brahma viharas

Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

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Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia in 2017! He’s been invited by the Sydney Buddhist Centre to lead a week-long retreat on lovingkindness and the other three “divine abidings” at Vijayaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, at Minto, just one hour from the centre of Sydney, on a plot of largely pristine bushland above the upper reaches of the Georges River.

This week-long retreat is an opportunity to enjoy my innovative and even provocative take on the “divine abidings” or Brahma Viharas — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings.

The divine abidings are a path to insight, blending compassion and wisdom.

On this retreat we will delve progressively deeper into the divine abidings, developing an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads ourselves and others toward awakening.

These teachings have grown out of over 30 years of practicing these meditations, and of helping literally thousands of people to explore them. The retreat is suitable for people who already have some meditation experience. It’s not an event for complete beginners.

  • Metta is kindness, or an empathic recognition that just as we desire happiness, other beings desire happiness; therefore we wish for the wellbeing of others.
  • Karuna, or compassion, is the desire that beings be free from suffering so that they may experience happiness.
  • Mudita, or joyful appreciation, is far more than “being happy because others are happy.” It begins by recognizing that true happiness does not arise randomly, but as the result of skillful actions. Therefore we rejoice in the good we see in ourselves and the world, and encourage its development, living as much as possible from a basis of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Upekkha is often translated as equanimity, or balance. But it goes much deeper. The root meaning of upekkha is “to watch intimately.” It begins with the recognition that the deepest and truest form of happiness is the peace that arises from spiritual awakening; therefore if we truly want beings to be happy we should rejoice in and encourage the cultivation of insight in ourselves and others.

In cultivating upekkha we must look deeply into the hearts of beings and recognize their need for awakening. And we must look deeply into the nature of reality itself, so that we know what awakening is, and can help others to attain it. Upekkha, in its essence, is identical to “The Great Compassion” (Maha-Karuna) of the Mahayana, that seeks the enlightenment of all beings.

The divine abidings, ultimately, are a love as deep as life itself.

The retreat runs from Friday, 3 March until Friday, 10 March, 2017.

Click here to register for Bodhipaksa’s retreat in Australia.

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Meditation: what can and can’t be taught

Steven Schwartzberg, Huffington Post: By most standards, I’m a fairly experienced meditator. I meditate daily, and have for years. I’ve spent months at a time immersed in silent practice. I study it, teach it, and write about it.

I can still wonder if I’m doing it wrong.

Meditation is deeply personal. Except with the broadest brushstrokes, this intricate journey into one’s most intimate inner experience can not be translated or taught. Teachers may of course share their intuition and expertise, but it is not possible to get inside …

Read the original article »

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100 days of lovingkindness (and compassion, and joyful appreciation, and loving with insight

100 Days of LovingkindnessToday is Day 100 of Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

For me it’s been a blast. Somehow I managed to keep to a schedule of having a blog post each day, which means that I’ve written enough material in the last three months to fill a 300 page book. On our first 100 day challenge I managed 35 consecutive daily posts before realizing that I couldn’t sustain the pace and slacked off to writing every five days. Somehow this time the 35 day mark came and went, and then the 50 day mark, then 75 days — and here we are. The time has flown.

I can only imagine that the energy for this writing came from the practice itself. It certainly helped that we were focusing on one set of practices, rather than having just a general theme of meditating for 100 days. When you focus on one narrow topic it forces the mind to dig deeply, and as they say, if you want to dig a well you make one deep hole, not many shallow ones.

My understanding of the practices has moved on immensely. It may be that I’ve got things entirely wrong, but I realized that mudita is not “lovingkindness meets joy” as I had thought it to be, and realized that it was actually “lovingkindness appreciating and encouraging the skillful qualities that bring happiness.” And I came to see upekkha not as equanimity, but as the vipassana equivalent of mudita: “appreciating and encouraging the qualities of insight that bring lasting peace.” It’s always deeply fulfilling to look into familiar practices and to see them in a new light — especially one that brings traditional formulas to life.

My own practice? Well, there have been so many complications and stresses in my life with family and work (I won’t bore you with the details) that my meditation practice, although regular, has not felt particularly deep. But I have noticed a greater ability to be calm in the face of major challenges, and have definitely felt more compassionate and empathetic. I seem to have much more creativity, as witnessed by all this blogging.

