This is Post 18 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
In order to fully understand the brahmavihāra, or attitude of Consciousness, that the Buddha called upekṣā, or Equanimity, it is very valuable to contrast it with its polar opposite in egoic consciousness. Indeed each of the four brahmavihāras is essentially an archetypal or transpersonal power by which a particular aspect of the egoic mind is healed. To help us consistently experience the transformative effect of the four brahmavihāras we need to understand the nature of the close relationship between these four beneficent cosmic principles on the one hand – and the four corresponding tendencies in the egoic mind on the other.
A Spiritual Choice within each Quadrant of the Mandala
In previous posts I have talked about the choices we face, in every moment, between each of the qualities of Consciousness on one hand, and each of the corresponding qualities of the egoic mind on the other. In regard to the Thinking function and the Mental Body, we find that Equanimity and the quality of Objectivity that is integral to it, are in polar opposition to the egoic tendency towards judgement and the inability to just be with things (and people) and let them be as they are. An important way in which this opposition was previously highlighted (in a previous post – here) was in the stark contrast between the positive mirror of Consciousness and the negative mirror of narcissism.
As we start to practice the mandala wisdom we recognise that each quadrant of the mandala presents us with a spiritual choice – and to recognise that we have a choice where we previously were not even aware that choice was possible, is always an experience of empowerment. We live in a world that claims to give us choices, and which even overwhelms us with choices, but ultimately the only thing that really gives us choices is Consciousness. Continue reading
This is Post 17 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
The Mental Body entirely pervades, and extends slightly beyond, the physical body, but the felt experience of the Mental Body is most keenly felt in the lower belly three or four finger widths below the naval. Throughout the cultures of the East, from India to Japan, this point or area is widely understood to have a close association with mental stability, physical vitality, and with the sort of mental focus that supports high-level feats of physical coordination.
The Swadhisthāna Chakra – a Place of Rest and Beneficial Alignment
The same understanding is found in the Western tradition of Classical Ballet, and elsewhere in the West, but in the East, with its traditions of meditation and self-inquiry, its intuitive and energetic approaches to medicine, and its deep and subtle martial arts, this understanding has gone very deep. In Indian tradition this area of the belly is called the swadhiṣṭhāna chakra, while in Japanese tradition it is called the hara, or ‘belly’. If we wanted to be culture-free we could simply call it the second chakra, but I find the Japanese word hara to have wide recognition.
The entomology of the Sanskrit word swadhiṣṭhāna is worth acknowledging. The prefix swa denotes ‘my’ and adhiṣṭhāna expresses the idea of a resting place, or seat, or base, or dwelling place, especially a place from which it is possible to have an overview. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, but there are associations with this word that convey the idea of a position of benevolent and protective authority, or an objective point of view – and an empowerment or blessing that is not personal, but comes from the Divine. All this speaks volumes about the experience of allowing the Mental Body to rest as Consciousness, and the felt experience of being centred in the swadhiṣṭhāna chakra or hara. This alignment and empowerment ultimately requires that the other bodies are also allowed to rest as Consciousness, preferably at the same time – but this is a very good place to start. Continue reading
This is Post 16 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
In the previous posts about the the Buddha’s Equanimity practice – a practice which aims to bring the Mental Body and the Thinking function into alignment with Consciousness, I have briefly touched on the symbol of the mirror. The mirror deserves more time however, because it is such a profound symbolic pointer to spiritual truth. It is a deeply paradoxical and indeed an ambivalent image – both extremely positive and extremely negative.
As a positive image, we find the mirror as a symbol of Consciousness, as in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism (which I have spoken of in a previous post – here); again in the Ancient Greek myth of the hero Perseus; and elsewhere. The mirror is also a symbol of narcissism – an extremely important psychological concept, and one that has profoundly negative personal and cultural implications.
Perseus and Medusa
The mythic hero Perseus encountered the Gorgon Medusa in a landscape littered with the crumbling remains of countless heroes who had been turned into stone by her gaze. So great was the force of her narcissistic objectification of those who meet her gaze – that they are immediately reduced to literal objects. Perseus manages however, to avoid her petrifying stare by only looking at her reflected image in the mirror shield that he has been given by the Goddess Athene. Only the heroes with divine help succeed – those with the capacity for reflection that Consciousness gives them. All the rest fail. Continue reading
This is Post 15 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is the idea that it is a merely mental activity. Anyone who would characterise meditation in this way has been taught incorrectly. Meditation is more akin to dance than ordinary egoic thinking. We meditate with the body.
