This is Post 12 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Consciousness is like the space we move through – it is easy to go through life completely unaware of it. And even though it is always there when we look for it, its nature can be difficult to grasp. If we are setting out to systematically familiarise ourselves with the ultimate nature of mind, the four brahmavihāras provide us with an extremely good, and relatively simple framework for engaging in this exploration – one that highlights the inherently ethical and relational nature of Consciousness. They also offer us four very attractive and relatively easy ways of moving out of ordinary egoic consciousness into states of alignment and healing.
The Four Mahabrahmavihāras
In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, reflection on the brahmavihāras brought a development to the early Buddhist approach to that teaching, which is of enormous practical and philosophical significance for those who wish to use the brahmavihāras as a framework for meditation and self-inquiry, and I would like to share it here.
Essentially, the understanding arose that it is helpful to see each one of the brahmavihāras as having both a personal, egoic and conditional aspect, and a transpersonal, or archetypal, or unconditional aspect – even though these two aspects can never be completely separated. The implication was that the most effective way to connect with the brahmavihāras is by opening ourselves to the transpersonal aspect of each one – and allowing the energies of each one to flow through us.
For example mettā, or Loving-Kindness came to be seen as a reflection, in personal felt experience, of mahamettā, or Great Loving-Kindness, which is unconditional, archetypal and transpersonal – an aspect of the field of Consciousness in which we rest. Each of the personally experienced brahmavihāras has a corresponding archetypal source in Consciousness – a mahabrahmavihāra.
Receptivity to the Qualities of Consciousness
This was a very important distinction to make, and there is great power in this idea, since it reminds us that the attitude and activity of loving, and indeed all creative and ethical thoughts and actions, are not achieved solely by the egoic will’s efforts, but happen as authentic responses to energies and potentials that we all carry ‘within’ us, as aspects of Consciousness. This archetypal dimension that we refer to as ‘within’, is not personal however. Rather, paradoxically, it is a collective and shared phenomena – a field of Consciousness which pervades and supports our collective reality.
In the approach to innerwork and meditation that I have come to rely on, it has been foundational to understand that profound emotional healing always necessarily requires an inward receptivity to the field of Consciousness, and a willingness to embrace the idea of resting ‘as’ Consciousness. When we regard Consciousness as an objective reality and relate to it in this way, we come to recognise it as a previously overlooked source of mental and emotional stability that has always been available to us. Out of this realisation comes not only a recognition of our true nature, but a recognition of a potential for creativity, healing and fulfilment that would have previously seemed impossible.
Consciousness is Inherently and Effortlessly Ethical
So, this mahabrahmavihāras teaching provides a wonderfully simple and comprehensive guide – like a checklist for every serious meditator or investigator of Consciousness. Each of the brahmavihāras has a corresponding mahabrahmavihāra that stands behind it, and each of these is an aspect of the field of Consciousness. And, through our receptivity to these aspects of Consciousness, and our willingness to rest in identification with each of these aspects of Consciousness, there is potential for profound healing of the egoic patterning of the psyche, and an integration into our conscious personality, of the ethical and relational qualities that the brahmavihāras represent.
To the degree that we are able to rest ‘as’ Consciousness in meditation, we experience a resonance of the mahabrahmavihāras: mahupekṣā (pronounced mahupekshā), the Great Equanimity; mahamuditā, the Great Appreciative Joy; mahamettā, the Great Loving-Kindness; and the Great Compassion, mahakarunā. The sense of mental and emotional stability that flows from resting as Consciousness, arises precisely because we are integrating these archetypal qualities into our personal experience – by letting go of psychological patterning that is incongruous with them. To recognise that Consciousness is inherently ethical and relational, and to recognise that the four brahmavihāras are the experiential cornerstones of an all-pervading ethical and relational reality, is truly extraordinary and revolutionary – it gives our identity and our spirituality a new basis and a new orientation.
Consciousness, Ethics and Society
The fact that Consciousness is inherently ethical and relational has enormous implications for society, and great significance for how we relate and communicate. Clearly this fact profoundly affirms the value of meditation practices that specifically aim to give us familiarity with, and alignment with, Consciousness. It also changes many of the assumptions that prevail in most of the religions, and also in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology’s theories of evolution.
It can be argued, on the basis of phenomenological research that we can all engage in through self-inquiry, that because the evolutionary process has optimised Homo Sapiens for the experience of Consciousness, it has also given man an ethical and relational nature. While our inherent moral sensibility has given rise to religious belief, it does not require religious belief. Indeed it is one of the tragic realities of human history that we very frequently see religious belief functioning, not as a support for our inherently ethic nature, but as an obstacle to our inherently ethical nature – and as a justification for violence. A moral sensibility is perhaps better achieved by simply looking deeply into our own hearts, and coming to a more complete understanding of what it is to be a human being – and the brahmavihāras are, in my view, our very best guide in that investigation.
The book that I am working on (A Mandala of Love: Consciousness, Ethics and Society) aims to provide a deeper exploration of the religious, scientific, philosophical, social and political implications that I have touched on here. In this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series however, I shall be trying to stay focused on information that will be of more immediate practical value in the context of meditation and self-inquiry – initially providing essential context, and later providing detailed and specific guidance.