Reflections on the Five Wisdoms Mandala as a Framework
for an Approach to Buddhist Self-Enquiry Practice Informed by
the Experience of Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ Dyads
I have been reflecting for some time that, in the Buddhist tradition, self-enquiry (in Sanskrit: dharma vicaya – pronounced ‘vichaya’) generally tends to be thought of as a solitary practice. To support and develop a culture of dharma vicaya within Western Buddhism, there is a need however, for us to explore effective forms of meditative self-enquiry dyad practice – practices in which Buddhist friends sit together and take it in turns to ‘hold space’ for each other, so that each practitioner is supported to go deeper in their self-enquiry. Having studied and practiced Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ dyad practice for many years, I have come to see it as a model that Western Buddhists might wish to draw upon – staying firmly rooted in Buddhist philosophical principles, and using aspects of the ‘Focusing’ method to engage in direct experiential enquiry into the bodily-felt experience of those principles. Western Buddhists, not being constrained to traditional forms, have the freedom, after all, to adopt any practice that is an expression of the core values, principles and insights of their tradition. I know I am not alone in this conviction about the value of the insights that ‘Focusing’ can bring to Buddhist self-enquiry, so I would like to share some reflections. This is partly for my own clarity, but I hope that others will find it stimulating also.
Part 1 – Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Clear Space’ and the Brahmavihāras
A Phenomenological Approach to the Nature of Mind
Professor Eugene Gendlin’s primary area of scholarly expertise was in the area of phenomenology – which, in the context of modern philosophy, is that approach which values the actual reality of human experience over any abstract conceptualisation of that experience. It is an approach in which concepts must serve our experiencing and not take us away from our experience – as conceptualisation so often does. Buddhists who are familiar with Eugene Gendlin’s work, and with his Focusing dyad practice, will therefore inevitably tend to develop a deeper and more experiential understanding of the nature of mind than those whose engagement is more intellectual and philosophical.
The Buddha, it can certainly be argued, certainly shared Gendlin’s phenomenological focus, and the Buddha’s ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching can be thought of as an example of him taking an established ancient Indian conceptualisation of the nature of mind, and subjecting it to a rigorous phenomenological analysis. He appears to have reframed the teaching completely – highlighting its erroneous concretisation, or reification, of the functions and data of our cognitive and perceptual processes. Indeed, he presents the ancient Indian five-fold framework in a fresh new way. He presents it as what, in modern terminology, might be called a dynamic ‘open system’ model of mind and experience – one in which everything is process, and nothing is fixed, or personal, or separate.
So, Gendlin was engaged in the very Buddhist activity of investigating his experience in a very penetrating and objective way. If we define meditation broadly, as direct engagement with the body-mind in order to achieve its transformation and recognise its ultimate nature – then Gendlin was certainly a meditator. But he brings attitudes to his approach that Buddhists may sometimes miss. Indeed, it is common for even passionately engaged Buddhist meditators not to see meditation in terms of self-enquiry; or self-discovery; or self-empathy; or resting as Consciousness; or as gaining familiarity with the relational nature of the body-mind. All of these attitudes or approaches are implicit in Buddhist approaches to meditation, whereas Gendlin’s Focusing makes them explicit.
A Relational Understanding of the Body-Mind
Gendlin’s rigorous phenomenological approach led him to a relational understanding of the body-mind – by which I mean that he came to the recognition that Consciousness exists in relationship with the functions and processes of the body-mind. This is entirely intrinsic to Gendlin’s approach to the body-mind – as it is to Buddhist meditation and self-enquiry – but this conceptualisation is much less well-known to many Buddhists.
It is my conviction that Buddhists – especially those Buddhist who have been seriously engaged with the task of locating the central Buddhist philosophical principles in their bodily-felt experience – while they may find the ‘relational’ emphasis initially unfamiliar, have a great deal to learn from exploring the practice of Focusing. The potential for Focusing practitioners to learn from Buddhism, may be even more significant however. Gendlin established the practice of Focusing only a few decades ago, in the 1960s, whereas there has been deep engagement with self-enquiry and meditation practice within the Buddhist tradition for twenty-five centuries.
