This is Post 11 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
It is understandable that mettā, or Loving-Kindness, would be the best understood of the four brahmavihāras. It is the one which has its own short recorded discourse in the Pali Cannon of early Buddhist tradition, but more importantly, it is the one which most resonates with our experience in ordinary life. Mettā extends our ordinary notions of love to express an attitude of unconditionally valuing everything in our experience, and unconditionally valuing all of the people in our world. People who practice the mettābhāvanā meditation practice, would generally describe mettā as being characterised by a feeling or attitude of warmth, kindness, care, and of love – in the sense of a deep valuing and well-wishing. The most common translation of mettā is Loving Kindness, but it includes qualities of ‘unconditional love’, ‘unconditional valuing’, and ‘unconditional acceptance’.
The mettābhāvanā practice is often felt by practitioners to be powerfully transformative – a powerful support to psychological integration, and to social interaction. Because mettā is that attitude of Consciousness, which unconditionally values and accepts our experience, it powerfully transforms the evaluative, or ‘Feeling’ function of the human mind. In ordinary egoic consciousness, the evaluative, or ‘Feeling’, function discerns that which is of value to us by attending to the internal flow of pleasant and unpleasant feeling states that are our emotional guidance system throughout life.
This discernment between that which is of value to us and that which is not, may be conscious or unconscious, and plays a very important role in the egoic construction of identity, and in the establishment of the defensive threshold between egoic feeling, which we are happy to identify with, and the feeling aspect of the unconscious – emotional content of the mind that we would rather not feel, or that which we would rather not remember, or that which we would rather not recognise as an aspect of ourselves.
Mettā – Healing and Evolving the Emotional Body
In regard to how this Feeling aspect of the personal unconscious is experienced, there is a useful notion in esoteric Buddhism and other spiritual traditions – the Emotional Body. In my view, the idea that we have a psycho-spiritual anatomy made up of subtle energy bodies and ‘chakra’ points or areas, where the energetic state of the subtle bodies is most keenly felt, is a very useful one – and is one that fits the experience of myself and other meditators. I am in general very critical of the way this ‘somatic’ anatomy is described, and shall be attempting to bring some clarity to this area ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
The first four subtle bodies, which are associated with the first four chakras, are particularly evident as we explore meditation. Each of these four ‘personal’ subtle bodies is associated with one of the four brahmavihāras; and with the four Quadrants of the mandala. The energetic state of the third subtle body, which may be called the ‘Emotional Body’, is most keenly felt at the third chakra or solar plexus, and is associated with the red Western Quadrant of the traditional Buddhist mandalas. Probably the best way to understand mettā, is to understand it as an inherent ‘attitude of Consciousness. When we rest ‘as’ Consciousness, and give our attention to that attitude of Consciousness which is mettā, or Loving Kindness, the Emotional Body is profoundly held, and soothed, and healed – and emotions, feelings and felt-senses which are on the threshold of Consciousness are welcomed into our experience.
Consciousness Healing the Feeling Function
The idea of the Emotional Body is readily understood because we are all familiar with the experience of accumulating feelings that we do not want to feel, and we also all know how the defensive psychological mechanisms that keep feelings unconscious, ultimately fail to serve us – especially when that which we have attempted to repress returns as outbursts of distress, or depression, or irrational blaming of others who are perceived as ‘causing’ our feelings. Because Consciousness is by nature unconditionally accepting and unconditionally valuing of our felt experience, mettā has the potential, if practiced correctly, to bring profound healing both to our Emotional Body, and to our patterns of communication and behaviour.
When we rest as Consciousness and notice its qualities, we experience mettā as the Feeling aspect of that. Whereas egoic Feeling tends to be self-referencing, habitual and conditioned by past experiences, mettā is unconditional – expansive, accepting and embracing of the new in the present moment of experience. While egoic Feeling is often fiercely discriminatory in its valuing of some people and rejection of others, true mettā is unconditionally valuing of all people and all experiences – and that includes completely valuing all aspects of ourselves and of our own felt experience.
