This is Post 26 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
It has been the experience of the ancient meditation traditions of India and Tibet that the internal space of the human body is filled with not one but seven different energetic, or somatic, fields – the seven auras, or ‘subtle bodies’. Many readers will already be aware that each deeper layer in the succession of auric layers is slightly larger than the last, so that the layers that are closer to the surface are enclosed within the deeper ones.
An important feature of this spiritual anatomy that readers may not be aware of however, is the way the polarity of the layers alternates between receptive and expansive – yin and yang – and in way that is opposite in the two sexes. I have outlined this phenomenon in previous posts (here and here) and will be returning to it – this understanding is essential, in my view, for the meditator, and provides wonderful insights into the very different emotional life of men and women.
An understanding of the ways in which these fields of our spiritual anatomy interpenetrate each other and interact, is very useful information for the meditator. Of the seven fields, by far the most important are the first four, which I have been calling the surface bodies – these are somatic fields through which our sense of ‘being a person’ finds a sense of energetic embodiment. While these four key subtle bodies, and the relationships between them, are most comprehensively described by the meditation mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, the implicit description of embodied Consciousness that we find in the four brahmavihāras of early Buddhism (and in the pre-Buddhist teaching of the four brahmavihāras) gives us a much simpler ‘way in’ to this mandala wisdom.
Each of the subtle bodies is felt most keenly at the points in the body that we call the chakras. So, as previously in connection with the Mental Body and the subtle Physical Body (which I described here and here), we will find it useful in understanding our experience of the Emotional Body when we are resting as Consciousness, if we look briefly at the traditional Indian description of the Solar Plexus Chakra, which is outlined below.
The Manipūra Chakra – City of Jewels
The traditional Indian name of the third chakra, the chakra at the Solar Plexus, is maṇipūra, which is a Sanskrit word made up of the word maṇi, which means ‘jewel’, and pūra, which means city or place. Maṇipūra gives us an image of a sort of paradise – a place of extraordinary wealth and beauty – sparkling and radiant. In this context, the image of a landscape glittering with jewels is being used to symbolise not only ultimate beauty and value, but also unlimited ease, grace, contentment and happiness – a world of pleasurable and joyful feelings.
So maṇipūra is a place of love, happiness and contentment, which immediately gives some understanding of the Feeling aspect of the experience of resting as Consciousness. In the ancient Indian self-enquiry framework of the brahmavihāras, this energetic state and attitude of Consciousness, which is unconditional love, unconditional valuing, happiness and contentment, is called mettā in the early Buddhist language of Pali (and maitri in Sanskrit). The usual translation of mettā/maitri into English is Loving Kindness. To the extent that we can learn to rest the Emotional Body in a state of healing alignment, our perception is transformed, and our world takes on, at least to some degree, the feeling qualities of a paradise – we recognise benevolence and beauty all around us, and all our communication is informed by a wise and thoughtful kindness.
In the previous posts in this series, we have engaged deeply with the brahmavihāras of Equanimity (upekshā), and Appreciative Joy (muditā), which are states of receptive alignment with Consciousness in the Thinking Body and the Physical Body respectively. Mettā, the third brahmavihāra, takes us even deeper – into a gentle fire of subtle emotional transformation. The traditional Mahayana Buddhist ‘pure land’ associated with Western Quadrant, the pure land of Sukhāvati, is a realm of unconditional love and unconditional value, where everything is valued and loved. This western pure land is presided over by the great red Buddha of love and bliss – Amitabha. When the attitude of Consciousness that we call mettā is integrated and embodied, profound personality changes will often take place: we feel valued; we have faith in life’s benevolence; we have appropriate self-confidence; and our love flows easily – towards ourself and towards others.
Contentment – the Capacity to Love What Is
It is important to set these reflections on the brahmavihāra of Loving Kindness (mettā) in the context of an exploration of the contrast, or opposition, between the experience of resting the Emotional Body as Consciousness on one side, and the experience of ordinary egoic Feeling on the other. Egoic Feeling can be very dysfunctional in particular ways that we are all familiar with, and I will be returning to closely examine the nature of this dysfunction in my next article, but I would like first to talk more about the brahmavihāra of mettā itself – and the key idea that we can find kindness, contentment and happiness, simply by choosing to allow this deepening of the embodiment of Consciousness in the Emotional Body.
