This is Post 18 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
In order to fully understand the brahmavihāra, or attitude of Consciousness, that the Buddha called upekṣā, or Equanimity, it is very valuable to contrast it with its polar opposite in egoic consciousness. Indeed each of the four brahmavihāras is essentially an archetypal or transpersonal power by which a particular aspect of the egoic mind is healed. To help us consistently experience the transformative effect of the four brahmavihāras we need to understand the nature of the close relationship between these four beneficent cosmic principles on the one hand – and the four corresponding tendencies in the egoic mind on the other.
A Spiritual Choice within each Quadrant of the Mandala
In previous posts I have talked about the choices we face, in every moment, between each of the qualities of Consciousness on one hand, and each of the corresponding qualities of the egoic mind on the other. In regard to the Thinking function and the Mental Body, we find that Equanimity and the quality of Objectivity that is integral to it, are in polar opposition to the egoic tendency towards judgement and the inability to just be with things (and people) and let them be as they are. An important way in which this opposition was previously highlighted (in a previous post – here) was in the stark contrast between the positive mirror of Consciousness and the negative mirror of narcissism.
As we start to practice the mandala wisdom we recognise that each quadrant of the mandala presents us with a spiritual choice – and to recognise that we have a choice where we previously were not even aware that choice was possible, is always an experience of empowerment. We live in a world that claims to give us choices, and which even overwhelms us with choices, but ultimately the only thing that really gives us choices is Consciousness.
The Six Realms – Egoic conditioning is also cultural and social
There is more that can usefully be said, and needs to be said, in regard to Equanimity and the eastern quadrant, if we are to gain a clear and comprehensive sense of the key psychological landmarks in the inner landscape of the eastern quadrant of the mandala of meditation and self-inquiry. The Buddha has a further, particularly interesting and revealing angle on egoic thinking, that I would like to share. In order to illustrate the dysfunctional nature of the egoic mind very clearly he exaggerated its qualities to extremes. For example he appears to have characterised the egoic Thinking function as a ‘Hell Realm’ peopled by two types or groups of beings: one group being horribly punished and tortured; and the other group dealing out the pain. These dynamics are of course not only very prevalent in our relationships and in our society, but very familiar as intra-personal dynamics within our own minds.
I am referring here, to one of the Buddha’s many conceptual frameworks for talking about the qualities of egoic consciousness and the way egoic conditioning prevents us from reaching our potential – his teaching of the Six Realms. Most readers will be familiar with the ‘Wheel of Life’, or bhavachakra, a common visual aid in the context of Buddhist studies since the earliest years of that tradition. The Wheel of Life depicts, among other things, the Six Realms into which, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, beings will continue endlessly to take rebirth until they achieve freedom from the egoic conditioning that causes this to happen, by becoming conscious of what is happening and starting to make new choices.
This teaching is usually understood to be a cosmological teaching – a description of objective realms of existence into which beings reincarnate due to karma – the natural cause-and-effect process that guides our fate. In the east such things as luck and fate are generally believed to be built into the nature of the universe – not attributed to a divine being who keeps track of ethical conduct and administers rewards and punishments. In regard to the Six Realms, I am strongly of the opinion that these were primarily a way of communicating important truths of a psychological and social nature – and a key part of the Buddha’s very profound framework for self-inquiry. If we see these teachings as only a cosmological view, the wise archetypal psychology of the Buddha’s imagery is, unfortunately, often completely lost.
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, in view of our previous explorations of the mirror as a symbol of consciousness, the bhavachakra (or Wheel of Becoming) is understood to be a circular mirror in which, if we reflect deeply enough, we are able to see that we have been wandering unconsciously from life to life – and from one unconscious moment to the next. By tradition, Yama, the Lord of Death, who holds the mirror (he is often also depicted in the Hell Realms), appears ugly and fearsome at first, because of our unwillingness to see our own shadow, and to face the truth he is trying to show us – but he is actually a benevolent being whose intention is to heal and liberate us by the power of the mirror of Consciousness.
The Buddha’s Archetypal Psychology of Egoic Culture
It is important to recognise that the Buddha is offering us an archetypal or collective view of psychology – a social and cultural perspective. The Six Realms invite challenging reflection about interpersonal communication, group psychology and society, just as much as they explain our intra-personal experience of the mind. Wherever we look, either within in self-inquiry, or outwardly as we participate socially in our world, we notice egoic tendencies and mental states that correspond to the images in the Buddha’s Six Realms.
We do not know exactly how the Buddha presented this Six Realms model, but looking at it with the sensibility of archetypal psychology, we can see it as a very brilliant, very eloquent, and very true, way of talking about the archetypal forces that shape the psychology of egoic mind and culture. The six types of archetypal beings are: the Humans; the Devas (the ‘Gods’); the Asuras (the ‘Jealous Gods’); the Animals; the Pretas (the ‘Hungry Ghosts’); and those born into a Naraka, or ‘Hell Realm’. I only have time to talk briefly about the Narakas, or ‘Hell Realms’ in this post – but shall be returning to reflect on this and the other realms in future articles.
