This is Post 27 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
When we rest as Consciousness, the Feeling aspect of that experience is the brahmavihāra of mettā, or Loving Kindness. Mettā is associated in Buddhist tradition with the colour red, with the end of the day, and with sunset. Although, in Western tradition, the Feeling function is associated with the water element, in Indian tradition it is associated with the element of fire.
In the poetry and imagination of India (and that of the first nation peoples of North America) fire is the element that turns the gross into the subtle, that cooks and transforms things, that extracts bright metals from dull ores. When the body is cremated, fire helps the soul on its journey to the heavenly realms. Fire is the element that radiates a nourishing warmth – but we instinctively recoil from it when it threatens to scorch us. It is the upward-rising and aspirational element that dances, and appears to reach up to heaven. All this fire imagery provides eloquent symbolism of the Feeling function. In India, the Hindu religious ascetic, or sannyasin, will usually put on robes that are the colour of fire when he or she abandons the worldly life – signifying the fire of their aspiration, and the self-transformation that they are undertaking.
In the context of the mandalas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the fiery Feeling function in the red Western Quadrant appears to carry us upward from the earthy Sensation function in the yellow Southern Quadrant, to the airy function of Volition / Intuition in the green Northern Quadrant. The downward-flowing water element in the blue, or white, Eastern Quadrant, which symbolises the Thinking function, carries us back down to the yellow Southern Quadrant, the earth element, and the Sensation function, and so completes the cycle. The elements, in this context, are symbols of the cognitive-perceptual functions that Indian tradition calls the skandhas – something that students of the mandala wisdom need to be keenly aware of.
It is traditional among the Tibetan people to orientate their maps to the path of the sun, so they put the blue eastern sunrise point at the bottom of the mandala, and the red western sunset point at the top – so the way in which the element symbolism highlights the cyclical process of the mandala is unfortunately usually lost. While it is very much my wish to honour the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I find the western-style orientation of the mandala, which puts the north-point at the top, to be much more symbolically meaningful.
The archetypal symbolism of the two axes – the two main pairs of polarities within the mandala – are so important. By placing the Earth-Air axis vertically, with the Earth Element, which in Buddhist tradition symbolises the basic and foundational skandha of vedanā (Sensation) at the bottom; and the Air Element, which symbolises the subtle and energetic skandha of samskaras (Intuition/Volition) at the top, we allow the mandala to express important truths that would otherwise be missed – important truths that in other traditions might be suggested symbolically by the dichotomies of Heaven and Earth, or Spirit and Matter.
A Four-fold Embodiment of Consciousness
The foundational stages of meditation practice require that we familiarise ourselves deeply with embodied Consciousness in all four of the surface bodies, and one of our best guides to this four-fold embodiment is the cycle of the four brahmavihāras. The Emotional Body is the third of the surface bodies, and is associated with the Western Quadrant of the mandala, and with the brahmavihāra of mettā. It is the Emotional Body that is felt most keenly in the region of the maṇipūra, or Solar Plexus Chakra, which is a point in the centre of the trunk of body just below the sternum, which I have written about in the previous post (here).
As previously in regard to the relationship between the subtle bodies and the chakras, it is helpful in meditation to remember that it is best to think of the Emotional Body as the primary structure, and the maṇipūra chakra as secondary – even though we may choose to make the chakra area a focus of our attention in meditation. It is also helpful to remember that although the Emotional Body is an apparently personal field of energy associated with our physical body, but experienced as extending several inches beyond our physical body, its energetic effect is not limited in space. Indeed it is ultimately not limited in either space or time, and it is certainly not personal. While ‘our’ experience of Feeling will include feelings associated with our personal history, it also includes collective feelings that relate to group processes in our family, to processes in the lives of our ancestors, to our culture, and to the soul of our global community.
So in understanding Loving Kindness (mettā) as a deepening of our embodiment of Consciousness, we are building on the understanding that we have established in connection with Equanimity and Appreciative Joy, where we saw that these first two brahmavihāras are best understood as the way in which Consciousness finds natural embodiment in the Mental Body and Physical Body respectively. The brahmavihāra of Compassion (karuṇā), which I will be addressing in a future article, completes our four-fold understanding – and the four-fold experience of embodied Consciousness that is the brahmavihāras. Compassion is often taken to be synonymous with Loving Kindness, but this can be unhelpful and confusing. When we come to the brahmavihāra of karuṇā, I will be explaining its association with the Volitional / Intuitional Body – and its particular role in both spiritual motivation and empathy.