But we need a much larger and more sophisticated conception of what the body is, than scientific materialism has afforded us. We need an understanding of the subtle bodies, especially the first four subtle bodies: the Physical body; the Mental body; the Emotional body; and the Volitional body – which may be called the surface bodies. This seeming digression from my thread of discussion about the brahmavihāras is necessary if we are to fully understand the actual experience of the brahmavihāras and embrace them as transformational processes in our felt experience of resting as Consciousness.
We need ways of thinking about the body that are experientially true – conceptualisations that fit our actual experience. Prior to modern medicine and the domination of our thinking by the Newtonian / Cartesian dualism of a physical body and a mind that is entirely separate, various ancient cultures had very rich and complex ways of imagining the soul or mind/body system.
Psycho-Physical Anatomy – The Seven Bodies
For me, the most experientially true account of our psycho-physical anatomy is given to us by the great meditation traditions of India and Tibet, which identify seven subtle bodies, or ‘energy bodies’, or auras. While we can say that the first of these is most obviously connected with the physical body (which we now know from Science to be much more subtle than we had thought – pure energy and empty space in fact), and the other six are certainly not separate from the physical body. To be true to our experience we need to speak of the whole integrated system not as body and mind but as a body-mind – an integrated body-mind that is described both by the mandala and by the hierarchy of subtle bodies.
As Carl Jung recognised, the depth of human psychological experience cannot be understood unless we conceptualise it as being simultaneously individual and universal – ultimately characterised by a mysterious internal relationship between these two poles, which leads to an integration of these two poles. He gave us a vision of soul that includes a spectrum of experience – the personal, physical and instinctual at one end of that spectrum, and the universal, spiritual and archetypal at the other. This is how we experience ourselves in meditation. Far from leaving the body behind, we find ourselves greatly expanding our sense of what the body is, and opening to more and more subtle dimensions of bodily experience.
The Tibetan Buddhist Body-Mind Model as a Middle Way
The seven layers of our psycho-physical anatomy are a way of objectifying and conceptualising the paradoxical nature of our range of felt experience when we turn our attention inwards in meditative-inquiry. The range of our experience in meditation is vast – we have the experience of being a person in a physical body, but we may also recognise that the core of our experience of self is Consciousness – a non-locatable field phenomenon, that appears as a unity, and seems to pervades the universe.
The universal Consciousness in which we rest is generally ignored because it is non-personal and felt to be incongruous with our concrete experience of a separate physical body. By seeing the body as not single but seven-fold, and predominately energetic and subtle, we are able to overcome that fundamental incongruity and give ourselves a way of making the universal Consciousness central to our experience, while also emphasising the energetic dimensions in the way we think about our inner life.
Many modern Western students of Buddhism, not finding a clearly articulated body-mind model in the early Buddhist texts, tend to shy away from the challenge of giving conceptual form to our experience of the body-mind. There is some value in this attitude of avoiding conceptualisation – just letting our experience be as it is. This approach can however, paradoxically lead to extremely crude and un-thought-through conceptualisations – and at worst leads to an unconscious embrace of a scientific materialist view that is far from that proposed by the Buddha.
It is important to remember that the Buddha rejected the anti-body view that he had initially embraced when he embarked on his spiritual search. The insights gained at the time of his Enlightenment found expression in a ‘Middle Way’. This was an extremely subtle view of the path to realisation, in which the body was embraced, and seen as the vehicle of, and venue for, realisation – and valued both as the crucible in which spiritual transformation takes place, and as the vehicle for the compassionate activity of Enlightenment.
The venue for the practice of samadhi, or meditation, is the body; and the states of dhyana, or meditative absorption, are bodily-felt experiences. It is however, with a keen awareness of the reservations that some may have about this, that I have I am going to be taking the body-mind model that is found in Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the starting point for some ideas that I have found helpful. In my experience the model works. We can think of it as a somatic ‘anatomy’ – but hopefully not in a literalistic way. The main thing is that we release the literalism, and the extreme constraint that unconscious scientific materialism places on our ability to fully receive the rich, complex, and multi-layered experience of embodied Consciousness.
The Mental Body – the Somatic Reflection of the Thinking function
The somatic dimension that we can call the Mental Body is the second of the seven that are spoken of in esoteric literature. All these subtle bodies are ‘mental bodies’ of a sort, but have different felt-qualities and associations, so I will try to distinguish what we might mean by this term. This subtle body is experienced as, and ‘seen’ by some, as very slightly larger than physical body. This means that the first subtle body – the complex psycho-physical reality that we can call the Physical Body – rests inside the Mental Body. Thus it is entirely enclosed and interpenetrated by it, and subject to its contents – a fact that all healers, acupuncturists, shiatsu practitioners and applied kinesiologists would attest to. While we cannot know the mechanisms involved, it seems clear that all the subtle bodies interpenetrate and resonate with each other to some degree – and that the Physical Body and the Mental Body are a particularly closely related pair.
