An exploration of our true nature
Who are we, really? This question is at the heart of Zen practice, and in this week's article we're going to take a look at some ingenious methods for exploring it developed by Douglas Harding, a 20th century English philosopher and spiritual teacher.
How insight changes our practice
In last week's article we talked about the importance of the view we bring to our practice. What we're trying to do affects both how we practise and the outcome of that practice. This is particularly important in the non-dual traditions, where the practice requires us to take on board a view of ourselves and the world which is not necessarily widely held. We tend to see ourselves as things in a world of things - separate, individual creatures going about separate lives, often in competition with one another, trying to protect our little piece of the world from everyone else. But the message of the non-dual traditions is clear: this is, at best, only one way of looking at the world, and one which comes with severe limitations. There's another perspective which can open up to us through practice, one in which we are not separate at all. From this perspective of non-separation, we have no problems, because there's no separate 'us' to be at odds with anything else.
It's important to keep this view in mind, even if (perhaps especially if) you haven't experienced this non-dual perspective for yourself yet, because it directly affects how we approach our practice. Silent Illumination can be practised in a totally dualistic manner as a kind of simple mindfulness exercise in which I sit and pay attention to all the things that are coming and going - sights, sounds and sensations 'out there', thoughts and feelings 'in here'. Alternatively, Silent Illumination can be viewed as an effortless resting, allowing the non-dual nature of reality to unfold moment to moment, absolutely perfect just as it is. In both cases, we sit still and pay attention to the total sphere of experience for a period of time, but depending on how we understand that experience, the net result may simply calm our nervous system and develop some concentration, clarity and equanimity toward the usual world of things, or it may allow us to contact and deepen our experience of non-duality.
For some people, it's enough to hear a description of the non-dual experience. For others, more explanation can be helpful, which I've tried to provide in two previous articles. Still others do well with a koan, such as 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' Yet another approach, and one I enjoy very much myself, was developed by the aforementioned Douglas Harding in the mid-20th century, and that's what we're going to explore in the rest of this article.
Credit where it's due
The original experiments, and plenty of other writings about Harding's approach, can be found at The Headless Way. You can also find some excellent guided audio by one of Harding's successors, Richard Lang, on the Waking Up app, which I highly recommend if you like guided meditations - the quality of instruction on that app is very high, and I'm usually not a big fan of apps!
So you're more than welcome to stop reading at this point and simply go back to the source. That being said, if you're a regular reader of these articles and you find my way of expressing things helpful, it's possible that you'll benefit from an articulation of these exercises in my voice rather than Harding's or Lang's. So here goes!
The pointing experiment
For this experiment, you will need to point in a succession of directions. Please actually do the pointing with your finger - you might feel silly at first, but it really does help.
Follow your pointing finger with your gaze. What do you see?
At first, the answer is obvious - the cup!
But look more closely. The label 'cup' is really an idea - a kind of thought. What you actually see is really some coloured shapes - it's just that what happens next is that your brain helpfully supplies the label 'cup', so as far as you're concerned you're 'seeing a cup'.
Spend a little time with this to see if you can get to a point where you can separate the coloured shape from the label. You don't need to stop the label, you just need to get to the point where you can recognise that the coloured shape and the label are two separate things, not one.
(I'm told that learning to see the world as coloured shapes is an exercise that artists do, because breaking free of our natural tendency to conceptualise the visual field is a helpful step in being able to draw more realistically, seeing what's actually in front of you as opposed to what you merely think is in front of you.)
When you can separate shape and label, you're ready for the next step.
Again, follow your pointing finger with your gaze. What do you see now?
At this point, you might 'know' that the correct answer is 'coloured shapes, and the label "my foot"', but make sure you're actually experiencing that rather than simply thinking it before you move on.
Again, follow your pointing finger with your gaze. What do you see now?
Once again, you're seeing coloured shapes, and thinking of an associated label. Hopefully it's getting a bit easier by this point.
Notice that, so far, everything we've pointed to has been a thing, an object 'out there' in the world.
Now you're ready for the next step.