Six Realms; Six Types of Ethical Unconsciousness
It has to be remembered that the Buddha had a keen eye for the collective and social dimension, and could even be characterised as something of a social activist. His impulse to teach a path of spiritual liberation was not separate from his impulse to make the world a better place. He was continuously calling his students to a higher level of ethical awareness and generosity of spirit, and his teaching included guidance on ethical livelihood, commerce, animal welfare, conscious communication, and non-violence. Knowing that a real ethical sensibility has a psychological basis, his teachings on ethics and on the psychology of meditation were completely integrated.
The Six Realms model was one of the ways in which Buddha achieved this. Each of the realms very effectively, and dramatically, highlights an aspect of what Carl Jung would call the Shadow archetype. Each realm shows us one of the ways in which the habits of the egoic mind profoundly undermines our natural ability to function with the ethical and relational sensibility that would otherwise be natural to us. This makes the imagery of the ‘Wheel of Life’ extremely valuable for anyone who would wish to face into their own shadow and recover their innate ethical sensibility, or develop a psychological perspective on social behaviour and processes in society, or on the ethical conduct of those in our lives.
When addressing ethics we usually start by giving attention to actions and communication, but our starting point in developing a really deep ethical sensibility, such as the Buddha was wishing us to cultivate, has to be in reflection on the nature of mind. The meditative-inquiry process that I am presenting under the umbrella of these Mandala of Love ‘Meditation Guidance’ posts, is just such a process of self-empathy and self-inquiry as the Buddha was advocating. The aim of creating mental and emotional healing, self-knowledge, and psychological freedom, cannot be separated from the aim of recovering an ethical sensibility.
The Brahmavihāras as Healing Choices and Healing Powers
I have talked in a previous post about the way in which the conventionally experienced egoic self is in fact made up of psychological parts. The beings in the Six Realms are best regarded as archetypes – archetypes that find a reflection in our individual lives in our psychological parts. We can think of them as the ultimate and most extreme forms of the egoic parts. By understanding and reflecting on their characteristics, we have a way of seeing the psychological parts that make up our inherently divided egoic self much more clearly. In self-empathic inquiry we find that the character of our egoic parts corresponds remarkably closely to that of the seemingly extreme depictions of the beings in the Six Realms.
Thankfully, each of these aspects of egoic conditioning is healed by one of the brahmavihāras. When we find ourselves in any one of the six types of egoic conditioning represented by the Six Realms, the corresponding brahmavihāra reminds us that we have a choice, and a meditative path to freedom, which will heal that egoic part.
For those wondering how four brahmavihāras can be associated with six ‘realms’, I should perhaps explain first that the Animals and Humans occupy the same physical space and and are actually a continuity – so there are actually only five ‘realms’. As we all know, homo sapiens is an animal – albeit a very highly evolved one. Four brahmavihāras can be associated with the remaining five realms because the devas (who are already in higher states of consciousness) gain liberation through recognition of Consciousness itself and with the centre of the mandala. The remaining four brahmavihāras are healing balm for the remaining four Realms: the Asuras (Compassion – northern quadrant); the Humans/Animals (Sympathetic Joy – southern quadrant); the Pretas (Loving Kindness – western quadrant); and those in Narakas, or ‘Hell Realms’ (Equanimity – eastern quadrant).
The Eastern Quadrant Choice – peace and clarity; or punishment and self-punishment
The choice we are presented with in the eastern quadrant of the mandala is very simple. In regard to our Thinking function, we have stark choice – we can either live habitually and unconsciously like the denizens of the Buddhist ‘Hell Realms’, or we have the option to learn to open our Mental Body to that aspect of Consciousness, which the Buddhist tradition calls mahupekshā, the Great Equanimity.
If we chose the former option, our Mental Body will always be contaminated with the energies of hatred and judgement – much of it directed against ourselves, as we inwardly punish ourselves. And when we are not engaged in violence and judgemental attacks on others, we will be magnetically attracting the same towards ourselves – so that the cycle of attack and defence, judgement and self-justification, dealing out and receiving punishment, will go on and on for ever.
If, on the other hand, we choose to follow the Buddha’s advice and practice Equanimity, we find that resting the Mental Body ‘as’ Consciousness, is a profound antidote to the ‘Hell Realm’ tendencies of the Thinking mind. But we should not expect still water immediately. Although peace and clarity are always available to us, the transformation of first the Mental Body and then the wiring of the brain, takes time. We may have to ride the rapids for while, as we untangle the egoic patterning in our Mental Bodies. This is because the egoic parts are always in pairs – like persecutor and victim; educator and rebellious student; or prosecution and defence. Their conflict ties up our mental energy. When this energy is released as internal conflict reduces, we need to be careful and self-aware in our expression of the newly available energy.
If you wish to explore some of these ideas in your own meditative-inquiry practice, remember that the initial goal of the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle is balance, wholeness and psychological integration. It is my strong conviction that if we wish to achieve a wholistic alignment of all the surface bodies with Consciousness, we should make sure to connect, however briefly, with all four of the brahmavihāras every time we do a sit. Please read the subsequent articles in this series if you would like to explore the other brahmavihāras in detail.