Reaching Day 100 seems less like an end and more like the start of something. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these practices, and to continue my writing (perhaps these blog posts will be an actual 300 page book at some point).

I’m glad to have been practicing with others. I’ve seen much kindness, compassion, and skillful rejoicing over the last 100 days, especially from members of Wildmind’s Google+ Community. And with permission, I’d like to leave you with some of their comments:

  • Adin: These last 100 days of have gifted me with an unshakable daily sitting practice, with a deeper understanding of this fleeting self, with more love for others, and with not just an acceptance of but a soothing, wiser appreciation of impermanence. I bow in deep gratitude.
  • Matthew: I’ve found myself deepening in compassion for both myself and others. I’ve always had major issues with self compassion but lately due to the practice of Brahmaviharas, I’ve noticed myself doing extra things around the house out of compassion for what situations may arise in the future vis-a-vis my health situation.
  • Melody: I’ve gone from ‘studying’ Buddhism out of curiosity to committing to this practice as a way of my life. I am immersed in the study of the words of the Buddha. I learned that I did not know how to love myself fully. I have committed to accept myself as I am here and now with present moment awareness. Applying compassion to myself changed the me I was familiar with, now things are bright and new and changing all the time. I found ill will to be too heavy and painful to carry and dropped it. Finally…I am growing an awareness of all beings and feeling a belonging I have never known.
  • Christine: This 100 days has completely upended my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about metta practice, and about a lot of other things, too. (In fact, upending my thoughts, feelings and assumptions seems to have become part of my practice.) I used to fight shy of metta practice; now I love it. Curious and beautiful changes are seeping into my practice and my life as a result. All this is surely due to Bodhipaksa’s daily posts, for which I am profoundly grateful.
  • The 100 days project has taken me from an occasional meditator to someone for whom meditation has become a central part of life. I’m more aware of how I interact with others and find myself genuinely desiring good things for other people. Thank you so much, Mr. B, for guiding us through this process. Your words and example have been invaluable.
  • The 100 Days of Lovingkindness introduced me to the brahma-viharas (divine abodes, four immeasurables) expanding what I initially knew of metta, the lovingkindness meditation, exponentially. In learning the other aspects of lovingkindness, I truly see now just how much of a compassionate practice this is! I learned to root for others during their suffering, and during their successes. In honoring both, I also developed a deep desire that they have clarity. In particular, I applied these lessons at the source by learning to relate well to my own suffering. In doing so there was a letting go in which I found freedom. In finding freedom, I now desire it for all others.

PS. You can see all of out 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Upekkha as an insight practice (Day 85)

100 Days of LovingkindnessOne of the things I love is that when you spend some time hanging out with a practice, you often start to see it in new ways. This has happened for me with each of the four brahmavihara practices we’ve been exploring — lovingkindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and also equanimity, which is what we’re currently focusing on. I see each of these practices differently after practicing them regularly and reflecting on them, but I’m also starting to see things about the brahmaviharas as a whole that I’d never noticed before.

I’m noticing a kind of progression, suggesting an underlying framework that crops up over and over again in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this progression, but I’m now seeing it in a new way.

By way of background, many of the Buddha’s overviews of the path can be seen as consisting of two synergistic activities, which it’s tempting to call “stages” although that terminology is a bit misleading, since it tends to assume that the first stage is “lower” and less important than the second. In a synergy, both factors are crucial, and it’s not possible to say that one is more important than the other because each depends on the other for its fulfillment. These two synergistic activities that crop up over and over again are different ways of doing what I call “unselfing” — that is, reducing the sense of separateness that causes us to suffer.

These synergistic activities are found, for example, in the categories of puñna and pañña, or merit and insight. “Merit” is where we “unself” by developing skillfulness. We change our emotional and cognitive habits so that we think, speak, and act more skillfully. We replace greed with contentment, letting go, and generosity. We replace ill will with love and compassion. We become less selfish and less self-oriented, and more in tune with other people. This aspect of practice is like knocking down weeds and planting flowers. Insight is where we uproot the very cause of greed and ill will, by closely examining our experience and realizing that because everything that constitutes “us” is constantly changing, we don’t have the kind of separate and unchanging self that can be defended by ill will or bolstered by greed. So this is a more radical form of unselfing, where we learn to see through the delusion of separate selfhood.