Despite the obvious common ground between the two, and the common motivation, the dialogue between Buddhism and Focusing can easily fail before it gets started. Focusing practitioners may reject Buddhism as too conceptual and philosophical – and as too ‘heroic’ and ascetic in psychological terms; too disinterested in the mind’s contents. Similarly, Buddhists can reject Focusing, regarding Gendlin’s philosophical framework as a narrow one, relative to that of Buddhism. Also, while the logic of Buddhist wisdom warns us against this, many Buddhists, because they have a great need to affirm their Buddhist identity above all else, will absolutely limit themselves to practices that are expressions of their chosen strand of Buddhist culture and history – and maintain and attitude of disdain towards anything outside of that purview. So, there are several obstacles preventing modern Buddhists connecting with Gendlin’s Focusing. To miss the many direct parallels however, between the philosophy and practice of Gendlin’s Focusing and the philosophy and practice of self-enquiry and meditation within the Buddhist tradition, would be a missed opportunity for both traditions, in my view.
Focusing and Buddhist Wisdom
It could be argued that Buddhists have an advantage over other practitioners of Focusing, because they are open to the idea that both that which is observing, and that which is observed, are ’empty’, or non-personal, and that our personalising identification with both of these poles in the subject-object relationship of our experiencing, is the cause of our egoic dysfunction. This sort of understanding is implied in Gendlin’s approach, and experienced in the course of Focusing practice, but not highlighted. This ’emptiness’ of both subject and object however, is spelt out much more explicitly in the Buddha’s teachings – especially in his ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching.
Many modern Buddhists, it needs to be acknowledged, do however find the five skandhas formulation impenetrable, and find themselves discouraged from engaging with it – which is a tragedy, given the absolute centrality of this teaching for the Buddha, and for the Buddhist tradition. One of my main aims in my various writings on the ‘Mandala of Love’ website, and indeed in this article, is to support a deeper engagement with the idea of the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ among modern Buddhist practitioners.
The five skandhas teaching is very complex. It is probably not surprising that we should find it so often placed in the ‘too hard’ basket. There are many established confusions and mistranslations that get in our way. In Buddhist tradition, the cognitive-perceptual relationship between that which is observing and that which is observed, is described very comprehensively by the ‘five skandhas’ formulation, but because this is what may be called a ‘process model’ it does not make a clear distinction between the cognitive-perceptual ‘functions’ of Consciousness and the cognitive-perceptual ‘data’ of Consciousness. Additional confusion is introduced by the fact that each of the five skandhas was described by the Buddha as functioning in two ways – ‘internal’ and ‘external’ (as are each of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ incidentally). This is a very important detail of the teaching, that it is only very rarely acknowledged – but it is an aspect of the skandhas model that I personally find fascinating and deeply engaging.
Most fundamentally, it is vitally important that we understand that in his frequent discourses on the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ the Buddha is taking an erroneous ancient Indian model of the self, and critiquing and deconstructing it – not merely repeating it and affirming it, as many modern teachers do. In this teaching he is fundamentally distinguishing his own understanding from the five-fold model of mind that went before, and demonstrating that each of the five components of that model are ’empty’ of self-nature. In more modern language he is saying that each skandha is better understood to be of the nature of a cognitive or perceptual process rather than as a fixed ‘heap’ (skandha literally means heap) – like the heaps, or aggregates (sand, clay, gravel, etc.), from which a house was constructed in ancient India.
There is much that needs to be said about the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching and the various common errors that have come into modern understanding of it. The insight that comes most forcefully as we study both Gendlin and the Buddha, is that the five skandhas teaching describes the relationship between Consciousness and the four cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness. This perspective is clearly borne out by the mandala psychology that we see in the Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol texts – where the the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha is place in the centre of the mandala.
If as, many modern commentators do, we place the ’empty’ rūpa skandha in the centre of the skandhas model, as a physical component relating to four mental components (including Consciousness) we immediately run into problems – and we depart from the Buddha’s core assertion that mind is primary, and end up with a model which looks very much like the scientific materialist paradigm that we so desperately need to get away from. Also, the ’empty’ rūpa skandha in the context of the Buddha’s critical analysis, does not denote the objective and usually material component of the self and world. Rather it denotes that ’empty’ cognitive-perceptual process that mentally creates and concretises the ‘form’ of our identity and of our world. The apparent ‘objectivity’ of these creations is an egoic delusion. We are never what we think we are, and everything in our world is also ’empty’ in this sense – entirely subject to our conceptual description of it.
