has to happen to access these tiny pulses of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity, but when they’re recognised, the metaphorical Hubble telescope transmits them into consciousness so they can be amplified. Once recognised and amplified, these skilful mind-states become resources that help to develop the deep calm and concentration necessary for insight to arise.
There are several suttas which describe the kind of chain reaction that happens when wholesome mind-states such as joy, tranquility, and happiness develop naturally into “vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance,” e.g. AN10.1. The brahma vihara practices are a powerful way to jump-start that development, so if you have found these practices a struggle, I encourage you to persevere, with patience, and be open to the transformations that may arise!

For information on new retreat opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, see here:
https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

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