Puñña and pañña — together — help us to abandon selfishness and self-view.

And these two, puñña and pañña, are mutually supportive. We can’t develop insight until we’ve done substantial work on ourselves to reduce our negativity and to become more open and positive. So puñña supports pañña. But as we begin to develop more appreciation into the impermanent nature of our experience, and of our selves, we find that we naturally become more skillful. So pañña supports puñña.

And this pattern of synergy can be seen in the terms samatha (calming) and vipassana (clearly seeing), and in the formula of the three trainings (ti-sikkha), where ethics and meditation correspond to puñña, and wisdom to pañña. And this can be seen in many other teachings as well, where there’s often a pattern of skillful qualities giving rise to concentration, which allows us to make a breakthrough into insight, which is sometimes described as “seeing things as they really are” or simply as “equanimity” (but here talking about the equanimity of the awakened mind, and not as the brahmavihara, although the one can lead to the other).

The brahmaviharas follow the same pattern, but in a particularly interesting way.

Metta and karuna (lovingkindness and compassion) are where we wish that beings be happy and free from suffering. We recognize, though our ability to resonate (anukampa) with others, that all beings wish to be happy and don’t wish to suffer. We all share these deep drives. And when we really recognize the universality of these drives, we find it harder and harder to stand in the way of others’ happiness, or to cause them suffering. Just knowing this intellectually isn’t enough, of course. We have to train our ability to resonate, and we have to train our ability to be kind and compassionate. (And we also have to train to be less selfish, grasping, and antagonistic). So this is a puñña activity, where we’re changing our habits and becoming less selfish.

Then there’s mudita, joyful appreciation. Now this is often described as us feeling joyful when we see joy in others. And seen that way it’s a mirror image of compassion, which is what we feel when we see pain in others. But mudita is far more than being empathetically joyful. It’s appreciating the skillful in others and appreciating the joy and peace that comes from those skillful qualities. It’s recognizing the operation of karma — how our actions affect our happiness, for good or bad — and so it’s really an insight practice. But it’s an insight practice that focuses on the arising of puñña in others. Mudita is when we appreciate, rejoice in, and support the arising of the skillful in others, because we clearly see that these qualities lead to true peace, joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering.

Upekkha is of course an insight practice too. It’s an insight practice where we ourselves cultivate and experience a loving peace. We experience peace as we learn that painful experiences and pleasant experiences come and go. We experience peace as we recognize that selfish clinging and ill will can never bring happiness, and because we’ve recognized that letting go can. We experience peace as we recognize the limits of our own abilities, and so there’s no clinging to unattainable outcomes (“I must save all beings!”) and no despondency and aversion when we’re not able to help others (“Some of those idiots just keep on causing suffering for themselves!”) We experience peace as we recognize that we can do what we can do, but ultimately all beings are the owners of their own karma (actions); ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness. We can help others. We can empathize with them. We can point the way. But as the Dhammapada says, “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” And to the extent that we ourselves have any skill in pointing toward awakening, we have to recognize that others may not be interested in following that direction.

But we’re also wishing this peace for others. Even if we haven’t developed much peace ourselves, we can still wish that others attain to peace. We can wish that they come to recognize impermanence, and that they come to see the arising and passing of experiences with balance and equanimity. We can wish that they learn to let go of the desire to change that which cannot be changed, and that they increasingly see letting go as the path to peace. So really, we’re supporting the development of insight in others.

So mudita, joyful apprecaition, is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others, as they bring about peace and joy through the cultivation of skillful qualities. On the other hand upekkha, or “closely and lovingly watching over others” is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others as they bring about peace and joy by recognizing and realizing impermanence.

Mudita and upekkha are not just things we feel, however. They are intentions that lead to actions. Mudita leads to our rejoicing in the good we see in others, and upekkha leads to us appreciating and supporting any insight we seen in others, so that we help them to let go whenever we can, of any grasping that causes them to suffer. Having unselfed ourselves, we help others to relax their own sense of self, so that they too can become unselfed. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about putting upekkha into practice in our lives.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Equanimity’s “far enemies” (Day 81)

100 Days of LovingkindnessBuddhaghosa decribes the “far enemies” of equanimous love like this: “Greed and resentment … are its far enemies … for it is not possible to look on with equanimity and be inflamed with greed or be resentful simultaneously.”

