The heart states, or the Brahma Viharas, are used in Buddhism as a way of cultivating friendly heart-mind-states. They weren’t invented with Buddhism, rather practicing with them in a certain style was used as a tool to aid in the process of awakening that the historical Buddha taught.
I want to suggest a different way of approaching them, which can help you open to being more in your heart space in an embodied way. When you practice the Brahma Viharas using scripts, which is how they are taught in Buddhism, you are connecting to them through the mind. In comparison when you are connected to your physical heart-space, it brings you into embodied presence, in connection with yourself, others and the world.
The Buddhist Scripts
Brahma Vihara practice (or Metta practice, which is the first of the heart states and used as the access gateway in the Buddhist approach), is done through reciting scripts in your mind.
You repeat the phrases while imagining sharing each loving state with different people – people like yourself, a loved one, a stranger, an enemy and all beings.
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
The idea is that the scripts and the imaginal exercise connects you to love and then being in the loving state starts to dissolve aspects of hatred, ill will and ignorance. You are able to find and deepen a more open, loving, peaceful and accepting state.
It’s very powerful for getting you in touch with a calm and slightly detached way of being. You’re less enmeshed in reactivity and more likely to be able to see the world through a loving lens.
This can be an important thing to cultivate and develop as a resource and way of being but if it is developed out of balance with a more embodied approach, it can also prevent you from really landing in your experience and feeling what is present.
The Brahma Viharas as Questions
I want to teach another way of approaching the heart states, which can help you open to being more in your embodied heart space. When you are connected to your physical heart-space, it brings you deeply into presence. It brings you into intimate connection with yourself, others and the world.
With the approach I am teaching here, rather than watching the heart states play out from the mind you are opening your heart, embodying the different flavours of Universal love and letting it do its natural thing. It’s like 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.
This way of engaging with the heart states in an embodied way is through 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. Ideas come from the mind, sincerity comes from the heart. The purpose is to connect with the authentic truth of what is present, without being judgemental or pulled out of your heart space.
For this practice I’ve also added another boundless state to the list and that is gratitude. In this practice you are opening yourself to the world in a wholesome or whole-hearted way, which becomes a lot more possible when the feeling of gratitude is present.
When you feel grateful for something, it takes you out of conflict with life and helps you open up. For this to work in an embodied way, this isn’t about practicing feeling grateful for things you think you should feel grateful for, it’s about finding things you naturally appreciate in life.
The thing you feel grateful for might be something unusual, something very tiny or a bit of guilty pleasure. It doesn’t have to be about being grateful in a way that makes you seem like an angel.
I’ve also translated the names of the boundless states slightly differently to reflect what they feel like when they are more embodied: friendliness, joy, inclusion and compassion.
Each one has questions to ask yourself. You can answer the questions for the present moment, or like with the scripts, you can imagine different people and scenarios to see what emotions get evoked in you.
Gratitude: What is something you appreciate in life?
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?
To feel the impact of the practice, the key 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.
The point is to trust that the underlying love is deep enough to hold you in the truth.
This level of sincerity can be really hard. You may not want to be with what is there. You may also struggle to find things that answer the different questions sincerely.
For example, I’m a very open hearted person and I’ve found myself in plenty of situations where I’ve found it hard to find something that I feel genuinely grateful for. It’s important to not beat yourself up and start thinking about 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 you want to resource yourself you can imagine some nice scenarios that evoke pleasant feelings, or you can go back to the scripts to help cultivate more of the loving states. If you can imagine nice scenarios this will also help you remember that you have access to these states and start to wear them in as a natural way of opening to the world.
To heal and reintegrate parts of yourself that have been separated off may require facing parts of yourself that you find more challenging. Opening your heart to exiled parts of you can feel painful at the time, but it will help you heal and release some of the constriction that stops love being a more natural flow within your being. 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.
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.