Again, follow your pointing finger with your gaze. What do you see now?
You're now pointing back at your own face - or are you? Do you actually see your own face? You know what a face looks like - everyone else has one - but can you see yours at the end of your pointing finger? And if not, what do you see there?
Everywhere else we've pointed, we saw coloured shapes. But do you see colours or shapes in the direction you're pointing now? And if not, what do you experience instead?
When I look this way, I don't find any colours or shapes. I find only a kind of presence, a capacity for awareness and clarity, within which my whole visual field arises all at once. There are no 'things' back here - the 'things' are all 'out there', merely conceptually designated 'parts' of my total experience of the world, which is unified and seamless.
Spend some time pointing alternately between 'things out there' and 'what's back here' until the difference becomes clear.
This first experiment is Harding's classic, and can be extremely powerful in its own right. If you'd like to continue playing with just this one, that's absolutely fine. However, I'll go on to include a couple more that I personally enjoy, because I've always found it helpful to have a few different 'angles of attack' when I'm exploring new insight territory.
Visual field experiments
Notice that size is comparative - one of these objects is 'big' and one is 'small', but if you brought in a tiny object, the 'small' one would now be 'medium-sized' instead.
Perhaps you might object that size is an objective property, because it can be measured. But notice that 'measurement' just means 'comparing the size of one object with another in a particular way' - for example, by placing a ruler or tape measure next to an object and reading a number from it.
Notice also that, in your immediate experience, the sizes of objects don't match up at all to what you 'know' them to be. For example, you can place two objects six inches apart (and measure the gap with a ruler, if you like), then sit some distance away. By placing your thumb close to where other people look when they see your face, your thumb easily fills the gap - no matter how much you remind yourself that your thumb is much smaller than six inches, and even if you 'prove' this to yourself by measuring it.
At this point, you might be tempted to dismiss this as a trick, or a kind of deliberate ignorance of perspective. But what we're doing here is trying to see for ourselves how much interpretation of our experience our minds are normally doing behind the scenes. It's immediately obvious to us that our thumb is not bigger than the gap between those objects, despite the evidence of our senses. This is because our powerful minds have created a mental model of what's going on, and we believe the model to be more accurate than what our senses tell us.
This is important because we need to see that our models are just models - just one way of understanding what's going on. Those models can be limiting at best, and simply flat-out wrong at worst. And as we continue to explore who we really are, it can be helpful to distinguish our model of who we are from our first-person experience of who we are. So let's continue.
Is there any answer to this question?
We've just explored the idea that we understand size by comparing two objects with each other, but our visual field isn't really an object - our visual field contains all the objects. We don't have two separate visual fields to compare - there's nothing 'outside' the one we have, because 'outside' doesn't even make sense in this context.
And we can't really measure it in terms of the objects within it - our hand can appear relatively small, or larger than the entire visual field, depending on where we put our hand.
Again, we understand that two things in the world of things can be separated by distance, and that we can measure that distance 'objectively' by placing a third object such as a ruler or tape measure between them, or we can fill that distance 'subjectively' by placing a third object such as a thumb appropriately.
But how far away from the visual field itself are the objects? Is there any answer to this question? Or can we only say that that every object in our visual field is simply 'here', no nearer or farther than any other?
Exploring the other senses
The experiments I've presented above are primarily visual, and another way to dismiss their implications is to say that they're just optical illusions, a kind of trick that we can refute through the evidence of the other senses. But can you? Consider sounds, for example - individual sounds can be near or far, but what happens when we look at the whole field of hearing? Or touch sensations - individual sensations are things located within space, but what about the whole field of sensation itself?
When you've spent some time exploring the senses one at a time, come back to the original pointing experiment. What do you point to when you point at the place where others see your face? Is there any 'thing' there at all? Or do you find something else, quite different to the world of things? And what happens when you continue to look, resting in this new world where no separate things can be found?
Where is your practice taking you?
