“…an individual keeps pervading the first direction — as well as the second direction, the third, and the fourth — with an awareness imbued with compassion. Thus he keeps pervading above, below, and all around, everywhere and in every respect the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with compassion: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.”
I want to focus on the phrase, of the Buddha’s, “an awareness imbued with compassion,” because I think it’s rather important.
Here’s something you can try in your meditation. When I’m teaching, often at the beginning of a period of practice I’ll suggest that people become aware of the light, and space, and sound around them. It’s the space that’s particularly important to notice. I encourage them to feel the space in front, behind, to the sides — even above and below.
We have this sense of space as one of our senses, although we tend to neglect it in favor of the big five. If the room you’re in was plunged into darkness so that you couldn’t see anything at all, you could still point to the door. You would still have a sense of how far it was to each of the walls around you.
It can feel like your mind is filling the space around you. Our awareness seems expansive.
And then I ask people to become aware — in addition — to the inner space of their experience, noticing the sensations that are arising in the body, noticing thoughts and feelings.
There can be a tendency at this point for our awareness to move completely inwards. We drop our awareness of the outer world, and focus exclusively on what’s inside. But interesting things happen when you remain aware of outer experience and inner experience simultaneously.
Usually this spacious, open awareness brings about a sense of quiet in the mind. Our thoughts slow down, and may stop altogether. There will inevitably be a tendency for the mind to move either outward into the world, or inward into our physical or mental experience, but if we can find a point of balance where we are equally aware of the other and inner poles of our experience, then the mind remains very still.
This state is very restful. There’s no need to go looking for our experience; it’s just coming to us. We can realize that our experience of the inner and outer worlds is there all the time, and that it’s “looking for our experience” that cuts us of from the totality of our experience. As soon as you focus on one thing, you exclude a thousand others. So we just rest, not focusing on anything in particular, letting our experience come to us. So this is deeply restful.
And if we can maintain that point of balance, then the sense of there being an inside and outside to our experience can begin to dissolve and, eventually, vanish altogether. On some level, there’s no self or other, but simply an expansive field of undivided awareness.
So this is something I often encourage people to do at the beginning of meditation, but this is also very useful to do when we’re moving into the final stage of the metta bhavana or karuna bhavana. Because at this point, when we imbue our mind with compassion, we’re also imbuing our world with compassion.
Basically, at this point, any being you happen to meet is going to be met with a compassionate awareness. You might “meet” these beings by hearing their voices, or their car engines, or even by hearing the sound of the airplanes they’re in. You might meet them just by knowing that they’re present, in the way that you know when your partner is in the next room even if they’re silent, or know that there are neighbors in the house next door. Or you may meet them in your mind. You might think of the people who have been in the practice; you’re simply receiving an awareness of them into your compassionate mind. Or you might think of people in some far-away country. And of course you are meeting yourself all the time, since both the inner is in your awareness as well as the outer; remember we just have one unified field of awareness. And all of these beings that you come across are met with compassion; you are aware of them as beings who want to be happy and to be free from suffering, and as beings who nevertheless suffer, and you wish that they be free from suffering.
So we have “an awareness imbued with compassion … abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” There are no boundaries to the mind.
You can try this exercise of being aware of the inner and outer worlds simultaneously anytime. I’m doing it right now as I type this post. I do it as I’m walking or driving. In fact some of the Buddha’s instructions on walking meditation include an awareness of space: “Percipient of what is behind and in front, you should determine on walking back and forth.”
This expansive, open, non-self-focused awareness is very accessible. And then all we have to do is to imbue our awareness with compassion, and every being we encounter will be met with kindness and with a desire that they be free from suffering.