Reframing The Brahma Viharas as Questions
If we want to have lives where we are connected with people, find meaning and share experiences with others we have to update the practices so that the heart states allow us to be engaged with the world. Rather than watching them 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.
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 feel grateful for.
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: friendliness, passion, joy and inclusion.
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 do you feel glad for in this scenario?
Friendliness – How would a kind friend describe me or the situation I am in?
Passion – What do I care about in this scenario? Can I allow myself to feel the emotions?
Joy – What am I genuinely enjoying?
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.
‘You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.’
With Buddhism, there is a focus on loving kindness because the heart states are perceived as mental constructs and loving kindness is where our heart and mind connect, sometimes called the heart-mind. So it would make sense to focus on this – from this way of experiencing the world, loving kindness is like a doorway to the other heart states. A way that we can perceive them.
The other four heart states connect with different parts of our experience: gratitude is in our heart-space, passion is in our heart-body, joy is in our heart-soul and inclusion is in our heart’s heart.
You don’t really have to worry about this, but if we use the questions to connect sincerely and directly with our hearts (rather than looking at it from our mind), then perhaps you can notice that each of them has a different feeling and quality to them and can be found in different parts of our experience.
For example, with passion, 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, for example butterflies or tears.
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 heal us 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 fundamentally different way of being.