He also says, “[Equanimity’s] function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval.”

Equanimity destroys greed (or approval) and resentment, and greed (or approval) and resentment destroy equanimity, and so they’re direct opposites or, as the tradition calls them, “far enemies.”

Equanimity is a state of neither approval nor disapproval, aversion nor craving. It’s a state of balance, calm, and peace. When it’s applied in relation to our own experience, it means being with our painful experiences without resisting them in any way, and being with our pleasant experiences without clinging to them or longing for their continuation. We just act as skillfully as we can and let our experiences come and go.

Applied to our relationship with others, equanimity means more than one thing. It means that we don’t play favorites. We recognize that each person’s suffering and joy and welfare are as real to them as to anyone else. That’s why we “see equality in beings.”

Equanimity also means that as we wish beings well and wish for their suffering to end, we don’t have any aversion to their suffering nor any craving for their happiness. This can be harder for us to get our heads around; this is most certainly not a state of uncaring, but is simply an acceptance of the limits of our power. To use language from the late “Seven Habits” author Stephen R. Covey, others’ suffering and happiness are within our circle of concern, but are often outside our circle of influence.

And to avoid misunderstanding, it’s perfectly possible to want to relieve someone’s suffering and yet not have aversion to their suffering. Aversion here is an inability to deal with discomfort, where we can’t accept the reality of others’ suffering. And it’s perfectly possible to desire the well-being of others without craving it. Craving is where we’re attached to particular outcomes, and when those outcomes don’t appear we suffer.

So the state of equanimity is where we have the courage to change the things we can, and the serenity to accept the things we can’t.

In fact Buddhaghosa makes it explicit that equanimity, as a brahmavihara, is a stance where we recognize the limits of our influence:

Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds [kamma/karma] thus: “Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose, if not theirs, is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?”

This is one of those places where even-minded love becomes a wisdom practice, because we’re cultivating an awareness of karma.

Now obviously not all suffering arises because of beings’ own choices and actions, but much of it does. When something unpleasant happens to someone, like they lose their job through no fault of their own, or they are subject to a bereavement, there is initial suffering, which is the “first arrow.” But the bulk of the suffering that comes from circumstances such as these is usually self-induced secondary suffering, and comes from the mourning and judgements and inability to let go that we commonly experience. This is the second arrow.

And it’s that self-induced suffering (and happiness) that we’re mostly concerned with here. When we see someone suffering, we may well start off by being compassionate toward them. But when we see them wallowing in their pain, or acting in ways that are going to deeper their suffering, then we can end up losing our sympathy and feel annoyed and resentful: “Pull yourself together!”

So with equanimity we cultivate love and compassion toward beings, and even knowing that they bring about much of their own suffering we refrain from judging or blaming them. We also don’t judge ourselves for being unable to keep them from suffering.

And similarly we cultivate love and compassion toward beings, and aware that they bring about much of their own happiness we refrain from approval. Normally we’d think of approval as being a good thing, and usually it is, but here approval is just the flip-side of blame. It might be useful to think of it as “conditional approval” — I’ll love you as long as you keep being “good” and as long as you’re happy. But as soon as you slip up, acting unskillfully and causing yourself suffering, I withdraw my approval and begin to blame you.

So this is what we’re avoiding in even-minded love: we don’t have conditional approval when beings are happy, and we also don’t blame beings when they suffer. We recognize that beings’ actions are outside our control, and while we continue to give them our love and compassion we don’t feel resentful to ourselves for our inability to save the world, nor cling to the idea that we should be able to save the world.

This is the highest form of love: We do what we can to help others; we love them and have compassion for them when they cause themselves to suffer; and we don’t judge. We love them and rejoice in their good qualities, and we rejoice in the peace and joy that come from those good qualities. But we don’t judge.

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Cultivating equanimity or evenmindedness (upekkha) (Day 76)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI see equanimity as love accompanied by insight.