The Physical Body and the Mental Body exist in polarity with each other in that one is yin, or feminine, or receptive, while the other is yang, or masculine, or expansive. Understanding these polarities is of great assistance in meditation. I shall be returning to this phenomena in future posts, and shall be addressing the little known fact that the Mental Body is experienced as yin, or receptive, in men, and yang, or expansive, in women.
The Thinking Mind is Both Energetic and Neurological
Even if the mechanisms of this are not knowable, it is helpful for meditators to think of the egoic mind as an energetic and somatic phenomena – one in which thinking has an energetic reality, not just a neurological one. It seems that even though thoughts take place in the neuronal networks of the brain, there is an energetic reflection of thought in this somatic phenomenon that I am calling the Mental Body.
So, in addition to the more concrete and well-understood neurological and hormonal connections between the subjective experience of the thinking mind and physiological processes of the body, there is also a profound energetic one. And whereas the neurological re-wiring of our brains, and the calming of our endocrine systems that has been traumatised by fear-based thinking can take a little time, the energetic realignment of our Mental Body, can be achieved relatively quickly if we allow the Mental Body to rest receptively in relationship with the primordial stillness of Consciousness.
The Buddha’s Equanimity practice – Healing the Thinking Mind
This is the power of the Buddha’s Equanimity practice. It allows the Mental Body, and hence the personal thinking mind, to be held in the healing field of Consciousness itself. The transformation that takes place is a purification of the Thinking function, which starts with the Mental Body, and then via its profound effect on the Mental Body, initiates a process in which the dysfunctional wiring of the brain is progressively undone.
When we rest as Consciousness and acknowledge that from the point of view of meditation practice, the Thinking function of the mind is primarily energetic and only secondarily neurological, we open ourselves to a powerful new path of psychological transformation. By choosing to allow the Mental Body to rest as Consciousness and be informed by the field of Consciousness, we do not immediately wash it clean of all its egoic habits of punishment, judgement, justification and projection of shadow, but we do very concretely initiate that profound process.
Purifying the Mind and Integrating Mental Clarity
When we rest in a receptive relationship to Consciousness, we may not suddenly experience the perfect peace of the Great Equanimity immediately, but we can open ourselves to it, and we can readily experience a deep sense of Being, and a sense of alignment with a transpersonal healing power. It is as if we can rest under an inner waterfall of white healing light that is running through our body purifying us and washing us clean of the mental negativities that are inherent in egoic thinking. The more we rest in the mental silence and the mental stillness of the field of Consciousness, the more our mind is cleansed by it, and the more we integrate its qualities of objectivity and mental clarity.
The Buddhist tradition speaks of the purification process within our meditation practice as one in which egoic kleshas are released. These kleshas can be thought of as the energies of the egoic mind – somatic energies that accumulate in the subtle bodies. To the extent that life in self-identification we will accumulate kleshas, and those kleshas have a momentum – they will keep us in habitual egoic identification until we release them though meditation. The category of kleshas that Buddhist tradition associates with the Thinking aspect of the mind is called dvesha, or ‘hatred’ – but this includes the egoic habits of punishment, judgement, justification and projection of shadow, which I mentioned above. The more extreme kleshas that accumulate in the Mental Body show the characteristic quality of ‘hatred’, but they all fall into the category of dvesha. I shall be returning to this important theme in future articles.
Being as the Basis of Identity – Not Thought
Our experience of the Mental Body when we rest as Consciousness, is not primarily one of thought, but of Being. We are still aware of the momentum of our thought processes and of our reflections on our experience, but these are felt to be secondary to the experience of Being. Consciousness and Being are in the foreground of our experience, and thought is arising secondarily, and in that context.
The effect of resting as Consciousness is to fill the Mental Body with the experience of Being. What we experience over time is a new basis for our identity. Our identity is no longer predominantly a mental construction as the Cartesian error (“I think, therefore I am”) would suggest, but instead is rooted in Being, and in the field of Consciousness. It is as if Consciousness stands behind us like a constantly affirming friend, except that we are that Consciousness – we are that friend.