I find it very significant that Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha) is acknowledged to have both ‘external’ and ‘internal’ dimensions – and there is great value in our making a serious effort to identify and find more explanatory words for the reality that this descriptive label is pointing to. The ‘external’ aspect of vijñāna appears to be that ‘knowing’ which is directed outwardly towards perception and cognition of the experienced world; while the ‘internal’ aspect is that which is directed towards that ‘clear space’ at the centre of the self-illusion, which is assumed to the central component a separate ‘self’ – but in fact does not.
Like Gendlin’s Focusing model, the Buddha’s skandhas model invites us to engage in a fundamental reconciliation of these subjective and objective dimensions. We are being invited, it seems, to notice that there are subjective and objective aspects of ’emptiness’, inseparably present at the core of our experience. The ’emptiness’ of the ‘external’ aspect of Consciousness that is ‘looking’ and is the apparent ‘knower’ of an apparently objective world, is difficult to recognise if we have not first recognised the ‘internal’ aspect – the vast and ’empty’ ‘clear space’ within, which may be regarded as the ultimate psychological container in which the processes of cognition and perception appear.
The distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ skandhas is clearly very important and useful. As Focusing practitioners know well, that the clear separation of subject and object, and the awareness of the ‘internal relationship’ – indeed an awareness of the inherently relational nature of the mind – is a necessary and foundational step, and a stage we need to familiarise ourselves with, before a transcendence of that dichotomy can become a possibility. I would even suggest that, if and when we come to recognise a truly non-dual unity in our experience, that experience is also found to be a relational one – a relational unity.
On the path to non-dual realisation, we must first learn to recognise Consciousness – the Buddha’s ’empty’ vijñāna skandha, and Gendlin’s ‘clear space’ – and then learn to rest ‘as’ that. Familiarity with Consciousness, the centre of our experiencing, is cultivated through the practice that the Buddhist tradition calls Mindfulness. Simply by ‘resting as’ Consciousness, we bring about a subtle transformation of the somatic body-mind, which provides a sense of embodied Consciousness – a place of mental and emotional stability from which we can relate to the flow of our experience. Only then, can we begin to recognise that everything that is arising in Consciousness is never actually separate from Consciousness – that everything is cognitive-perceptual process, and without self-nature.
So, looking at the Focusing experience through a Buddhist philosophical lens, we can begin to see the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ five skandhas as a ‘relational’ description of the cognitive-perceptual processes in which that which is observing or ‘knowing’, is relating to that which is observed or ‘known’. We can visualise, or rather symbolise, this cognitive-perceptual process as a vajra with five points at each end. The vajra, being the Buddhist symbol of non-dual wisdom, and a symbol of the relationship between, and ultimate inseparability of, the relative and the absolute, it is a perfect image of the way in which the tension of the subject-object dichotomy is held and ultimately transcended.
Exploring this symbol further, we can see that Consciousness is the axis that runs through the centre of the vajra. At the ‘internal’ end, we have Consciousness, the ’empty’ and spacious subject of cognition and perception. This is the ‘Basic Space of Timeless Awareness’ that Longchenpa described – assumed to be personal, but actually non-locatable and impersonal. At the ‘external’ end, we have Consciousness as the ‘knowing’ Presence, which relates to the world, and which could easily be taken to be an experience of ‘self’, if we did not also recognise its ‘internal’ dimension – its ’empty’ and spacious source. The points at the two ends of the vajra then, can be taken as symbolising the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ aspects of the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha. As Buddhist practitioners of Focusing, we can find ourselves learning to recognise that Consciousness is both subject and object in this way – that it has the dual character that Gendlin described in his notion of the ‘clear space’.
