This is Post 30 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
The ultimate source of the attitude that the Buddhist tradition calls mettā, or Loving Kindness, is unconditioned. Being unconditioned, it is inherent in Consciousness, and always available to us, but cannot be cultivated by an effort of the egoic will. This is a difficult but very important distinction to understand.
The Buddhist tradition, as it progressed into into its Mahayana (Great Vehicle) phase, began to use Sanskrit as its main language – so the Pali word mettā, or Loving Kindness, was replaced by the Sanskrit word maitri. It was also during the centuries of Buddhist meditation practice and scholarship during the Mahayana period, that an important understanding arose, which distinguished two levels of maitri: firstly, the universal, or archetypal source of maitri, which was called mahamaitri, or ‘great’ maitri; and secondly, the embodied reflection of that in our relationships and communication, and in the energetic fields of the body. Much of the time, I have not been making this formal distinction, because I believe that it is essential that we see mettā/maitri as always having these two inseparable levels, because maitri is ultimately best ‘cultivated’ by a paradoxical process in which we acknowledge its already existing presence in our experience as mahamaitri inherently present in Consciousness.
The Power of Consciousness to Heal the Emotional Body
Mettā, in essence then, can be thought of as the attitude, already inherent in Consciousness, of being unconditionally present with Feeling (samjñā skandha). It is therefore best understood as a process – a process by which our Emotional Body and our capacity for relationship is progressively healed by the power of Consciousness.
In the absence of the familiarity with Consciousness that gives us the capacity to rest as Consciousness and cultivate Presence, we find ourselves identified with currents of egoic Feeling in the Emotional Body – either feelings of vulnerability, or defences against that vulnerability.
In my last post (here), I spoke about the nature of these currents of feeling. They are multiple and ultimately non-personal, but it is useful to allow them to personify themselves as ‘psychological parts’, so that we can first separate from them, and then heal them by relating to them – holding them in Consciousness.
Unconditional Love – or just managing old emotional pain?
The process of integration of psychological parts can be difficult, because some of these egoic currents of feeling can even appear to be ‘loving’, and ‘kind’ when in fact they are only egoic compensations for old and unwanted feelings such as shame, unworthiness, emotional emptiness, or for feelings associated with a lack of fulfilling sexual intimacy. Tragically, our impulse to love, and even our impulse to practice mettābhāvana, or ‘Cultivation of Loving Kindness’ can actually be motivated by a need to repress the trauma, held in the Emotional Body, of being unloved, isolated, alone, and disconnected.
I am of the opinion that a comprehensive non-dual approach to personal transformation needs to include the ability to acknowledge the presence of the psychological parts that are the obstacles to the spacious and ’empty’ embodiment of Consciousness that we call Presence. If we lack such a non-dual psychology in our approach to the cultivation of mettā for example, we are in danger of merely cultivating egoic defences. Our practice of mettā can only be true and effective, if we unconditional embrace and value all of our feelings.
The egoic impulse to manage painful feelings by exiling parts of ourselves is simply not sustainable. If we do this we will always continue to carry these Shadow feelings in the Emotional Body, and the wholeness and integrity that we are seeking will always allude us.
Our Emotionally Divided Self
It is unfortunately very common that the psychological part of us whose role it has been in the psyche to manage shame, unworthiness, and lack of love, is the part that tries to cultivate love or, in the Buddhist context, sits down on the cushion to practice mettābhāvana. The outcome of this unfortunate starting point in meditation practice, is often an eventual return to resigned identification with the apparent limits of our capacity to love – but it can be even more disastrous than that.
The incredibly high incidence of various forms of sexual abuse by those in spiritual groups and religious orders is only one outcome of the lack of an appropriate spiritual psychology in these cultures. This is just one manifestation of a broad category of deep psychological incongruities that are universally seen both in religious life and in our ordinary everyday lives in families and relationships.
It is disturbing to recognise this truth, but there are many egoic patterns that appear kind, caring, thoughtful, considerate, concerned, generous, and altruistic – even empathetic and compassionate – that serve, at least in part, as psychological defences. This raises very deep questions, and people who embrace the values of fairness, compassion and social justice need psychological knowledge to avoid these dangers, and transformative practices that allow them to go deeper. Without a capacity to rest as Consciousness and to be nourished and healed by Consciousness, our Loving Kindness may unfortunately be either not sustainable or very limited.
Egoic Parts are Incapable of Unconditional Love
This cannot be over-stated. Love is part of our deep true nature – inherent in Consciousness and present in every moment of perception. The egoic parts however, are incapable of sustained and unconditional loving – and are also incapable of receiving love. The exiled currents of shame, of despair, and of accumulated emotional trauma and deprivation, need to be fully acknowledged before we can fully love.
Unacknowledged currents of feeling cause us to lose Presence – they show themselves in moods and reactivity. And without a psychology that accepts that we are not single persons, and accepts that the apparent self is actually an ‘internal system’ of transitory psychological parts, we identify the source of our emotional reactions simply as ‘self’ – or, worse still, as ‘other’. Both attributions are erroneous and deeply unhelpful. The first makes us feel mentally unstable and ashamed; the second fundamentally undermines our capacity for relationship – as we habitually fail to take responsibility for our feelings, attributing the ’cause’ of our feelings to circumstances, or to the person whose actions appeared to trigger them.
Anger and Aggression – Protecting Unconscious Vulnerability
When we rest as Consciousness on a regular basis, and gain a familiarity with Consciousness – including that aspect of Consciousness which is mettā, we develop the ability to hold the vulnerable and ashamed parts of ourselves in Consciousness. The ordinary egoic consciousness that we developed in childhood and early adulthood however, being unable to do this, adopts the opposite strategy.
