The Brahma Viharas, or the divine abodes as they are translated in English, are used in Buddhism as a way of cultivating friendly heart-mind-states.
They weren’t invented with Buddhism, rather they were used as a tool to aid in the process of awakening that the Buddha taught.
I want to suggest a different way of approaching them, which helps us open to actually being more in our heart space. When we are connected to our physical heart-space, it brings us into presence. Our heart space is also where we feel least separate to the world and other people around us.
When we practice the Brahma Viharas using scripts, which is how they are taught in Buddhism, we are connecting to them with our minds. We are first deciding what is right and good and then wishing that for ourselves and others.
The Buddhist Scripts
Loving Kindness: May you be happy, may you be well
Compassion: May you be free from suffering
Sympathetic Joy: May you be joyful
Equanimity: May you be peaceful and at ease
These are very helpful states for cultivating a sort of calm, peaceful detachment from life. We can wish people well from an arms length. We want others to be thriving, but we aren’t feeling the emotional impact of the fact that they may not be.
This attitude can also stop us from really landing in our experience and feeling what is present for us.
Reframing The Brahma Viharas as Questions
If we want to have lives that feel connected and meaningful we have to engage deeply with our lives and the world.
We can update the heart practices to facilitate us to do this. Rather than watching the heart states play out from the mind we are embodying the heart space and let it do its natural thing.
We are no longer trying to judge or control the situation, we are opening to what is naturally there.
Before it was like having a bag of sweets that we are looking at from the mind and choosing to share it rather than be a grumpy asshole.
When we are literally present in our hearts, it’s like we’re putting fuel on a fire and feeling its warmth. The warmth doesn’t need to be directed at people or ‘shared out’, it will naturally radiate out of you towards yourself and others around you.
The best thing for practicing this way of engaging with the heart states is to reframe the scripts as questions.
The key is to let go of any judgements and ideas of what the answers should be and to answer as sincerely as possible. Shoulds come from the mind, sincerity comes from the heart.
There is also another boundless state, which isn’t talked about in Buddhism. Since we are engaging with the world, the space that we are in becomes part of our experience.
This wasn’t needed or recognised in Buddhism as a heart state because the idea was to create a space (a monastery) that supported people to separate off from the world. They were trying to discourage people from engaging with the world, whereas in this practice we are trying to allow ourselves to open to the world in a wholesome or whole-hearted way.
The boundless state that corresponds with this is gratitude. When we feel grateful for things around us, this helps us open our hearts to the physical and emotional space we are in. This isn’t about feeling grateful for things we think we should feel grateful for, it’s about finding things we naturally appreciate in life.
I’ve also translated the other boundless states slightly differently to reflect what they feel like when we use them in a more engaged way: gratitude, friendliness, joy, inclusion and embodied compassion.
Each one has questions to ask yourself. You can answer the questions for the situation you find yourself in, or like with the scripts, you can imagine different people and scenarios to see what it evokes in you.
Gratitude: What is something you appreciate in life?
Embodied Compassion: What do you care about in this situation?
Joy: What brings you joy? What is something dark or absurd that brings you joy?
Friendliness: How would a good friend describe you or the situation?
Inclusion: What else feels important to recognise?
The trick is to allow yourself to open to whatever is actually there, not what you think should be there. Rather than watching the emotions, you actually feel them. Rather than trying to make them pretty or nice, you are being honest about what’s really there. Contrary to Buddhist aims, we are fuelling our passion and what we give a shit about in order to show up for other people and experience being present in our lives.
This level of sincerity can be really hard. We may not want to be with what is there. We may also struggle to find things that answer the different questions sincerely.
For example, I’m a very open hearted person and I still find myself in situations where I find it hard to find something that I feel genuinely grateful for. The trick is to not beat yourself up and think of all the things that you think you should be grateful for but to find one thing, no matter how small, that inspires genuine gratitude. Even if it’s something ‘bad’.
If you’re struggling to answer these questions sincerely this can be a sign that your environment is draining and not very conducive to you being open-hearted.
If we want to resource ourselves we can imagine some nice scenarios that will evoke pleasant feelings in us. If we want to heal and reintegrate parts of us that have been separated off we can face parts of ourselves that we find more challenging.
Love is a natural healer, so if we open our hearts to these parts of ourselves, even if it feels painful at the time, it will help us heal and release some of the weight that we were carrying.
The best heart practice can be lying on your bed and crying for a couple of hours. Or really embracing your anger and letting it loose in a safe way.
If we imagine nice scenarios this will also help us remember that we have access to these states and start to wear them in as a natural way of opening to the world.
In terms of awakening, if you do these practices sincerely enough and take them far enough you will eventually flip your experience inside out. You will open your heart enough that it will be the primary way in which you engage with the world, instead of your mind. And rather than your experience arising in awareness, your experience will be arising in love, which is a subtle but fundamentally different way of being.
Here is a 40-minute guided meditation that takes you through this process as a practice.