The Brahma-Viharas, translated by some as “sublime attitudes,” are the Buddha’s most important teachings of the heart. There are 4 of them: metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy), upekkha (equanimity). Over the next four posts, I will discuss each of the Brahma-Viharas in depth from a personal point of view. Let’s begin with loving-kindness.
If you’re like me, anger, envy, and competition are frequent guests in my psyche. As an individual, it is very easy to see the world through the lens of “I.” After all, how else would we see the world? Why question our consciousness? In one respect, you don’t have to question it at all. Most people do not. It’s not anyone’s fault, just like a fish not knowing what water is:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Most of us don’t question our fundamental reality because it has always been. As a result, it is very natural to become very self-centered and think “I” am the center of my universe, that my individual wants and desires are the most important thing in the world. This attitude can also make us all very narcissistic and tribal. It’s not just my needs that are important but also my family’s needs, my race’s needs, my political party’s needs, my country’s needs, etc etc etc. All of this is very normal. But it is also maybe why the world can feel so selfish and broken. Why can’t we better? Maybe because we aren’t better. To put it simply we often act selfishly because we are self-centered beings.
But what if we could be better? What is if we could cultivate love and kindness and compassion and all the better angels of our nature? One of the reasons I am a Buddhist is because it gives a path to do this. Other religions certainly do too. Most religions, it seems, preach love and compassion. It is fundamental to a religious attitude. But how to live with that attitude is often inexplicit. Prayer and devotion and ritual all play a part in religion, even Buddhism. And there is nothing wrong with all this. But Buddhism has an explicit path to create a sense of love and kindness in us: the loving-kindness or metta meditation.
I have discussed the loving-kindness meditation elsewhere. And if anyone is looking for a recommendation, this is my personal favorite loving-kindness meditation. But essentially the metta meditation is a practice in practicing love for ourselves first and then others. We start with ourselves because whether we realize it or not, there are many parts of ourselves that we reject. This is called the shadow self in Jungian psychology. It may take a long time to feel we even deserve this kind of love, especially for the rejected parts. I’ve known depressed people to hate this meditation because it feels so silly to them, but when I prod a little deeper, I have found great resistance to having love and kindness for themselves. They haven’t earned the love so why practice? But after some time, the walls become come down.
After we finish with ourselves, we go to others. We first start with our loved ones. We do this because it is often easier to build the muscles of love with people we cherish in our lives. (In many respects, this meditation is like a workout for our loving nature). When I focus on my wife or my brother, it is much easier to feel loving feelings than when I focus on myself! As our strong feelings of loving-kindness grow we can move on to others, including strangers, people we perceive as enemies, and eventually the whole of humanity.
With some time and some practice, eventually, the walls of “I” begin to loosen. You will still be inherently self-centered because that’s just a reality of living. But you will probably be less so. You will probably be more generous and kind. You will see the world with less fear and more love it. It is transformative. And it is all within your reach with a little effort.