Over the last few weeks in my Wednesday night Zen class we've been talking about the different approaches taken by various Buddhist traditions over the last two and a half thousand years - their world view, their aims, and the practices that support those aims. So I thought it might be interesting to take a deeper look at these issues and see how an understanding of the great diversity of Buddhisms can inform and support our personal spiritual practice.
Before we get into the meat of the article, I'll say that this is a contentious subject, and I know at least one significant figure in the Buddhist world who would flatly disagree with pretty much everything I'm about to say. I'm also going to touch on traditions and approaches which I haven't practised in any depth myself, so I apologise in advance if anyone feels their tradition is being utterly misrepresented. The point here is not so much to give 100% accurate descriptions of each approach as it is to illustrate the variety of approaches on offer, so I'm going to claim that I don't need total accuracy anyway. (If I did, this article would take months to write!)
Some people will tell you that all Buddhisms (and indeed all spiritual paths) are basically the same, pointing to the same perennial Ultimate Truth and using basically the same techniques. I would say that this is an oversimplification at best, and disingenuous at worst. What I see is a great plurality of traditions with different ways of understanding what it means to be human and what the purpose of spiritual practice is, drawing from a largely (but not entirely) shared set of practices which produce a largely (but not entirely) shared set of experiences, but explaining those practices and experiences in significantly different ways. In other words, it doesn't just matter what you do when you meditate, but also why you're doing it, and how you understand what happens to you as a result.
Let's take a look at a range of different approaches from the last few millennia to illustrate what I'm talking about.
No experience, no problem - yogic practice in the time of the Buddha
As I've previously described, in the time of the Buddha the world was seen as cyclic in nature, and essentially painful. Living beings would be born, suffer, die and then be born again, only to suffer all over again. The only way to win a game like that is not to play - but you can't even escape through suicide, because you'll only be reborn all over again.
According to the stories in the Pali canon (for example, Majjhima Nikaya 26, the Discourse on the Noble Search), the historical Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha Gautama, left home and wandered for several years trying to find an escape from the seemingly inevitable suffering of life. Amongst other approaches, he met a teacher called Alara Kalama, who taught a meditation practice called the dimension of nothingness. Readers familiar with the jhanas will recognise this as the seventh jhana, or third formless realm. If you don't know this kind of practice, basically it's a matter of focusing the attention very intently on an object until the mind becomes so absorbed that you proceed through a series of altered states of consciousness - in the case of Alara Kalama, arriving at the experience of nothingness, where you literally experience 'nothing' - no body sensation, no sights or sounds, not even space or consciousness; just nothing, the absence of anything at all.
In the same discourse we hear of another teacher, Uddaka Ramaputta, who taught an even deeper concentration state - the dimension of 'neither perception nor non-perception'. (Again, readers familiar with the jhanas will recognise this as the eighth jhana, or fourth formless realm.) What's the difference between this and the previous one? In the seventh jhana, you clearly perceive nothingness. In the eighth jhana, you don't clearly perceive anything at all, not even nothingness. At the same time, though, your experience hasn't totally stopped. Hence, neither perception nor non-perception.
Toward the end of MN26 we hear of a deeper state even than this - the cessation of perception and feeling. Here, you've gone even beyond 'neither perception nor non-perception', and your conscious experience simply switches off entirely, like going into deep dreamless sleep. Supposedly people can stay in this state for several days at a time - I can't say I've achieved this myself though!
The basic idea behind all of these approaches is one of transcendence. The world sucks, so let's get the heck out of it! So we learn to focus the mind so profoundly that our experience falls away - and if we have no experience, there's no suffering.
No emotions, no problem - the innovative approach of early Buddhism
According to the story, Siddhartha Gautama wasn't satisfied with these deep concentration states. They had a basic problem - as soon as you emerged from meditation, the suffering would come right back. And so the Buddha-to-be started down the path that will characterise all the subsequent developments that we'll see in this article - how to retain some kind of conscious experience while eliminating as much suffering as possible.