The fourth of the series of practices we’ve been exploring in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness is evenmindedness, which is more often translated as equanimity. The Pali word for this is upekkha, and in Sanskrit (Pali’s big sister, so to speak) this is upeksha.

The word upekkha actually covers a number of distinct but related qualities, with the common factor being non-reactivity. Here are three ways the Buddha talked about equanimity — and that’s before we talk about the practice of equanimity as a brahmavihara (the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings, beingthe four practices we’re exploring over this 100 days).

  • The word upekkha can point to a quality of not being thrown mentally off balance by our experience. Usually we have a tendency to react with aversion when something unpleasant happens. “Who used the last of the coffee!” And we can get rather giddy when something enjoyable happens, which may seem nice at the time, but it’s very unpleasant when the giddiness ends; witness how you feel when the new iPhone you’re so excited about gets its first scratch. So in developing everyday evenmindedness, we’re more mindful. We notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences arising, and we have a certain attitude of standing back, observing, and not getting too emotionally caught up. We can simply remember that it’s better for us to have equanimity than it is to get worked up, and, as the Buddha put it instead of a fixation on the agreeable, disagreeable, or neutral experience, “equanimity takes its stance.”
  • Upekkha can refer to a factor of jhana, meaning a deep meditative state of stillness and absorption. Equanimity arises as a factor in the third level of jhana. In the first jhana we’re more or less absorbed in the meditation practice, although there’s still some thinking going on. In the second level of jhana our attention is more stabilized in the body, the thinking stops, and we more strongly experience pleasurable bodily feelings that are called rapture. In the third jhana we move our focus to the emotion of joy, which is very stable, and equanimity arises: “Then there is the case where a monk, with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses joy [sukha] with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a joyful [again, sukha] abiding.'” So this is a deep stillness of mind, in which there is no thought, and joy is firmly established. And then in the fourth jhana, we cease paying attention to the experience of joy, and our equanimity becomes “purified” and even more intensely still. This is a state of deep peace, which is even more satisfying than the joy that was previously experienced.
  • Then there’s upekkha as a synonym for the awakened state. This is where non-reactivity is permanently established (more or less).

These three are covered in one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Niramisa Sutta:

“Now, O monks, what is worldly equanimity? There are these five cords of sensual desire … [things] that are wished for and desired, agreeable and endearing, associated with sense desire and alluring. It is the equanimity that arises with regard to these five cords of sense desire which is called ‘worldly equanimity.’

“Now, what is unworldy equanimity? With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of gladness and sadness, a monk enters upon and abides in the fourth meditative absorption, which has neither pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called ‘unworldly equanimity.’

“And what is the still greater unworldly equanimity? When a taint-free monk looks upon his mind that is freed of greed, freed of hatred and freed of delusion, then there arises equanimity. This is called a ‘still greater unworldly equanimity.’

But strangely, that list of three types of equanimity doesn’t include any mention of the Brahmavihara.

  • So fourthly, there’s equanimity or evenmindnedness as the fourth brahmavihara.

Evenmindedness as a brahmavihara shares the quality of non-reactivity that the other three senses of upekkha have. But it’s a brahmavihara, so it’s also a loving state. The equanimity of not-reacting to pleasant or unpleasant experiences may or may not be loving. The equanimity of jhana is joyful, but may or may not be loving. Equanimity as a brahmavihara is both non-reactive and is, by definition, loving. The equanimity of enlightenment I can’t speak about from experience, but the later Mahayana tradition emphasized compassion — an obviously loving quality — as an aspect of the enlightened experience, along with wisdom. In the earlier tradition it seems that the emphasis was more on equanimity, but unfortunately that term doesn’t sound very loving, even though it is an aspect of love!

There is an element of insight involved in the brahmavihara of upekkha. This can be love plus an awareness of impermanence, or love plus an awareness of non-self, or love along with an awareness of the intrinsically unsatisfactory nature of our experiences. And it’s this combination of love and insight that I see as characterizing evenmindnedness as a brahmavihara. Equanimity is love plus insight.

So the way I see it is that equanimity as the brahmavihara and equanimity as awakening are really the same thing, it’s just that the insight has sunk in to different degrees. In the brahmavihara we’re letting insight sink in, and in awakening it’s sunk in all the way, so that insight has fully transformed us.