William Parker 2017
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For more on the themes addressed in this post consider reading these previous articles:
This is Post 14 in the Meditation Guidance series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Although I have already talked a little about mettā, or Loving-Kindness, I shall be starting at the traditional beginning point of the mandala-cycle in this post, with upekṣā, or Equanimity, which is the brahmavihāra associated with the eastern quadrant; and with the creative use of the Thinking function of the mind – and with the dawn.
Those whose frame of reference is pre-Quantum-Physics scientific materialism, and who do not have a psychological framework that acknowledges a transpersonal or archetypal dimension, are forced to understand the brahmavihāras as personal emotional states. This is certainly not the way the Buddha understood them. With due respect to those who pride themselves on their ability to cram the Buddha’s sublime teachings into a Newtonian / Cartesian world-view, I feel bound to talk about the brahmavihāras as cosmic principles, which find – if we are receptive to them – a reflection in our personal mental and emotional development.
An Archetypal Source of Mental Clarity
Mahupekshā, the Great Equanimity, the archetypal source of upekshā, or Equanimity, is best thought of as the imperturbable cosmic stillness, which pervades the universe, and is single and unified – and has the power to bring integration, unity, and mental stability to those who are willing to recognise it as their own ultimate true nature. Mysteriously, this cosmic principle is also the basis of each individual person’s experience of observing, thinking and knowing. I have talked in previous posts about how, when we rest as Consciousness, the Thinking function of the Mind finds a new intelligence – a mental stability that starts to approach the always illusive quality of objectivity, and that is non-judgemental, solution-focused, relational, collaborative, and inherently creative. Continue reading
This is Post 13 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
When we look within, we find that Consciousness, the ultimate nature of the human mind, appears to be structured like a mandala – like a compass rose. And at each of the directions of this inner compass are ethical principles that are inherent in the nature of Consciousness. In the last few posts, I have been starting to explore one cultural form of this archetypal mandala structure – an ancient pre-Buddhist formulation called the four brahmavihāras – the four ‘abodes of Brahma’, sometimes called the four immeasurables.
Meditation as a Mandala-Cycle
Traditionally in the Indian and Himalayan countries our circumambulation of, or progression around, the mandala, follows the path of the sun in the northern hemisphere, so we enter the mandala in the east, which is associated with sunrise; then move round clockwise to the south, which is associated with mid-day; then move round clockwise again to the west, which is associated with sunset; then move round clockwise again to the north, which is associated with midnight; and then return to the east point and the sunrise once again. I shall be adopting this traditional order as I go deeper into the four brahmavihāras in the future articles is this series over the coming weeks. When we have a full understanding of all four brahmavihāras there is great value in practicing all four in sequence, as a mandala-cycle. Continue reading
This is Post 12 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Consciousness is like the space we move through – it is easy to go through life completely unaware of it. And even though it is always there when we look for it, its nature can be difficult to grasp. If we are setting out to systematically familiarise ourselves with the ultimate nature of mind, the four brahmavihāras provide us with an extremely good, and relatively simple framework for engaging in this exploration – one that highlights the inherently ethical and relational nature of Consciousness. They also offer us four very attractive and relatively easy ways of moving out of ordinary egoic consciousness into states of alignment and healing.
The Four Mahabrahmavihāras
In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, reflection on the brahmavihāras brought a development to the early Buddhist approach to that teaching, which is of enormous practical and philosophical significance for those who wish to use the brahmavihāras as a framework for meditation and self-inquiry, and I would like to share it here.
Essentially, the understanding arose that it is helpful to see each one of the brahmavihāras as having both a personal, egoic and conditional aspect, and a transpersonal, or archetypal, or unconditional aspect – even though these two aspects can never be completely separated. The implication was that the most effective way to connect with the brahmavihāras is by opening ourselves to the transpersonal aspect of each one – and allowing the energies of each one to flow through us.
For example mettā, or Loving-Kindness came to be seen as a reflection, in personal felt experience, of mahamettā, or Great Loving-Kindness, which is unconditional, archetypal and transpersonal – an aspect of the field of Consciousness in which we rest. Each of the personally experienced brahmavihāras has a corresponding archetypal source in Consciousness – a mahabrahmavihāra. Continue reading
This is Post 11 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
It is understandable that mettā, or Loving-Kindness, would be the best understood of the four brahmavihāras. It is the one which has its own short recorded discourse in the Pali Cannon of early Buddhist tradition, but more importantly, it is the one which most resonates with our experience in ordinary life. Mettā extends our ordinary notions of love to express an attitude of unconditionally valuing everything in our experience, and unconditionally valuing all of the people in our world. People who practice the mettābhāvanā meditation practice, would generally describe mettā as being characterised by a feeling or attitude of warmth, kindness, care, and of love – in the sense of a deep valuing and well-wishing. The most common translation of mettā is Loving Kindness, but it includes qualities of ‘unconditional love’, ‘unconditional valuing’, and ‘unconditional acceptance’.
