The approach to meditation that I have adopted in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series of articles, is unusual because it brings together elements from philosophical, spiritual, and psychological traditions that do not usually cross-pollinate, and tend not to understand each other. My aim in this article is to provide an overview of my approach, and to show why I have found the relatively unknown brahmavihāras to be so essential to my framework for meditation and self-enquiry.
My Psychological and Spiritual Influences
Although I was born into a nominally Christian family and a nominally Christian culture, my first real spiritual education, during my twenties, was in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Community, a Western Buddhist tradition that integrates Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana elements, with a special emphasis on re-creating something of the spirit of the lost Indian Mahayana in a Western cultural context – especially the spirit of the Bodhisattva Ideal. In my thirties I became a Quaker for 10 years, and subsequently studied with several different non-Buddhist non-duality teachers.
Although I worked in General Psychiatry settings for many years (I became an Occupational Therapist and made use of the very Buddhist ‘open system’ model of the person, developed by Gary Kielhofner), the main psychological perspectives that I have drawn on personally are those are Carl Jung, Eugene Gendlin (original developer of the ‘Focusing’ self-empathy/self-enquiry practice), and Marshall Rosenberg (originator of the Nonviolent Communication model).
Returning to Meditation – A Fresh Approach
Since my return to meditation in 2016, my daily practice has been experimental, personal, and driven by my own self-enquiry into the nature of Consciousness – the ’empty’ vijnāna skandha of Buddhist tradition. Although it has been informed to some extent by my Buddhist studies in my twenties, the new approach to meditation that emerged from my meditative enquiry was somewhat different. While the focus on mettā (Loving Kindness) and the other brahmavihāras; on ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’; and on ‘Just Sitting’ practice, has remained, my emphasis and my frame of reference for these practices has subtly changed.
I believe the frame of reference that evolved was still characteristically Buddhist, but was one which is much more focused on Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha); on self-enquiry; and the ultimate goal of fundamentally releasing the energies (the kleshas) that reinforce the personalising tendency of the egoic mind, rather than on modifying the egoic minds contents. The success of this new approach – in supporting my own mental and emotional development, and helping me to face the considerable challenges that I was facing – has been so marked that I have felt strongly motivated to share my experience as best I can.
The Mandala as a Psychological Map
Like Carl Jung, I love to make connections, and love to notice the archetypal patterns that inform our lives and inform our psychological and spiritual models. A particular fascination since I discovered this archetype in my early twenties, has been the mandala. A great diversity of mandala images, representing forms of cosmology and psychology that are based on a four-fold model of the Divine, are seen in vastly different cultures across history and across the globe. The most refined expressions of the mandala archetype, in Carl Jung’s view, and in mine, are the mandala images that can still be seen today in Tibetan Buddhism – and which originally emerged in the form that we are familiar with, during the later phase of the Indian Mahayana period.
The Bardo Thodol – Tibetan Book of the Dead
Carl Jung found the mandala that is described in the Bardo Thodol (or Tibetan Book of the Dead) to be a revelation. Among other things, the mandala wisdom of the Bardo Thodol integrates, and establishes correspondences between, three key symbolic formulations, each of which can be arranged as a mandala or quaternity: the Five Wisdoms; the Five Skandhas; and five of the Six Realms (all except the Animal Realm). The combination of his understanding of the Tibetan symbolic system, and his years of dream analysis with his patients, gave Jung the conviction he needed to publish his ground-breaking and comprehensively detailed Psychological Types essay, which described a mandala-form model of the psyche.
Carl Jung’s Genius and Gift to Humanity
The importance of Jung’s Psychological Types is not widely appreciated. What made the ideas in that essay so important as a spiritual document was the way it explained the egoic Shadow in such detail, and so comprehensively described the oppositions within the archetypal mandala structure of the egoic mind. It explained, via these oppositions, the various ways in which the natural human ethical sensibility is so easily lost, so that profound inhumanity becomes possible – and has been witnessed so frequently in human history. The weight of the understanding that Jung presented in that paper, was equal to, and similar in importance in my view, to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, since, like that teaching, it demonstrated both the nature of our psychological dysfunction and egoic bondage, and the means of our liberation from it, through Consciousness.Jung_Functions
These oppositions (between Feeling and Thinking; and between Intuition/Volition and Sensation in particular) are a key feature of Jung’s mandala – symbolising the way that Consciousness allows us to ‘hold the tension’ between these opposites. This need to achieve a separation of these opposites and a reconciliation of them at a higher level, that was so well descried by Jung – is seldom highlighted, even in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition where knowledge of these dynamics is identified symbolically as a key aspect of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom, which plays such an important part in that model.
The Five Skandas – Lost in Translation?
