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 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?
Compassion: Describe one of your biggest challenges. How does this make you feel?
Joy: What brings you joy? What is something dark or absurd that brings you joy?
Friendliness: How would a good friend describe you?
Inclusion: What feels important right now?
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. 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.
For example, with compassion, you aren’t noting and saying ‘there is sadness, there is happiness’ you are actually directly feeling how the sadness and happiness feels in your body.
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.
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.
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.