The mettābhāvanā practice is often felt by practitioners to be powerfully transformative – a powerful support to psychological integration, and to social interaction. Because mettā is that attitude of Consciousness, which unconditionally values and accepts our experience, it powerfully transforms the evaluative, or ‘Feeling’ function of the human mind. In ordinary egoic consciousness, the evaluative, or ‘Feeling’, function discerns that which is of value to us by attending to the internal flow of pleasant and unpleasant feeling states that are our emotional guidance system throughout life.
This discernment between that which is of value to us and that which is not, may be conscious or unconscious, and plays a very important role in the egoic construction of identity, and in the establishment of the defensive threshold between egoic feeling, which we are happy to identify with, and the feeling aspect of the unconscious – emotional content of the mind that we would rather not feel, or that which we would rather not remember, or that which we would rather not recognise as an aspect of ourselves.
Mettā – Healing and Evolving the Emotional Body
In regard to how this Feeling aspect of the personal unconscious is experienced, there is a useful notion in esoteric Buddhism and other spiritual traditions – the Emotional Body. In my view, the idea that we have a psycho-spiritual anatomy made up of subtle energy bodies and ‘chakra’ points or areas, where the energetic state of the subtle bodies is most keenly felt, is a very useful one – and is one that fits the experience of myself and other meditators. I am in general very critical of the way this ‘somatic’ anatomy is described, and shall be attempting to bring some clarity to this area ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Continue reading
This is Post 10 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
One of the Buddha’s respectful borrowings from the earlier spiritual traditions of ancient India, was the four brahmavihāras (Sanskrit). I regard this teaching as fundamental to our understanding of meditation, and I shall be devoting a long series of posts to exploring it. In my view, the four brahmavihāras are not only essential for understanding and practising meditation – they are essential for understanding life.
As a starting point we can say that the four brahmavihāras are very refined and positive mental-emotional states associated with the divine in Indian tradition. I hope to show, in the course of these articles, that it is important to think of the four brahmavihāras as more than this. They are better thought of as the characteristic mental-emotional attitudes of Consciousness, or qualities of Consciousness – ethical and relational attitudes, not merely mental states. Correctly conceptualised they constitute a universal moral compass that is inherent in Consciousness, and if they were correctly and widely understood in this way they could change the way humanity sees itself, and change the course of history. The importance of this particular ancient description of the divine cannot be overstated. The four brahmavihāras are probably one of the most refined expressions of the mandala archetype, and also one of the most perfect and most illuminating expressions of Jung’s four functions of Consciousness, in the whole of human history.
Brahma – An Archetypal Image of Consciousness
In Indian spiritual tradition, the Sanskrit word Brahman denotes the absolute divine, and the god Brahma is the deity who personifies that ultimate reality – and who occupies the highest place in cosmic order of the ancient Indian pantheon. He is held to be the creator of the universe in Hindu tradition, so he is very like the Judaeo-Christian Yahweh in that regard, but in other ways he is very different. Continue reading
This is Post 9 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
Having reflected on the insubstantiality of the egoic parts, I need, in this meditation blog series, to balance that understanding by at least touching on some other helpful concepts in regard to the tricky and paradoxical question of what it is to have, or be, or become, a ‘self’ – one that is perhaps more affirmative. The nature of the human self and the processes by which it develops, or fails to develop, have challenged Psychology since its inception, and challenged our philosophers and spiritual thinkers for very much longer. Donald Winnicott, an innovative British psychoanalyst and writer, who had a passionate interest in the subtle role that parents, and especially mothers, play in the evolution of a child’s sense of self, put it this way:
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.”
Donald Winnicott, Psychoanalyst and Writer
The largely unrecognised value, of the complex and powerful way in which a mother provides a mirror for her child’s emerging self, and provides a ‘facilitating environment’ through the mother-child bond, was the subject of Winnicott’s life’s work. He was not alone among the psychoanalytic thinkers in this. Jung, as always in my view, went further, recognising that the mother is ultimately an archetypal figure, and that the personal mother constellates the archetypal power of the Mother archetype in her relationship with the child. Characteristically, Jung also recognised that the mother archetype has two sides – that it includes a dark side that may stand in the way of spiritual maturity.
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