The Ten Archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala
As Buddhists engaging with the psychological reality that Gendlin called the ‘clear space’, we can also see direct parallels with the Buddhist notion of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, which is associated with the Element of Space and the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha; and personified by the male Buddha Vairocana (‘The Illuminator’) the embodiment of Consciousness, and his female Buddha counterpart Ākāshadhāteshvari (‘Sovereign Lady of the Primordial Space’). These two Buddha figures are found in the white centre of Padmasambhava’s Dharmadhātu mandala in the Bardo Thodol (the collection of texts that came to be called the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Ever since I was introduced to them in my twenties, I have had a great love for these archetypal figures – and for the whole mandala-pantheon of the ten archetypal Buddhas that are presented to us in the Dharmadhātu mandala.
Vairocana and Ākāshadhāteshvari are clearly the most important figures in the Dharmadhātu mandala – since they correspond to the ‘external and ‘internal’ aspects of the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha (Consciousness itself). The other eight Buddhas (four male and four female) also have very great significance however. Although this connection is only infrequently made, for me, they correspond to the all-important brahmavihāras (Equanimity; Loving Kindness; Appreciative Joy; and Compassion – in their ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ aspects), which are such important pointers to the nature of Consciousness; such important features of our practice on the Bodhisattva path; and such a wonderful guide to the inner landscape of the Enlightened mind.
The ten archetypal Buddhas of the Dharmadhātu Mandala have become my primary symbols of the Transcendental. My relationship with them is both devotional and philosophical. They are also, for me, very practical – they point to aspects of my actual bodily-felt experience in meditation practice, and they provide me with a map of that somatic territory. The ten archetypal Buddhas function as a guide on the path of embodiment for me because of the connection I make with the four brahmavihāras.
There is a very important later Buddhist teaching called the Five Wisdoms. Indeed, the Dharmadhātu Mandala, the mandala of the ten Buddhas, is often simply called the Five Wisdoms mandala. Clearly the skandhas and the Wisdoms are connected, since recognition of the ’emptiness’ of each of the five skandhas leads us to achieve the corresponding dimension of Wisdom. Unfortunately however, students of Buddhism usually miss the connection between the skandhas and the Wisdoms, and the brahmavihāras. They also miss another key set of correspondences – that between the five skandhas and five categories of kleshas that we accumulate when we identify with them.
It is perhaps understandable that the Buddhist tradition should fail to acknowledge the associations between the four brahmavihāras and the various sets of five in that we are presented with in the Bardo Thodol – the link between the set of four and the sets of fives is not at first apparent. There is however and implied fifth element in the brahmavihāras model, which is Consciousness. The brahmavihāras are, after all, not just profound ethical and relational principles that we can cultivate. Ultimately they need to be thought of as aspects of Consciousness – or better still, as the inherent ethical and relational ‘attitudes of Consciousness’. I shall be talking more about this below.
When we recognise the logic of the correspondences between these five sets of dharmic principles (five sets of five if we include the corresponding Reams), all five of them are revealed in a new way and the ten archetypal Buddhas of Dharmadhātu Mandala also come to life for us. As a Buddhist student of Gendlin’s Focusing, I find the brahmavihāras and the kleshas to be crucial pieces of the puzzle because that are both bodily-felt – they address the somatic, body-mind nature of the process. They allow us start to grasp all four sets of dharmic principles, and the ten archetypal Buddhas, in an embodied way.
The correspondences between these five sets of principles is complex, because we need to understand how the same cognitive-perceptual function, the same skandha, can manifest either in a negative and dysfunctional way in the egoic mind, or in a positive and even sublime way, once our egoic identification is released. In the paragraphs below, I shall endeavour to briefly outline these five sets of five principles:
When we see through the conceptualising, concretising, form-creating rūpa skandha, by which we mentally structure our experience and frame it with a defining narrative, the mental stability and peace of Equanimity arises. When the Buddhist tradition talked about this mental non-reactivity, which we can find ourselves resting in when we release our identification with the thinking mind’s constructions and projections, it spoke of it using the metaphor of the mirror, which is unaffected by the reflections that pass across it. Hence the ’empty’ rūpa skandha and the brahmavihāra of Equanimity (upekshā) are associated with the Mirror-Like Wisdom, with the dark blue eastern quadrant of the mandala, and with the figures of Vajrasattva-Akshobhya and Buddhalocanā (white and light blue respectively). By dis-identifying from the conceptualising rūpa skandha function of mind and the mental content that we call ‘thinking’, and aspiring to rest ‘as’ the Equanimity of the mind’s pure and Mirror-Like true nature, we break the momentum of the klesha of dvesha (hatred) and enter into a profound healing process – a process of purification which leads to increasing mental clarity, to an increasing access to mental stillness and Being, and ultimately to the release of the last remaining kleshas in the dvesha category. The kleshas of dvesha category include all manner of judgmental, attacking and aversive mental states, including condemnation, justification, and especially the impulse to punish and to deny the humanity of the other. Dvesha is the essence of the collective psychology of the Hell Realms of Buddhist tradition. Eugene Gendlin, was expressing a deep alignment with core Buddhist values when he taught us to dis-identify from the mind’s judgemental attacks, and to find a Mirror-Like Equanimity in our relationship to the body-mind’s contents.
