Book extract

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How Compassion is Wisdom

The Metta Bhavana, which counteracts the mental poison of hatred and represents positive emotion in our system of meditation – is at the root of a family of practices all of which can be a basis for reflection on insight and for the direct seeing of reality: the four Brahma Viharas, ‘the dwelling-places of Brahma’ or ‘divine abodes’. They are also known as the Sublime or Limitless Abodes (aparimana), so called because there is supposedly no limit to their intensity and scope. The four practices are Metta Bhavana, Karuna Bhavana, Mudita Bhavana and Upekkha Bhavana, bhavana meaning cultivation or development.

The essential nature of Metta is the wish for others’ happiness independent from your personal interest. This wish is the basic quality from which all four Brahmaviharas unfold. It is made deeper and broader by practising the three other methods: compassion (karuna), which is an active, loving response to others’ suffering; sympathetic joy (mudita), which is that response in relation to others’ happiness and good fortune (which only too often evokes jealousy or resentment); and equanimity (upekkha), which is a loving and insightful response based on applying pratityasamutpada so as to illuminate how others’ joy and sorrow arise from conditioning factors that govern all beings.

Not everyone realizes that cultivating love (metta) begins a process that bestows real insight (prajna). Maybe you think that emotion is so subjective and irrational that it’s an unreliable basis for anything. However, metta and compassion (karuna) are ethical responses, and ethical training entails seeing your ego-based motives and responses for what they are. It means valuing others’ needs as at least equal to your own.

This leads directly into the existential territory of vipashyana meditation, raising questions such as: who am I, what is the nature of existence, who suffers, who gains and who loses? And metta does it in a way that is embodied, that is not merely a thought or intention. Its basis in bodily experience effectively counters the alienation and abstraction that can sometimes result from purely awareness-based vipashyana methods rooted in anapanasati or satipatthana. Acting with friendliness and kindness towards someone doesn’t make them do what you’d like them to, but it definitely helps them. Eventually you come to wonder how valuable your own preferences really are. When self-interest is sacrificed, there’s often a greater benefit and a sense of a deed well done that humbles you when you recall how rigidly you usually insist on your wants.

In engaging with these meditations it is helpful to watch out for the ‘near enemy’, the negative quality you easily assume is the real thing. The ‘far enemy’ is the simple opposite – hatred in the case of metta, cruelty in the case of karuna – which obviously isn’t what you’re trying to cultivate. Much more difficult to notice is the ‘near enemy’ pema, emotional attachment, which people often confuse with metta. Your practice is then coloured by a desire to get something back from the deal, such as recognition, love or friendship – or you make a connection that’s soppy and sentimental. It is very likely that there’s at least some pema in the mix, so these meditations are partly about refining that, growing out of need-based responses to others and moving towards a free, spontaneous desire to give and help. That is a long-term project, but meditation is a good way to make it happen.

Once you’ve established a stable focus in the meditation, you can include some reflection on the insubstantiality of the person generating the metta (i.e. you, the self that is lacking in selfhood) together with the equally non-self person who is currently the object of your metta. If you understand this, you’ll find that the reflection works well to deepen and sustain the feeling of metta – this is closer to how things actually are, so it makes the engagement more real. Having a metta-filled mind is also just the right approach for vipashyana reflection: its ‘immeasurable’, unlimited quality works better than the usual critical, measuring attitude and its openness perceives more easily the absence of an inherent, permanent nature in things. It knows that real people are unfathomable and finds it natural to let go of the niggling wish that others should conform to our preferences.