  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that they and every experience they have is impermanent.
  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that our love is not our love and that there is really no separation between “ourselves” and “the world,”
  • And we love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that
    letting go ever more deeply into love and compassion is the way to peace, not clinging to craving and aversion.

So we work with these understandings in the brahmavihara of equanimity, and eventually they cause a deep change within us, and those understandings become permanent. At that point we’re experiencing upekkha — equanimity, evenmindedness — not as a practice but as an ongoing part of the way we are. At that point we’re awakened.

So we’ll be exploring there various aspects of equanimity — not just upekkha as a brahmavihara but also evenmindnedness as a positive quality in everyday life — over the remainder of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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Cultivating compassion (Day 26)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThere are four related dimensions of lovingkindness, together called the “divine abodes,” or Brahmaviharas. These four are (1) lovingkindness itself, (2) compassion, (3) appreciation, and (4) even-minded love. I devoted the first quarter of our 100 Days to lovingkindness, and I’m going to write about compassion, the second of these practices, for the second quarter.

The meditation of cultivating compassion is called karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and bhavana means “development” or “cultivation.”

Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.

The Vimuttimagga, a very early meditation manual dating from just a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, says:

As parents who on seeing the suffering of their dear and only child, feel compassion for it, saying, ” O, how it suffers!”, so one feels compassion for all beings. This is compassion.

The example of a suffering child is very down-to-earth, and it reminds us that compassion is a fundamental capacity that we have as human beings. We’d benefit from having more of it, so it’s to be cultivated.

The word “karuna” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to make or do” and so it has an active quality. You don’t just see your kid being sick and experience an emotion. You do something about it. Karuna has been termed “holy action.”

If you’ve done lovingkindness meditation then you’ll almost certainly have slipped into cultivating compassion as well, so this meditation won’t be particularly foreign to you. Compassion is simply what arises when a mind imbued with lovingkindness meets suffering. We want others to be happy; they are suffering; therefore we want them to be free from suffering, and to relieve their suffering if we can. And I’m sure it will have occurred to you, while you were cultivating lovingkindness, that a person you had in mind was suffering. Therefore, you’re already familiar with cultivating compassion.

In fact the phrases I was taught to use for cultivating lovingkindness were “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … free from suffering.” These days I try to keep a bit more separation between the two practices, so I’m more inclined to say “May I (or you, or all beings) be well … happy … at ease.” But it’s not a big deal if the karuna bhavana and the metta bhavana melt into each other a little.

Compassion shouldn’t be a depressing experience. When it does seem depressing, it’s likely that what we’re doing is responding to suffering in an unhelpful way. The Visudhimagga, a meditation manual a few centuries more recent than the Vimuttimagga (I know, the similar names are confusing!), talks about compassion having a “near enemy.” The near enemy is a quality that can be confused with the genuine article. By way of comparison, if you’re selling Gucci purses your real competition is not purses sold in Target, but fake Gucci purses that devalue your brand. So the danger is that we cultivate the near enemy, thinking it’s compassion, when actually it isn’t. This near enemy is often described as “pity,” but the Visudhimagga has it as “grief.” Specifically it’s the grief that comes from “the household life.”

What does this mean? The Visuddhimagga makes it clear that the “grief of the household life” doesn’t have anything literally to do with households at all. What it refers to is the grief, or suffering, of not having what you want. How I interpret this is that we are aware of others’ suffering, and we do want that suffering to end, but the reason we want it to end is because it’s uncomfortable for us, not because it’s uncomfortable for them. You turn on the TV news, and there are scenes of disaster from around the globe. And it feels bad. Maybe you’ll give some money to the Red Cross to help, or maybe you’ll just feel bad. Maybe you’ll change the channel to avoid feeling bad. But this isn’t genuine compassion because you’re not really feeling for the other people. You’re attached to your normal range of mental states, and now you’ve lost those, because of these poor people. You’re feeling the loss of your own happiness and wellbeing. This can feel rather heavy, especially if you get into feeling guilty or despairing.