On the opposite, western side of the mandala from rūpa in the east, we have the evaluative samjñā skandha, by which we discern and make decisions via that subjective mode of discrimination that in English we call ‘feeling’ (although unfortunately we use the same word in English for ‘sensation’ and the act of ‘sensing’). When we both release our identification with this mode of cognition, while also making it more conscious and causing it to become more differentiated (Gendlin’s Focusing teaches us to do both of these things), we can start to use feeling as a mode of discrimination in a whole new way – and can begin to glimpse what the Buddhist tradition meant by the Discriminating Wisdom. This takes time because it involves the release of kleshas in the category of rāga, or craving. The Buddhist tradition tells us that the kleshas of craving lead to rebirth in the Preta Realm, the Realm of the pitiful and insatiable Hungry Ghosts. Whereas the samjñā skandha, as it manifests in the egoic mind, is subjective and reactive, and often deeply conditioned and irrational in its evaluations and cravings, the Discriminating Wisdom is unconditional. In essence it is the capacity to be warmly and unconditionally present, to give unconditional value to everything in our experience within, and every person that we encounter without. Its judgement and its capacity for loving relationship is uncontaminated by craving and attachment. This is what the Buddhist tradition means by mettā/maitri, or Loving Kindness – personified in the mandala by Amitābha and Pandaravārsini). Eugene Gendlin has much to teach us about the transformative power of this warm, unconditionally valuing and relational attention toward everything arising in our experience.
The vedanā skandha is the sensory, or sensing, component of the body-mind – both the function of sensing and the data of sensation. As well as its more obvious ‘external’ function of perceiving our physical world, it has an ‘internal’ dimension, by which we perceive the internal somatic space of the body. So, together these two functions of mind tend to very strongly affirm our sense of separate selfhood. The Buddhism tells us that they lead inevitably to a preoccupation with the personal body, with personal identity and social status, with personal achievement, with the accumulation of personal possessions and experiences, and with personal difference – the characteristics of the Human Realm. The tradition speaks of this in terms of a category of kleshas called māna, which we can translate as pride, or even conceit. When we learn to rest as Consciousness, and to become more familiar with our true nature, the vedanā skandha manifests in a new way. It becomes informed by the Equalising Wisdom and by the brahmavihāra of Appreciative Joy (muditā) – rather than highlighting our separateness and our difference, it highlights our common humanity and our connectedness with all of life. The self-referencing egoic tendency of vedanā has this potential to transform completely – to become generously appreciative and empathetic, or appreciative in a completely non-acquisitive, non-attached way. In the mandala, these principles are found symbolised in the southern quadrant and personified by the figures of Ratnasambhava and Māmaki. The cultivation of this Equalising and Appreciative sensibility is absolutely foundational in Eugene Gendlin’s notion of ‘felt-sense’. Indeed, for Gendlin the act of sensing the complex texture of our internal experience is foundational – for him it was the humble and humbling doorway into the mystery of personality change.