The Buddha's solution was to identify emotional reactivity as a source of avoidable suffering. There wasn't much he could do about the aches and pains of having a body (apart from continuing to practise those deep concentration states, which formed a core path of his teaching), but it turns out that one could train to eliminate greed, hatred and delusion, ultimately uprooting the sources of reactivity and leaving the practitioner in a state of 'coolness', or nibbana (the word literally meaning 'extinguished', like a candle flame that's been blown out).
So you see a multi-pronged approach in early Buddhism. Concentration states are still taught, partly for temporary relief from suffering, and partly to stabilise the mind to make it easier to discover the insights that uproot greed, hatred and delusion in a more permanent way. Heart-opening practices are also taught, partly because they're good concentration practices and partly because they provide an antidote to strong negative emotions, ultimately culminating in equanimity, or neutrality. But early Buddhism also adds insight practice into the mix, and in particular an investigation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal nature of all phenomena, causing a practitioner to become 'disenchanted' with the pleasures of the material world. The final step is to explore and uproot the sense of having a separate personal 'self' which enjoys pleasure and dislikes pain. When the world comes to be seen as a purely impersonal unfolding, there's no more personal experience of craving and aversion because there's nobody here to suffer it.
(As an aside, here we also start to run up against the necessity of insight to progress. The 'concentrate your way to oblivion' approach worked 100% within the existing world view that practitioners would already have had. Getting all the way to uprooting the self requires coming to see the world differently, however - differently enough that, at first glance, what the Buddha is saying might sound strange, impossible, ridiculous, or something that must be taken on faith because there's no way to know it for ourselves. The key point of Buddhist practice is that we can experience these things for ourselves - or, at least, we can have personal experiences which can be understood in terms of the new view that we're being invited to accept, thereby convincing ourselves that the view on offer is actually reasonable after all.)
No negative emotions, no problem - the path of karmic purification
Over time, some elements of the Buddhist sangha moved in an increasingly renunciate direction, focused on deep meditative experiences and emphasising withdrawal from the world. In response, another movement arose, suggesting that personal liberation from suffering wasn't enough, and that practitioners should also make helping others a significant part of the path. This approach became known as the Mahayana, famous for its Bodhisattva ideal, in which practitioners vow to postpone their enlightenment until all sentient beings have been saved from suffering.
With a more outward-looking view came new questions about how to be in the world to help other beings without simply being crushed by the same weight of suffering afflicting everyone else. In particular, was it really necessary to totally eliminate all attraction and aversion? Couldn't positive emotions be a valuable source of energy to help others? Perhaps, instead of crushing one's entire emotional range down to a dry wafer, we could simply eliminate the bad stuff, and keep the good?
Various views of 'purification' thus arose over the centuries. For example, the Yogacara school developed a model of the mind broken down into eight consciousnesses; the first first correspond to the regular five senses, the sixth is for conceptual thought, the seventh is the source of the sense of self and afflictive emotions, and the eighth is the consciousness of the 'storehouse', where our karmic 'seeds' are stored. Do something good, you plant a positive seed; do something bad, you'll plant a negative seed. Afflictive emotions are considered to be the result of the ripening of negative seeds, and thus practice consists in large part of purifying the storehouse of negative karma. Gradually, the afflictive emotions are purified too, and you can be in the world as a saintly, compassionate, loving being.
In this kind of approach, we might still use techniques like concentration or heart-opening practices, but now the sense is that deep concentration leads to a purification of our karma, and heart-opening cultivates positive karma while leading us away from creating more negative karma. Same practice, but a different view leading to a different outcome. We're no longer trying to extinguish ourselves entirely - we're simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff. The problem is, of course, that even positive emotions can be incredibly powerful and can lead us astray from time to time - so, although it might seem like there's less work to do in this approach, we have to be more careful not to fall into the trap of getting carried away by the emotions that we're allowing to remain in place.
Embracing problems into a source of energy - the tantric path
A later development is Tantric, or Vajrayana, Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the 'third turning of the Wheel of Dharma' (early Buddhism and the Mahayana being the first two). Tantra emphasises living fully in the world rather than removing yourself from it either completely or partially. Whereas someone following a path of purification might maintain a strict code of ethics, tantric approaches often involve violating moral rules as a deliberate part of the path.
