This is Post 13 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
When we look within, we find that Consciousness, the ultimate nature of the human mind, appears to be structured like a mandala – like a compass rose. And at each of the directions of this inner compass are ethical principles that are inherent in the nature of Consciousness. In the last few posts, I have been starting to explore one cultural form of this archetypal mandala structure – an ancient pre-Buddhist formulation called the four brahmavihāras – the four ‘abodes of Brahma’, sometimes called the four immeasurables.
Meditation as a Mandala-Cycle
Traditionally in the Indian and Himalayan countries our circumambulation of, or progression around, the mandala, follows the path of the sun in the northern hemisphere, so we enter the mandala in the east, which is associated with sunrise; then move round clockwise to the south, which is associated with mid-day; then move round clockwise again to the west, which is associated with sunset; then move round clockwise again to the north, which is associated with midnight; and then return to the east point and the sunrise once again. I shall be adopting this traditional order as I go deeper into the four brahmavihāras in the future articles is this series over the coming weeks. When we have a full understanding of all four brahmavihāras there is great value in practicing all four in sequence, as a mandala-cycle.
The four Cardinal Directions of the Soul’s Moral Compass
When we follow the Indian convention and lay out the four brahmavihāras at the four points of the compass, we have upekṣā (pronounced upekshā), or Equanimity, in the eastern quadrant; muditā, or Appreciative Joy, in the southern quadrant; mettā, or Loving-Kindness, in the western quadrant; and, karunā, or Compassion, in the northern quadrant. These four archetypal attitudes of Consciousness are of such importance and of such universality, that it would not be unreasonable to think of them collectively as the Soul’s moral compass.
I have spoken previously about Carl Jung’s intense excitement about his recognition of the mandala archetype and his discovery of the psychodynamics of the four functions of Consciousness, which showed how egoic consciousness inevitably creates a Shadow – an area, or areas, of ethical unconsciousness. Jung recognised that although, on the egoic level, the development of the four functions is always one-sided, the mandala archetype, of which the four brahmavihāras provide such a good example, always provides us with a way of moving towards balance and wholeness, and towards a healing of the egoic patterning that makes us blind to the ethical dimensions of life.
The Buddha – the Greatest Ever Teacher of Self-Inquiry
It has been tempting for some writers to see the four brahmavihāras as just another of the many and various Buddhist lists of virtues and positive mental states, but I believe this has been a misrepresentation. This teaching is not even the Buddha’s formulation. It is more ancient even than the Buddha, who lived around 500 BCE. Thankfully however, he recognised the power of the brahmavihāras and presented them to his students so that the Buddhist tradition came to adopt them as its own. It has to be remembered that the Buddha was not just a meditation teacher, as our modern expectations might assume. Rather, he was a teacher of self-inquiry, and almost certainly the greatest teacher of self-inquiry that the world has ever known.
The fine details of how the Buddha taught meditation, or Mindfulness, or self-inquiry, could not be recorded – indeed nothing of his teachings was recorded for four whole centuries after his death. The writing down and then the repeated copying by hand of the memorised fragments of the Buddha’s life and teachings triggered a cultural transformation in parts of India like nothing that the world had ever seen before, or has ever seen since – but that record – the Pali Canon – though enormous (more than ten times larger than the Bible) is very fragmented and much that is of enormous significance was inevitably lost.
The Buddha’s Framework for Self-Inquiry
I, like many other students of the Buddha’s teachings, have spent much time in my twenties, piecing together the fragments of information that history has left us. I was convinced, when I first learnt about them, that the brahmavihāras, and especially the mahabrahmavihāras, were of great importance, but my experience of them was not experiential. In the decades since, studying Quakerism (originally a form of Christian mysticism), Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’, and the experience of contemporary non-duality teachers (Ziji Rimpoche, Adyashanti, Ekhart Tolle) I have found myself coming back to my earlier conviction that the four brahmavihāras were for the Buddha a guiding framework – for ethics, for self-inquiry, for meditation, and for personal spiritual transformation.
Although this is my conviction, this is not the reason why I want to give time to this framework in my posts over the next few months. I shall be giving time to them simply because they are so incredibly valuable, useful, and insightful for any serious meditator; for any student of self-inquiry; for anyone interested in psychology, communication, ethics, society, or social activism; and for anyone interested in Consciousness.
A Creator God’s Approach to the Creative Process
To give the brahmavihāras the importance that is due to them, it needs to be remembered that Brahma is the creator god of ancient India – a figure who represented primordial creative power. It should not come as a surprise therefore that the brahmavihāras give us profound insights into the creative process – insights on both practical and metaphysical levels. Although there is enormous interest in high level creativity, it is very difficult to teach creativity because it is so closely related to Consciousness, which is itself so difficult to conceptualise. I plan to talk about creativity, especially collaborative creativity in relationships and groups, in a future series of articles.
Meditation and Manifesting – Be the change you want to see
Brahma and the brahmavihāras – the creative attitudes of Brahma – also take us into the mysterious territory of manifestation. The interest in the energetic and magical dimensions of creativity is now enormous. The mandala-wisdom of the brahmavihāras has much to say on this, and brings the much needed dimensions of ethics and sustainability to this subject. I will be touching on this important area in the upcoming posts. Mahatma Gandhi was showing understanding of both the spiritual and social dimensions of manifestation when he said “be the change that you want to see in the world”.
For me, the study of Consciousness, the study of creativity, and the study of ethics, go hand in hand – and the negative opposite of creativity is reactivity. That which is fair, just, and gives life meaning, is always connected to creativity, and that which is unsustainable, unjust, or violent, is always a form of reaction – an reflex action, an action performed without consciousness or consideration in regard to its effects on others. In previous posts on this theme, I have emphasised the dimensions of ethics and relationship, but I would like to invite my readers to also consider the brahmavihāras as creative attitudes – attitudes that have enormous practical value in our everyday lives and relationships, even as they can also be described as cosmic attitudes – the attitudes of Consciousness itself.