Opposite the vedanā skandha in the south, we have the samskāras skandha in the north, which describes the intuitive function of mind by which we recognise volitional processes, while also describing the volitional energies themselves – the volitional energies that give the egoic illusion its momentum. Within the frame of reference of the five skandha self-illusion, these life energies are identified with, and experienced, as a personal will. We may even imagine that spiritual practice is about developing this personal will. If we do, we need to think again, because the Buddhist tradition tells us that identification with the samskāras skandha causes us to accumulate kleshas in a category which it calls irsha – envy. There is the potential, if we make this connection between the samskaras skandha and envy, and see the extent to which egoic desire is almost always inauthentic – not directed towards real need and real satisfaction, but rather is the result of social psychological impulses that are very primitive, unconscious and misdirected. Buddhism depicts this collective psychology in the mythological imagery of the Asura Realm – the realm of the violent, acquisitive and manipulative archetypal ‘war gods’ of ancient Indian legend. Clearly however, volition (the samskāras) is key to our transformation however, but to release these life energies, and make them available to us spiritually, we need first to come into relationship rather than identifying with them. This involves acknowledging firstly that the samskaras are multiple, and secondly that they are not personal but universal. Indeed one of the best way to release our habitual personalisation of the samskāras is to see them as the universal human needs – as the authentic human motivations that begin to emerge when we renounce the egoic habit of personalising everything, and start to live for the greater good of the whole. The Buddhist tradition speaks of the spiritual psychology of the Bodhisattva’s motivation and application of the will in terms of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom and the corresponding brahmavihāra is Compassion. The All-Accomplishing Wisdom is personified by the green Buddha Amoghasiddhi and Green Tārā. Once again there is a clear correspondence in Gendlin’s psychological method. A foundational element of his approach was to teach his Focusing students to attune to the life energy or ‘life-forward direction’ in their process – the direction of healing, freedom, aliveness and the resolution of psychological conflict.
The vijñāna skandha can be placed at either the beginning of the sequence or the end, or both – since Consciousness is both the apparent but non-locatable centre of the self-illusion, and the space in wish the other four skandhas appear. The ’empty’ vijñāna skandha is in the centre of the mandala. Gendlin taught us to find that centre in ourselves as the prerequisite for any deep psychological work. Marshal Rosenberg taught us to find that centre in ourselves as a prerequisite for conscious communication. This in the place of Mindfulness. It brings a difficult to define, but entirely different quality of attention – a quality of attention characterised by the four brahmavihāras, and also by curiosity, connectedness, and creativity.
Our personalisation of the experience of Consciousness can be recognised, seen through and released. The energetic momentum of our personalisation of Consciousness, which the Buddhist tradition calls the klesha of avidya, can be brought to an end simply by our practice of Mindfulness. For the practice of Mindfulness to be deeply transformative, it needs only to be for short moments, provided we return to it again and again whenever we remember to do so. To be Mindful we only need to find a sense of connection and openness and a sense of the whole, and to acknowledge that Consciousness is the space in which we rest. Initially we must choose to be Mindful and adopt practises like the brahmavihāras, which systematically release the kleshas, but eventually this recognition of Consciousness becomes effortless.
The Brahmavihāras and the Mahabrahmavihāras
When, as Buddhists, we ask ourselves how the characteristics of the clear space and the Dharmadhātu Wisdom might be described, we sometimes speak of the coming together of the other four of the Five Wisdoms. It is as if the qualities of the four quadrants are like the light rays of a rainbow coming together to make a single white light. The Wisdoms are deep and subtle however, and I find it more experiential and useful, and more accessible, to recognise that the clear space has the character of the four mahabrahmavihāras – the archetypal sources of the brahmavihāras – the mahabrahmavihāras being: Great Equanimity; Great Loving Kindness; Great Appreciative Joy; and Great Compassion.
So, for me, the process of becoming familiar with the clear space, and of developing the ability to access it easily, has become strongly associated with the brahmavihāras. As with the five skandhas and five Wisdoms, the brahmaviharas have ‘internal’ (self-regarding) and ‘external’ (other-regarding) aspects. I have found it extremely valuable to acknowledge that the brahmavihāras model of meditation practice is actually an eight-fold one. I also find, in relation to the brahmavihāras, that the meditative work of ‘cultivating the brahmavihāras‘ can usefully be conceptualised as a process of familiarising ourselves with, and resting as embodied Consciousness, using these eight ‘attitudes’ as a guide, each of which is an inherent quality of Consciousness, and of Gendlin’s ‘clear space’.
Although my ‘Meditation Guidance’ articles (listed here and in the ‘Meditation’ menu above) where not particularly systematic, I gave time in them to an initial exploration of the challenge of more adequately conceptualising the difference between the self-regarding and other-regarding brahmavihāras. While the other-regarding brahmavihāras are distinguished by the fact that they are concretely relational, and by the fact that they are experienced in meditation as ‘expansive’, the self-regarding brahmavihāras are more complex and more difficult to talk about.