Instead, it disowns or ‘exiles’ these vulnerable psychological parts, and often develops not only compensatory ‘loving’ and ‘caring’ identities to maintain a general defence against these ‘Exiles’, but also develops more overtly negative protective parts that are characterised by anger, hostility and aggression. Richard Schwartz, originator of the popular Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, would call all of the defensive identities ‘Protector’ parts. They ‘protect’ us from being overwhelmed by our feelings of vulnerability, preventing us from connecting with them, and keeping them ‘exiled’ from consciousness.
Schwartz identifies two types of Protectors. The compensatory loving that usually manages our unconscious shame is an example of a ‘Manager’ part in IFS. The aggressive attack on anyone who threatens the facade created by that ‘loving’ Manager part comes from a part that Schwartz would call a ‘Firefighter’. Firefighters provide an emergency response – a defence of both the vulnerable ‘Exile’ part, and of the ‘Manager’ when its usual defences against the vulnerable ‘Exile’ are in danger of failing.
Other examples of ‘Firefighter’ parts would be any kind of addictive or compulsive behaviours – parts that step in with a strategy to numb out, or mask, our ‘exiled’ feelings at times when our ‘Managers’ are failing. While Firefighters could be characterised as dishonestly ’emotional’, ‘Managers’ of our unwanted feelings can usually be characterised as dishonestly ‘rational’. They use ‘reason’ dishonestly as part of a general defensive strategy against the vulnerability of deeper self-empathetic connection – but by sacrificing vulnerability and shame they keep us on the surface of life, and limit our capacity for relationship.
Moving In and Out of Identification
Once we become familiar with Consciousness, and start to cultivate Presence, it becomes increasingly easy to notice ourselves moving in an out of identification with psychological parts. Essentially we are either in the mental and emotional stability of Presence, or in identification with one of our psychological parts. When we are in Presence however, we are able to be with our psychological parts – noticing them, acknowledging them, relating to them, and bringing the healing power of Consciousness to them.
By staying ‘in Presence’ and out of identification with our psychological parts, we maintain the conditions for their healing. The healing of the parts can happen in various ways. Sometimes resting as Consciousness can cause our psychological parts to spontaneously self-release without us even knowing about it. At other times a conscious process of ‘working self-empathetically with the psychological parts’ is needed.
By connecting with our psychological parts and relating to them, a transformational process is initiated. Our deep acknowledgement of them and their deep acknowledgement of us, paradoxically leads to their dissolution as semi-autonomous entities, and the integration of the psychological energies that they carry. This innerwork can either be done alone, or more easily, with the support of another – a self-enquiry companion. I shall be talking much more about this important self-empathetic form of self-enquiry – both below and in future articles.
Valuable healing of psychological parts can also take place that is only partial – the parts remain, but their energetic effect on the internal system within the body-mind is reduced. By resting as Consciousness, and opening ourselves to the energies of the brahmavihāras, we cultivate a non-reactive and compassionate state of Presence, or embodied Consciousness, in which the egoic parts start to relax and transform – and to disengage from their defensive activities on our behalf.
Presence is our natural energetic state, but because of the conflicting energies of the egoic parts, there is incoherence in the subtle bodies. Hence, there are degrees of Presence, and our degree of energetic alignment with Consciousness varies widely. At one end of that spectrum is the highest degree of Presence, where we are resting as Consciousness, and our energetic state in the four surface bodies is characterised by the four brahmavihāras – Equanimity (Mental Body), Sympathetic Joy (Subtle Physical Body), Loving Kindness (Emotional Body), and Compassion (Volitional Body). At the other end of that spectrum is the lowest degree of Presence, where we are completely in identification with psychological parts, in which case we find it very difficult to find these positive qualities in ourselves at all.
Two Powerful Ways to Return to Presence
When we are resting as Consciousness in the midst of life, and experiencing a reasonably high degree of Presence, there is a sense of internal spaciousness from which we feel both connected with our psychological parts and separate from them. We can recognise them as parts of ourselves, but we are in relationship with them – not identified with them.
But when we lose this spaciousness and fall into complete identification with psychological parts, they are felt to have a strongly egoic character – characterised by qualities of contraction, emotional reactivity, wilfulness, and various degrees of mental anxiety or fear. In this case we are more likely to think of them using the term ‘egoic’ parts, rather than the more neutral term ‘psychological’ parts.
There are two dimensions to the process of returning to a higher degree of Presence once we have fallen into identification with psychological parts. The first is to rest as Consciousness, and second is to connect self-empathetically with the parts, noticing their perceptual components. It is especially transformative to recognise the volitional component of the part – their purpose and task within our internal system, and the needs that they attempting to meet for us.
If we are guided in our practice of meditation by the notion of resting as Consciousness, we have a very powerful way of building Presence relatively quickly, especially if we are simultaneously using the four brahmavihāras as our framework for meditative enquiry. This practice on its own may be enough for some people, but for most of us the ability to inwardly explore, and relate self-empathetically to psychological parts, is an enormous help – especially if we have emotional healing to do, and need to stay in Presence in the midst of the complex relationship dynamics and the emotional challenges of modern life.
If our emotional Shadow parts are to be healed, and if we are to become whole and energetically coherent, our ‘Protector’ parts may need to be related to, so that they can relax and recognise that they are no longer needed, and our ‘Exile’ parts may need to be held in the unconditional love that only Consciousness can provide – so that they can self-release and integrate.
Inner and Outer Transformation
In my view, and in my experience, the practice of meditation, the practice of ‘working with psychological parts’, and the practice of conscious communication, go hand in hand. As we learn to rest as Consciousness and start to embody the energies of mettā in the Emotional Body, we create the internal climate of acceptance, spaciousness, and dis-identification, which supports both the internal psychological healing processes, and the outer processes of relationship and community building, that need to happen in 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.