When Consciousness finds a natural bodily-felt resonance in us as mettā, we not only experience a much more refined capacity for discernment through Feeling to guide our actions and our communication in relationships – even more fundamentally we experience a contentment – a basic sense of acceptance and of healthy self-love, which I like to call ‘uncaused happiness’. Contentment is rare in the modern world, and often not even valued as a goal or an achievement, but it is a ‘city of jewels’ when we become familiar with it. All manner of blessings flow from true contentment. Among those blessings is the ease and the ‘flow of love’ that it can bring to our intimate relationships, but mettā is much more than this – it is an attitude and a way of being that can change the world.
This question of the lack of contentment in world culture, and the tragic way in which technological development has brought us, not greater contentment, but an undermining of contentment, is an enormous one – too big to address here – but I shall be returning to it. There are aspects of modern global capitalism, it has to be said, that systematically undermine contentment. Marketing has to create a perception of need and deprivation in order to ‘open up new markets’. By the measures that we use, which have nothing to do with real happiness, our national economies appears to thrive on consumption that is driven by unhealed narcissistic wounding and emotional emptiness. The sustainability paradigm on the other hand, requires an inner spiritual ‘transition’ (to use the language of the Transition Towns movement) towards a culture in which contentment, and perhaps mettā, and the ability to rest as Consciousness, are valued as primary goals.
Mettā – Allowing the Great Loving Kindness to Flow Though Us
It is important that we firmly establish the understanding that mettā is an entirely natural expression of Consciousness, otherwise there is a very great danger – and I have seen this many times and to tragic effect – that we will cultivate Loving Kindness with the idea that it can only be developed by an effort of the egoic will. Even worse we may imagine that we, as members of an elite group who have made this commitment to cultivating love, can do no wrong. We need to be aware that a crude and wilful dualistic approach of this sort, will tend to reinforce our egoic identifications so that we are in danger of taking one step forward and two steps back in our psychological and spiritual development.
An understanding of the paradoxical and inherently conflictual nature of the egoic mind is absolutely fundamental if we are to learn to meditate in a way that does not compound our egoic suffering and confusion – or perhaps simply create a more ‘spiritual’ form of egoic identification and unconsciousness. Spiritual development does require effort; but only a very subtle form of effort – an effort informed by self-enquiry – will achieve the transformation that is needed. Much more fundamental than the effort itself, is the requirement for a basic understanding of the non-personal and non-locatable nature of Consciousness – and hence an understanding of exactly where and how to apply that subtle effort. Our aim, after all, is to get out of the way and allow mahamaitri, the ‘great’ Loving Kindness of Buddhist tradition, to flow through us.
Mettā – Returning the Emotional Body to its Natural State
Only by first learning to know, and rest as, Consciousness, can we know how to apply effort appropriately. This is especially so in the domain of Feeling. The Emotional Body (like the closely related Volitional Body, Mental Body, and Subtle Physical Body) is best transformed by a Zen-like and effortless form of meditation practice, in which we simply rest the Emotional Body as Consciousness and allow ourselves to realign energetically – to return to our natural state.
While there may be some occasions when it may be appropriate to be loving by an effort of will, if it is psychological and spiritual healing that we seek, and if we seek to become consistent in our love – towards both ourselves and others – the way forward is to rest as Consciousness and open ourselves to its transformative power. The great practitioners of the Indian Mahayana understood that if we are practising correctly, the mettā, or Loving Kindness, that we come to know in our personal experience, is always only a pale reflection of mahamaitri, the Great Mettā, which is an archetypal power and an aspect of Consciousness. The practice of mettā therefore, is essentially the cultivation of a state of receptivity to, and alignment with, that archetypal power.
A Devotional-Receptive Approach to Emotional Healing
The implication of all this is that mettā is part of our own essential nature – we are never separate from it, and it is always available to us. The integration of mettā therefore requires only a shift of identification away from our habitual egoic psychological parts, and into an identification with Consciousness – an identification with the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha of Buddhist tradition. This fundamental idea is often forgotten in the way that mettā, and the other brahmavihāras, are presented. When we recognise that mettā is an attitude of the universal Consciousness, and recognise that Consciousness is what we are in our most essential nature, we are released into a whole new way of approaching the practice – an approach in which we come to see that mettā is the natural energetic state of the Emotional Body.
What I am advocating here, is the essence of the devotional-receptive approach of Mahayana Buddhism. If we rest as Consciousness, while attending to the felt-quality of our Solar Plexus Chakra (expansive in front and receptive behind), and making ourselves receptive to the suprapersonal energy of mettā that is inherent in the space of Consciousness, we will begin to sense this return to our natural state of love – and can allow this level of our psycho-spiritual anatomy to be progressively healed.
These articles are best read in sequence. To go to the next article in the series just click the ‘Next’ button at the bottom of the page. For an overview of the whole sequence of articles, with short summaries of each one, click here.