Living as Love is Natural – not an Ideal
As we come to recognise mettā, or Loving Kindness, as an aspect of our own true nature, and as an aspect of our embodiment of Consciousness, there is a very significant deepening of our sense of what it means to live as embodied Consciousness. For me, the practice of mettā is an invitation to recognise that Loving Kindness is an aspect of our true nature, and to learn to live as that love. It is perhaps important however, to de-idealise that statement. However deeply significant and beneficial it may be to achieve this level of embodiment of Consciousness, it is important to remember that it is in fact completely natural to live as love – or at least to recognise that love is always available, through the practice of resting as Consciousness.
To be absolutely clear, it needs perhaps to be said once again, that the mettā practice does not invite us merely to embrace Loving Kindness as a spiritual ideal, and to use the egoic will to push out love. Such an approach might enable a spiritually aspirant and idealistic part of us to temporarily override the feelings of other egoic parts of us that do not share the same sentiment, but this approach holds psychological dangers if we are not very careful. If our practice is to become more deeply transformative, and is to be based in a deeper wisdom, and sustainable in the long term, them we must move on from this heroic approach – we must move on into a stage of meditative receptivity, in which we are recognising the brahmavihāras as suprapersonal forces and surrendering to them.
For me, the noble aspiration to practice mindfulness and cultivate love, explicitly involves taking care to avoid merely adopting a compensatory ‘loving’ identity. Unfortunately this is actually very common, especially in religious and spiritual communities, and while it can sometimes eventually lead practitioners to genuine states of spiritual alignment, as often as not, it is shown to be simply superficial, or psychologically divisive, or at worst, a way of compounding existing psychological wounding, or patterns of spiritual narcissism. If we do not make the internal shift into a true devotional receptivity toward the ’empty’ spiritual forces beyond the egoic mind, we can end up worshipping ourselves.
The Problem of Idealisation
Most people are unaware of the psychological phenomenon of idealisation, which is very unfortunate given its prevalence in our lives, and its power to undermine our psychological development – especially in the context of spiritual studies, and of the non-duality teachings such as we are engaging with here. This is a difficult and subtle question because the ideal does exist – but only in the realm of pure Consciousness, in the archetypal realm, in the imaginal realm of the male and female archetypal Buddhas, which I shall be talking about in future articles.
On the ordinary human level, we need to de-idealise, de-personalise, and de-sentimentalise love – and this is what the brahmavihāras cycle can do if we are practising it correctly. Mettā in particular, has the effect of deepening our natural empathetic responsiveness to the people in our lives, and it heightens our sense of what it really important, what is really of value – but it is important not to force it. Mettā is a return to our natural state. It is a burning away of the years of only loving ourselves and others conditionally, or not at all – only according to arbitrary personal evaluations, by ourselves and others. When we connect with mettā, there is a potential for love to be recognised as a given – ever present, always available, an inseparable aspect of who we are as Consciousness.
There is no need to force the re-valuing process, as any forcing of the process will only undermine it – rather the process involves recognising that we are loved, and always have been and always will be. The depth of our capacity to love is directly related to the depth of our capacity to receive love – enter into a devotional-receptive relationship with the love which is inherently present in the ’empty’ experience of Consciousness. I shall be talking much more about this in future articles.
[The Buddhist tradition provides us with a rich archetypal psychology that describes the devotional-receptive attitude of resting as Consciousness and allowing the mettā, or Loving Kindness aspect of that experience to heal us. This attitude is personified by the figure of Pandaravārsini, the red female Buddha who is the feminine-receptive counterpart of the great masculine-expansive Buddha Amitabha, the red Buddha of love. Together they personify two aspects of the Discriminating Wisdom, and two aspects of mettā. To distinquish the bodily-felt quality of this devotional-receptive Pandaravārsini aspect of the Discriminating Wisdom, I have been calling it ‘Uncaused Happiness’ and have written about this in detail in a subsequent article here.]
We make love much more accessible, when we recognise that it is normal and natural. When we are unable to love, there is no need to judge ourselves – judging will not help. What is required is just the continued choice to rest as Consciousness, so that we familiarise ourselves with the love that it already there, and return to the healing process. Our Emotional Bodies carry the energetic momentum of a life-time of contracting against deprivation, of defensive self-devaluation, of emotional pain, and of unmet need. That freezing was created in time, and it will take a steady application of the gentle heat of mettā over a period of time, to melt it away.