I used to see this a lot when I trained as a veterinary surgeon. People would come in with a beloved pet dog that had been in a car accident and needed an amputation. Now a dog can get around perfectly well on three legs, and often the dog would be standing there, just after its accident, with a mangled, bloodied leg and its tail wagging. Even then, having just experienced trauma, the animal was very resilient. But the owners would be so overcome by the trauma of having a mangled dog — their own trauma — that they’d insist on having it put down. They’d say they were putting the dog out of its misery, but actually they were putting the dog out of their own misery.

Compassion actually recognizes that others are suffering. I’m not saying it can’t be heavy, just that it’s not an response that makes you feel crushed and helpless. But as the Visuddhimagga says, compassion “fails when it produces sorrow.” Compassion may lead to an ache in the heart, but it’s not sorrowful.

The “far enemy” of compassion is cruelty, and I think cruelty is often a way of keeping “grief” at bay. If you deride those who are suffering, then you don’t have to admit to your own vulnerability.

In future posts I’ll say more about the practice specifically, but for now, just see if, in your lovingkindness practice, you can be a bit more aware of your own and others’ suffering.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Get ready for “100 Days of Lovingkindness”

Lotus, isolated on whiteYesterday we finished up our 100 Day Meditation Challenge, which was an opportunity to build up a habit of meditating daily over a period of 100 days. Many people managed to sit every day, and many others made substantial progress in sitting daily. That makes today Day 101 of our 100 Day Challenge.

So what’s next?

Tomorrow we’re starting 100 Days of Lovingkindness. I’m not calling this a “challenge” since I’m not too fond of that word. You can take it as a challenge to sit daily if you want. I’m framing it as an opportunity to focus on the cultivation of lovingkindness (metta).

It’s not just about meditation either — it’s about taking lovingkindness practice into daily life. I think it would be beautiful to have a bunch of people working undercover, infiltrating samsara and making the world a kinder place.

We’ll have 25 days of cultivating lovingkindness, 25 days of cultivating compassion, 25 days of cultivating appreciation, and 25 days of cultivating love with insight (also known as equanimity). These four practices are collectively known as the “Brahmavihāras” (Divine Abodes), or the Immeasurables (appamaññā). Lovingkindness is the basis of the other three, which are simply love encountering (in turn) suffering, joy and goodness, and an awareness of reality.

How do you participate?

There will be regular blog posts, starting tomorrow, with teachings and links to resources. So keeping up with the blog, one way or another, is a good start. The very best way to keep up and to get support from others is to join our Google Plus Community [Google+ is now defunct], which is an amazingly friendly and supportive place.

You can follow us on Facebook, although Facebook will probably hide most of our posts from you, so it’s not the best way to keep in touch.

And all our posts are published on Twitter, where you can also follow us.

Lastly, you can follow our RSS feed if you use some kind of feed reader.

But the Google+ Community is where the main action will happen. If you don’t want to feel like you’re on your own, sign up there.

[See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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I love you and one day I will die

I love you and one day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.

Death is unavoidable; it will come to all of us, today, tomorrow, next month, next year.
Death is unavoidable; even I will die. Even you will die. Everyone we know will die.

Death is unavoidable, you and I may die before our parents. You and I may die before our children. You and I may die before our friends. You and I may die before our loved ones. You and I may die after our loved ones.

Death is unavoidable; this is the only thing we can guarantee in life. During this next year someone we know will die, or we will know of someone who knows someone who has died. In five years some of us may have even died. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

Death is not a tragedy. How we respond to death can be a tragedy. Denial of death is a tragedy. Blame is a tragedy. Saying it’s not fare is a tragedy. Death will come – all we can hope for is that we have a happy death.
Death is unavoidable, why not die well. One can hope for a non violent death, one can hope for a death from the failing body, from sickness or old age.

Detox Your Heart, by Vimalasara: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.ca

The longer we live, the more we will see die. In 20 years more of us would have died, and in 60 years most of us would have died.

Never be to overjoyed when someone arrives. Never be to saddened when someone leaves. This can be a mini rehearsal for learning to mourn who we lose.

Always hold lightly in your heart that this may be the last time you see the person you are with now.

If you can live like this only loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and peace will flow from your heart.

Death is unavoidable and it will come to all of us.

What does the gap between birth and death mean to you?

How are you living your life?

We may die a sudden death without saying goodbye to our loved ones, family, friends – what is it that we need to tell them so we have no regret if this happens?

How are you preparing for your death?

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