Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, daily life, equanimity - upekkha, Equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, joy - mudita

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/

Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

Insight Meditation weekend – Auckland, New Zealand

St Francis weekend retreat group

This weekend’s insight meditation retreat at St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland was blessed by good weather, good food, good friends – and good singing and chanting, courtesy of a Pasifika dance group on Saturday and a Hindu meditation group on Sunday!  Much gratitude to everyone who contributed to providing such powerful conditions for the deepening of wisdom and compassion.

(thanks also to Sia, retreat centre cook, for taking this photo of most of the retreatants)

I hope to be able to offer two more similar weekends in Auckland, 1-3 May and 1-3 August, but sadly, the St Francis Retreat Centre is already booked on those dates.  I will keep looking for alternative venues, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

Brahma Vihara practice, friendliness - metta, Insight meditation - vipassana

Effort and Enjoyment

lakeshore ice 4
Chicago lake shore

Last week I gave a talk to the Lakeside Vipassana meditation group in Chicago.  It was an incredibly cold evening outside (by my standards) but there was a good turn-out and a warm response to my exploration of Effort and Enjoyment in meditation practice.

I’ve been meeting with meditation groups in a variety of locations these last few years: in the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and in a Massachusetts prison.  In spite of the diversity of people I meet, there are some surprisingly common themes among them.

One that stands out to me lately is how often our meditation practice can be unconsciously motivated by self-aversion.  Often when I talk about “enjoying your practice,” the common reaction is one of surprise that this is either possible, or even desirable.  There can be an assumption that whatever is experienced as pleasant is somehow unspiritual (whatever that means), and that Right Effort means only blood, sweat, and tears.  I know from my own experience that practicing  with this underlying attitude is unsustainable.  Meditation soon becomes a chore, a duty, and just one more thing to feel guilty about when I don’t do it as often or as well as I “should.”

Most of us are familiar with paying attention to what’s happening on the micro level in our bodies, through mindfulness of breathing or physical sensations, but sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out and check what’s happening on the macro level of practice.  What underlying assumptions, views, beliefs are motivating my practice?  Has it become just another self-improvement project, a subtle or not-so-subtle form of violence to who I take myself to be right now?

If so, it can be helpful to put more effort into the brahma-vihara practices, cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  In particular, the cultivation of joy for one’s own good qualities can be a powerful antidote to the tendency towards self-aversion.  The Buddha recommended doing this practice to a lay person by the name of Mahanama, and suggested that it would lead to complete freedom – so perhaps it’s worth a try!