Happiness – the Pleasurable Experience of Loving
It is important to note also, that states of alignment with Consciousness are characterised, to varying degrees, by feelings of pleasure and fulfilment, and also of that even more difficult-to-define experience – happiness. If we are doing it correctly, a form of meditation practice that is based on the brahmavihāras, and that connects us with mettā, will also connect us with something very remarkable – the subtle felt experience of happiness that is not dependent on external causes. This is a very important aspect of the experience of meditators – the warmly affirmative quality of the field of Consciousness in which we rest; a subtle contentment; a subtle sense of receiving love, or of ‘being loved’ – a state which I like to call Uncaused Happiness.
Mettā can perhaps be thought of as an alignment of the Feeling function with Consciousness. The Feeling function is our discernment of value by our attention to the flow of felt experiences of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. A felt quality of some degree of happiness or fulfilment is always present as we rest as Consciousness, because Consciousness by its very nature brings satisfaction of so many of our most profound needs – it holds us in unconditional acceptance and reliably re-orientates the Emotional Body away from identifying with the residue of past deprivations and towards a recognition of the inherent fullness and contentment of the present moment of experience. This ‘happiness without a cause’ may come as a surprise. Many of the needs met in the experience of Consciousness will be ones that we were not previously even aware of.
The Ultimate Measure of Value is Happiness and Love
We could even say that familiarisation with mettā refines and differentiates our discernment of what true satisfaction is, and where true satisfaction may be found. Mettā allows us the become attuned to what is satisfying in every moment – that which is inherently truly satisfying is always closely related to Consciousness. Whereas the emotional guidance system of egoic Feeling often seems to lead us astray, the feelings that arise as we rest as Consciousness are a reliable guide to truly sustainable sources of satisfaction. The ultimate measure of value is true happiness, and there can be no basis for ethical discrimination that does not take account of this fact.
In Buddhist tradition there is an aspect of wisdom called the Discriminating Wisdom – we can think of it as a mode of discernment that arises from mettā. When we learn to rest as Consciousness, and familiarise ourselves with mettā, a much more refined capacity for evaluative discrimination naturally begins to develop.
The Qualia of Uncaused Happiness
Uncaused Happiness is one of the four qualia that I touched on in a previous posts (here) – one of the subjective difficult-to-define dimensions of experience, which we become keenly aware of as we engage in self-enquiry and meditation. Given the importance in human life of the wide range of subtle feeling states encompassed by the words ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’, these are much overlooked in psychology, philosophy and evolution theory, and also very misunderstood in many of the religious traditions.
I believe, like Quantum Biologist Stuart Hameroff, and others, that pleasure, desire, satisfaction, and happiness have been powerful driving forces in the creation of the vast diversity of life on planet Earth, and ultimately in the evolutionary processes that lead to Homo Sapiens. Evolution is usually understood to be about survival, but it is also about the incremental differentiation and refinement of the ability to seek satisfaction. Alignment with Consciousness is not only our most reliable source of real and sustainable satisfaction, it is also the key to our development of the new dimensions of individual and collective discernment that are needed if humanity’s pursuit of happiness is to be sustainable in the face of the global environmental limits that we have already reached.
Going Deeper into the Mettābhāvanā Meditation
For those who have already experienced the mettābhāvanā practice as a powerful way of healing and evolving the Emotional Body, the incorporation of the other three brahmavihāras into their practice, will be a logical way of taking their meditation process much deeper. Having practiced the mettābhāvanā myself for many years, I know that the practice is often not easy, and often not well taught, and that many practitioners will be glad of fresh understanding and support.
I am aiming here, to provide my readers with a deeper and more comprehensive presentation of mettā and the other brahmavihāras than they are likely to find elsewhere, and one which makes a much clearer distinction, than is usually made, between mettā (Loving Kindness) and karuṇā (Compassion); and between mettā and muditā (Appreciative Joy). There is also a crucial, though less obvious, relationship between mettā and upekṣā (Equanimity) which needs to acknowledged.
In future posts, I shall be talking about each of these other three brahmavihāras in detail, all of which are also aspects of love. When we learn to rest easily in the four brahmavihāras, we will be familiarising ourselves with the dimensions of love, and gaining an experiential grasp on the ethical nature of Consciousness – whose four-fold expression I have been calling the Mandala of Love.