While the dimensions of meditative experience that are described by the self-regarding brahmavihāras are clearly foundational and absolutely necessary in the initial Integration stage of meditation practice, the conceptual terms we use for the self-regarding brahmavihāras (self-mettā, self-equanimity, self-appreciative joy, and self-compassion) are clearly somewhat incongruous in the context of the ultimate aims of Buddhist spiritual philosophy, which is self-surrender and the ‘spiritual death’ of the self-illusion.
The other-regarding brahmavihāras also need deeper reflection. Since they together provide a comprehensive description of what we mean by the term ‘Positive Emotion’, our contemplation of them can show us were our practice of Positive Emotion is failing or incomplete. For example, I believe that the wise, non-reactive, and profoundly psychologically intelligent quality that we call Equanimity is a particularly foundational component of Positive Emotion, but is often neglected – partly because we are constrained by the conceptually limited and limiting notion of ‘cultivating Equanimity towards ourselves and others’. I have been addressing this in other articles (including here).
Although they are difficult to adequately conceptualise or even to find adequate conceptual labels for, it can be argued that the ‘self-regarding’ brahmavihāras all have an energetically receptive character, and can therefore be seen as components of a foundational ‘Integration’ stage in meditation practice (or Focusing practice). These ‘self-regarding’, or receptive, aspects of the brahmavihāras can be regarded as providing a basis for the development of the subsequent more expansive and more externally relational ‘other-regarding’, expressions, which are the characteristics of the subsequent ‘Positive Emotion’ stage in meditation practice.
Here, I am making use of the extremely useful terminology of Integration and Positive Emotion that Sangharakshita introduced in the 1970s, when talking about the stages within the developmental process of meditation practice. He initially presented a four-stage ‘System of Practice’ model – Integration, Positive Emotion, Spiritual Death, and Spiritual Rebirth. While the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ is an example of a practice which supports Integration, and mettābhāvana (Cultivation of Loving Kindness) is an example of a practice which supports Positive Emotion, this practice model is clearly pointing to the fact that the twin foundational goals of Integration and Positive Emotion are much bigger than the two meditation practices that we associate with them – very much bigger.
For myself, the development of this larger understanding of what we mean by Integration and Positive Emotion has come through a deep engagement with the brahmavihāras – but also with Gendlin’s Focusing. Investigating the brahmavihāras closely, it becomes very clear that all four of the self-regarding or ‘receptive’ brahmavihāras powerfully serve our process of Integration. And it is by developing all four of the other-regarding or ‘expansive’ brahmavihāras in combination, that we can become truly established in the Positive Emotion stage. In my experience, this approach the brahmavihāras, also takes us very naturally and seamlessly into the territory of Insight and Bodhicitta practice – Spiritual Death and Spiritual Rebirth.
If we take as a starting point the idea that the four brahmavihāras provide us with a way of describing the qualities of the spacious non-personal centre that Gendlin called the ‘clear space’, then we find ourselves in a very fruitful area of enquiry. This area of practical and philosophical connection between Buddhism and Focusing is one that I have been fascinated by for many years – and I would like to provide more reflections on this cross-over in future articles in this series. While all eight aspects of the brahmavihāras can be recognised as aspects of what has be called the Focusing ‘attitude’, I believe the self-regarding or ‘receptive’ brahmavihāras are foundational in the process of establishing a familiarity with the clear space. Their importance becomes especially clear when we recognise that our personal and relative experience of the brahmavihāras is actually only a reflection and a resonance of the mahabrahmavihāras – the ‘great’, universal, or ‘absolute’, brahmavihāras, which are inherent in Consciousness. When we first recognise the brahmavihāras and begin to integrate them in this ‘self-regarding’ and devotional-receptive way, our cultivation of their ‘other-regarding’ aspects comes very much more easily.