Once we have recognised the eternal Consciousness, and recognised that Consciousness is embodied in us as mettā, or Loving Kindness, we then need to be gentle and patient with ourselves – to appreciate the miracle of that ever-present warmth, and to blow very gently on the tiny flame. We need to trust that the return of love is inevitable and is already happening – that the combustion of all our old emotional conditioning has already begun, and is unstoppable if we continue to chose to rest as Consciousness.
Defensive Idealisation – Splitting off our unloved parts
As babies and as young children – the time when much of our egoic identity is being formed – we are frequently, and quite naturally, in states of idealisation. Our safety and well-being is dependant on our care-givers, and we naturally ‘love’ them and idealise then. But there are often defensive dynamics in this ‘loving’. We desperately need our care-givers to be ideal – more ideal than ordinary human beings can ever be. And we desperately want to be ideal ourselves, so that we can be loved and love ourselves. In reality our care-givers usually carry their own wounding, and are not able to rest as Consciousness, so they cannot help but pass on their wounding to us. And although we may try, we are certainly not able to be ideal ourselves, however hard we strive.
In the process of trying to protect ourselves from emotional pain, our defensive idealisation of our caregivers in childhood, and our attempts to be ideal ourselves, become deeply rooted egoic patterns in which we split off the parts of ourselves that are not getting the love they need, or are seen as a threat to our being loved. These psychological parts that developed in childhood, will continue to use these strategies into adult life. If we carry this sort of wounding in our Emotional Body, we will often seek ideal people, or compulsively idealise people who are not ideal, in the hope that those old childhood parts might be loved.
Returning to Trust, Connection, and Consciousness
While loving relationships of all sorts can support healing, this sort of early childhood patterning of the Emotional Body can leave us vulnerable for life, because in the end, only Consciousness and especially that aspect of Consciousness which Indian tradition calls mettā, can provide the love that our egoic parts need. The ‘splitting off’ is always a dis-identification from Consciousness and a loss of the authentic self that is rooted in Consciousness. Our healing requires a return to the original place of connection, and a return to a state of trust in love, which ultimately only found through resting as Consciousness, and which was lost through the always forgivable failures of our early nurturing environment and our relationships with our care-givers. For more on this theme of the healing of our narcissistic wounding through resting as Consciousness, consider reading my previous articles (here and here).
Defensive idealisation is an important mechanism for us to understand in the context of spiritual studies, because it is so frequently seen and experienced in the relationship of spiritual students and their teachers. Indeed religious and spiritual cultures tend to normalise and even encourage this type of idealisation – even to the extent where, it can be said that, the unconscious idealisation in the relationship with the guru, or the priest (or the therapist), is actually undermining the spiritual development of both parties. While there are magical and wonderfully kind people in this world, the most reliable source of our healing is always found in our direct relationship with Consciousness, and not in persons – even very wise and highly developed persons.
A worshipful style of relationship with a spiritual teacher may be appropriate and necessary in the early phases of spiritual study, just as it is perfectly appropriate and necessary for the child to idealise the parent, or for the lover to fall in love. The invitation and the challenge however, is to engage in self-enquiry and to notice how aspects of Consciousness are being projected out – to notice the extent to which we are making our happiness and our growth of wisdom dependent on others, rather than looking within.
Appreciation and Appreciative Joy – not Idealisation
In the course of the natural untangling of our emotional life that occurs as we learn to more fully embody Consciousness, the tone and dynamics of our love relationships are seen to change. It is enormously freeing for our partners not to have to be ideal, and not to have to be the source of love for parts of us that initially cannot actually receive love anyway. As our contentment develops though a healing of the Emotional Body and the development of mettā, our lovers, and our friends and family, can relax into their own healing process.
As the nature of the love in our relationships evolves, the predominant feature is not idealisation but appreciation – and a more and more complete valuing of everything that occurs in the unfoldment of those relationships. This appreciation is in part a natural appreciation of the actual qualities of others as they meet our needs. But it can become much more. It becomes an appreciation informed by brahmavihāra of Appreciative Joy – a quiet and undramatic sense of wonder at the extraordinary richness, beauty, and mystery of embodied Consciousness, that is naturally being expressed in the ordinary non-ideal human beings with whom we share our lives.
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.