In the articles in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, I have for the sake of brevity, avoided engaging with the understandable but incorrect historical translations and loss of meaning that has made the wonderful Five Skandhas teaching so impenetrable and almost valueless for most modern students of Buddhism. Instead I have made use of Jung’s Four Functions of Consciousness, which I believe play the same role in Jung’s mandala structure of the psyche that the Five Skandhas teaching does in the Buddhist tradition.Skandhas_Jung
Both Carl Jung’s four cognitive-perceptual functions, and the ancient Indian skandhas provide a framework for analysing the way in which, in the absence of a deep recognition of the ’empty’, or non-personal, nature of Consciousness, the component elements of the cognitive-perceptual process collapse into the illusion of a separate self. Although I would very much like to present an analysis of where the skandhas got lost in translation in the course of history, I shall not try to do that here. Although I have not yet published on this, I have written about it, I would very much like to post articles on this important theme in the future.
The Male and Female Archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala
Although I have personally found the beautiful symbolic personifications of Consciousness in the Bardo Thodol to be very valuable, a have also chosen, at least in the context of the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, to avoid detailed reference to the five pairs of male and female buddhas, which the Five Wisdoms are associated with. While I personally find it fascinating to explore the archetypal symbolism of these beautiful figures, this more detailed exploration will have to wait for a future time.
My concern has been that, while a personally have a deep love of the archetypal Buddha figures, the symbolic imagery of Tibetan Buddhism can tend to overwhelm some of us, as Westerners – or switch us off. Also the great cultural richness of Tibetan Buddhist iconography can easily become a distraction from the simple and bodily-felt nature of the non-dual wisdom that these images are intended to connect us with. It is always important, in my view, for spiritual students to be able extract the universal spiritual knowledge from the cultural form in which it comes – as the highest-level Buddhist practitioners have always been able to do, even in regard to their own tradition.
The Four Brahmavihāras and the Five Wisdoms
In place of the Five Wisdoms therefore, I have initially used the Four Brahmavihāras, which are very similar, very closely associated, and very much more accessible as a framework for self-enquiry. Indeed they are so closely related in their symbolic associations, and in the somatic experience that they present in the body, that we can only assume that the brahmavihāras were a precursor in the earlier teachings of the historical Buddha, of the later Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the Five Wisdoms. I have found that studying the two systems concurrently and recognising their inseparability has brought a richness and clarity to my understanding of both – and I thoroughly recommend this approach to others.Brahma_Wisdoms
The Inherently Ethical Nature of Consciousness
In my view the four Brahmavihāras also have the advantage over the four corresponding Wisdoms among the Five Wisdoms, of being much more obviously relational and connected to ethical principles. They point very clearly and concretely to the inherently ethical and beneficial nature of Consciousness, and the way in which, as we explore them in meditation and self-enquiry, the cultivation of a familiarity with the somatic experience of the brahmavihāras is inseparable from the development a natural ethical sensibility and naturally compassionate orientation in life.
The Six Realms – Extreme Cultural Manifestations of the Egoic Mind
It is important to recognise, that while the brahmavihāras are aspects of Consciousness – and can be regarded as a description of the ultimate nature of mind – they also have great practical relevance in everyday life. Indeed the brahmavihāras provide us with foundational insights about conscious communication and ethical behaviour.Brahma_Realms
These insights become especially keen and incisive when the brahmavihāras are considered in opposition to their counterparts among the Six Realms. The implication when we make these connections, is that the five key Realms can be seen as cultural tendencies that arise out of our collective failure to recognise Consciousness and the four ‘attitudes’ of Consciousness that are the brahmavihāras. The brahmavihāras on the other hand, can be seen as specific antidotes to the Realms – to the psychological and cultural problems that are inevitably generated by the egoic mind – antidotes that are inherent in the nature of Consciousness and always available to us.
The Realms, the Skandhas, and the Functions of Consciousness
By opposing the brahmavihāras and the Realms, I have been addressing exactly the same fundamental spiritual choices that we are shown in the symbolic language of Tibetan Buddhism, but hopefully in more accessible form. Indeed the Bardo Thodol associates five of the Six Realms with the Five Skandhas, to give us a powerful way of reflecting on how, to the extent that they are not informed by Consciousness, and recognised as ’empty’, these five components of the cognitive-perceptual process, or categories of cognitive-perceptual data, lead inevitably to five extremely unhelpful egoic tendencies of mind and five corresponding forms of unconscious behaviour. These same five styles of mental functioning and behaviours that we see represented in the archetypal Realms of Buddhist tradition, can be seen very clearly in human individuals and groups,
So, using the Jung’s ‘Functions of Consciousness’ in place of the skandhas, we have five opposed pairs:
The Hell Realms or Narakas represent the egoic tendency that is inherent in the Thinking function, and a failure to recognise the brahmavihāra of Equanimity;
The Human Realm represents the egoic tendency that is inherent in the Sensation function, and a failure to recognise the brahmavihāra of Sympathetic Joy;
The Preta Realm represents the egoic tendency that is inherent in the Feeling function, and a failure to recognise the brahmavihāra of Loving Kindness;
The Asura Realm represents the egoic tendency that is inherent in the function of Intuition / Volition, and a failure to recognise the brahmavihāra of Compassion;
And the Deva Realms represent an egoic appropriation of Consciousness itself, and a failure to recognise its ultimately impersonal nature.Brahma_Realm_Function
Gaining Familiarity with the Shadow – Personal and Collective
The immense value of this set of associations does not appear to be widely known, mainly because it is undermined by the previously mentioned problems with the Five Skandhas teaching. The recovery of meaning that we achieve by replacing that formulation with Jung’s Four Functions of Consciousness, is further enhanced by opposing the Realms and brahmavihāras rather that the Realms and the Wisdoms.