Mindfulness – the Buddha’s ‘Remembering’ Practice
So, from a Buddhist point of view, Gendlin’s ‘clear space’ can be thought of as that place in us that is consistently capable of responding with Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, Compassion and Equanimity, towards what is arising in our inner experience, and therefore also towards other people. As Gendlin pointed out, and as all experienced Focusing practitioners know, it can be difficult to find the clear space, and the clear space can be quickly lost as we fall back into identification with a psychological part that is reacting to our experience. This movement in and out of Mindfulness is very familiar to all serious Buddhist practitioners. Indeed this, it could be argued, is why the Buddha used the word ‘remembering’ (Pali: sati; Sanskrit: smrti) for the practice that we now call Mindfulness. The practice of returning to the ‘clear space’, and of building our familiarity and confidence in the clear space is quite literally a remembering process. We learn to return to the ‘clear space’ each time we ‘remember’ to do so – each time we realise that we have fallen into the unconsciousness of identification. And the holding Presence of another is a very great help in that remembering.
Focusing teaches us that the ‘clear space’ is the only reliable place from which to relate to the psychological material of our egoic selves – the only place from which we can truly heal, and the only place from which real personality change is possible. Clearly then, the reality that Gendlin was pointing to – this ‘clear space’ beyond the egoic mind – is absolutely crucial to our integration, and absolutely crucial to our development of positive emotion. As Buddhists, we can see that Gendlin is ultimately offering us an approach that is much akin to that of the Vajrayāna – especially as it is presented to us in the dzogchen and mahamudra teachings.
There is much that could be said on this (and I shall be returning to this exploration in a subsequent article), but I am deeply engaged by Gendlin’s suggestion that radical transformation is more easily achieved by our recognition that ultimately all of the energies of the body-mind can be viewed as life serving, or as having a ‘life forward’ dimension – that they have a benevolent purpose that is revealed as we learn to release our egoic identification with them. As I outlined above, this expresses an understanding that the Buddhist tradition would speak of in terms of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom. Gendlin invites us rest as the ‘clear space’, and to familiarise ourselves with those impersonal forces as they are experienced somatically in the field of the body. He invites us to embrace the dis-identification process, and to recognise the healing process that is always trying to happen.
Integration and Positive Emotion
As Buddhists, we can recognise that when Gendlin was teaching Focusing, he was talking about Mindfulness. He is inviting us become conscious of the way we move in and out of egoic identification, and giving us pointers as to the difference between the clear, Mindful, ‘resting as Consciousness’ state, which leads to Integration and Positive Emotion; and the personalised, identified, state, which leads to various states of dis-integration, and to what we may call ‘negative’ emotional states. In the Buddhist tradition, this dichotomy was very comprehensively described by Padmasambhava in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), where the paths of dis-integration and emotional negativity are spoken of in terms of five egoic kleshas and the five corresponding ‘Realms’.
Also in the Bardo Thodol, Padmasambhava describes the Dharmadhātu mandala, which sets out this dichotomy in a five-fold graphical and symbolic form. At the heart of the whole ‘model’ is the five skandhas – the five cognitive-perceptual components of the body-mind. The skandhas are presented as having the potential to manifest either extremely positively or extremely negatively depending on our ability or inability to sustain Mindfulness – and on our ability or inability to recognise and ‘rest as’ the ‘clear space’ of Consciousness symbolised by the white centre of the mandala.
I find it extremely useful to take on board Padmasambhava’s suggestion that each of the skandhas, to the extent that we are identified with them, lead us to a particular style of egoic dysfunction and stuckness – in a word dukkha, or suffering. Our experience of the skandhas always goes one of two ways. The dysfunction arising from identification with the skandhas is symbolised by the corresponding kleshas and Realms. If, on the other hand, we are Mindful enough, and are able to recognise that they are ’empty’, the skandhas can unfold into the Five Wisdoms. The emptiness of the five skandhas is a subtle and complex Buddhist teaching, and it is best understood, in my experience, by working ‘forwards’ from the corresponding kleshas and Realms, and ‘backwards’ from the corresponding Wisdoms and brahmavihāras. The brahmavihāras are not mentioned in the Bardo Thodol, but the correspondences with the ’empty’ skandhas are extremely useful for our understanding of the nature of the ‘clear space’ of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom and the other Four Wisdoms.
These are themes that I have written about previously on this website, but I shall be returning to explore them further, with particular reference to the connections between Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing and Buddhism, in future articles in this mini-series.
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