The five Realms are powerfully illuminated by these juxtapositions, and hopefully rescued from their status as merely a perplexing curiosity of Buddhist cosmology. When we use Jung’s Functions in place of the skandhas, and start to see the Realms as the collective psychological landscapes that are generated by the corresponding egoic Functions of Consciousness. By seeing the Realms as the archetypal landscapes of the ever-present psychological Shadow in the individual and collective psyche, we come closer, I believe, both to the Buddha’s intention, and to the intention of the great Padmasambhava, the author of the Bardo Thodol.
The Brahmavihāras – Consciousness Embodied
The fact that the brahmavihāras are very obviously and precisely related to bodily felt states in the first four subtle bodies makes them extremely important for anyone interested in meditation. Essentially, they are four aspects of the deeply paradoxical, but very beautiful way, in which an energetic reflection of the boundless and universal field of Consciousness is embodied in us as a personal and bodily-felt, or ‘somatic’, experience. I shall be providing a summary of this in my next article in this ‘Overview’ series.
Although the subtle bodies have well established associations in Tibetan Buddhist tradition with the Wisdoms, and these can also be recognised in our felt experience when we explore them, the associations with the brahmavihāras that I have been emphasising in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series are less known, but are actually much more obvious in our felt experience than are the associations with the Wisdoms.
Effortless Transformation by Resting as Consciousness
The associations between the brahmavihāras and the subtle bodies are as follows:
Muditā, or Appreciative Joy (often translated as Sympathetic Joy), is felt as the resonance of Consciousness in the Physical Body (and Base Chakra);
Upekṣā, or Equanimity is felt as the resonance of Consciousness in the Mental Body (and Hara Chakra);
Mettā, or Loving Kindness, is felt as the resonance of Consciousness in the Emotional Body (and Solar Plexus Chakra);
Karuṇā, or Compassion is felt as the resonance of Consciousness in the Volitional / Intuition Body (or Heart Chakra).
Viewing the brahmavihāras as the embodiment of, or as the resonance of, Consciousness (the ’empty vijñāna skandha; the Dharmadhātu), allows us to recognise their entirely impersonal nature. It also releases us from the suggestion that we should be cultivating the brahmavihāras by an effort of the egoic will.Brahma_Bodies
Rather the brahmavihāras can be seen as innate – as aspects of Consciousness and as aspects of our natural state, that can easily be recognised in self-enquiry. The ‘cultivation’ of them therefore, does not happen by the egoic will holding an intention to do so, but primarily by a recognition of that which has previously been obscured – and by the spontaneous self-release of the energetic residue of egoic habits of mind (the associated kleshas of Buddhist tradition) that have previously been held in place by our egoic identifications. Hence my essential characterisation of meditation practice as resting as Consciousness.
[Students of Mahayana Buddhism will perhaps recognise the roots in that tradition of the frame of reference that I was proposing here – one which sees the the brahmavihāras primarily in terms of their absolute, unconditioned, and archetypal aspect, as the ‘mahabrahmavihāras’ (the ‘great’ brahmavihāras), rather than in terms their relative, conditioned, and personal aspect. This change of focus brings a marked change emphasis in the way we view the ‘cultivation’ of the brahmavihāras – that cultivation is then driven not so much by an emphasis on the choice and effort of a moral will (although this is foundational and necessary) but on a recognition of the resonance of the Transcendental within our experience, and the consequent attitude of devotional-receptivity that arises in response to that recognition. I have reflected in various subsequent articles about this difference of emphasis, and have outlined various frames of reference by which this change of emphasis can be understood. I strongly recommend the ’10 Buddhas’ series (here) – in which I have endeavoured to articulate a conceptualisation of how our frame of reference needs to evolves and change in this way, and how we can consciously facilitate this shift of emphasis in our approach to practice. I have tried to address these questions fully in the first few articles of that series.]
The Direct Path – Every-day Non-Duality
I will be giving more time in future articles to the way in which our unconscious identification with egoic parts – even identification with positive and aspirational egoic parts – locks us down energetically and prevents psychological change. When we approach meditation via the notion of resting as Consciousness, we have a wonderfully simple way of entering experientially into the sort of non-dual way of being that is necessary to break this deadlock, and a powerful way of facilitating the inner energetic transformation that we are seeking.
To read the next article in this two-part overview series – Overview Part 2 – Embodied Consciousness – click here.