The basic idea in tantra is that nothing is off limits. Rather than dividing up our experience into 'positive emotions' and 'negative emotions', we can instead come to see all emotions as simply forms of energy. That energy can manifest in destructive ways, or, through practice, be transmuted into 'wisdom energy' - a positive manifestation of the same basic energetic movement. So, for example, anger can be expressed destructively, but it can also provide tremendous clarity about a situation if handled correctly.
So now we're arriving at a very different view from early Buddhism, which sought to eliminate basically all attraction and aversion - instead, we positively welcome all of these qualities, we just need to know how to handle them. Needless to say, this is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, like juggling chainsaws - if you can pull it off, more power to you, but the potential to go astray is also pretty huge.
In a tantric approach we might still seek to use a technique like a heart-opening practice, but now we might be doing it in order to evoke powerful energies within ourselves to work with them. Similarly, deep concentration is still likely to be valuable, but perhaps because it allows us to see with greater clarity whether we're about to chop off our own limbs with one of our chainsaws. (Tantra also tends to use visualisation to evoke and work with powerful energetic forces, and the visualisations tend to be so elaborate that strong concentration is pretty much required.)
Your 'problems' were never really problems at all - emptiness, non-duality and Zen
Yet another approach - and the one we find in Zen, as well as Tibetan traditions like Dzogchen and Mahamudra - is based around recognition of the mind-originated nature of all experience. Rather than viewing our experience as a window onto an objectively 'real' world, where suffering is an inescapable fact of a cruel world that hates us, we can instead come to recognise that everything we experience is simply a projection of our minds. Although we seem to inhabit a world of concrete things, in fact those 'things' are merely an activity of the mind, carving up the seamless whole that is our direct experience into conveniently labeled objects which can then be used to tell ourselves stories about the world to help us understand and navigate what's going on. And rather than being trapped permanently in this dualistic world of good and bad, right and wrong, gain and loss, we can instead learn to see the world non-dualistically, perceiving the wholeness of our experience with just as much clarity as we normally experience the separateness. When we do this, all judgements of pleasure and pain fall away, and the holistically experienced world is simply known to be totally fine just the way it is.
This approach is perhaps even more radical than tantra. Not only do we get to keep every part of our experience, but we don't even need to transmute it from afflictive energy into wisdom energy. All that's required is that we can learn to see the world through the non-dual lens. Of course, that's easier said than done! And of all the approaches I've described so far, this is the hardest to wrap your head around when you first encounter it. Traditions like Zen seem to be filled with paradox and beautiful but totally mysterious poetry, rather than the concrete, practical instructions of early Buddhism. Practice may consist of 'just sitting', or contemplating apparently unanswerable questions like 'What is this?'
To make matters worse, because this kind of approach emphasises a way of seeing the world which is so different to our usual perception, it's easy to misinterpret the teachings out of context. If the world is fine just the way it is, we might wonder, do we still need to be concerned about all the suffering? If good and bad are just projections of the mind, does that mean we don't have to act ethically? If there aren't really anything 'things' out there, only projections of the mind, does that mean that I am the creator of the universe and I can do whatever I like? (The answers are yes, no and no respectively, by the way.)
The first challenge with a tradition like Zen is getting a first taste of the true nature of experience (called kensho in Zen). As I mentioned earlier, the view of non-duality might sound ridiculous, impossible or fanciful at first, and we may be reluctant to take on faith something which sounds so outlandish. But through diligent Zen practice we can come to a direct experience of the world in which the sense of separation falls away, and we experience the seamless whole of reality all at once. After having had that experience, the seemingly cryptic Zen texts become recognisable as the best attempts of previous masters to describe this same experience.
After having had that initial kensho, the second challenge is then figuring out how to integrate it into your day-to-day experience, so that it becomes an on-going part of your life as opposed to a peak experience. Over time, more of the peace and contentment of the non-dual perspective becomes available even in the midst of the most intense activity on the dualistic level, as the two perspectives are gradually brought into harmony.
Neither of these steps is easy! However, the great strength of this approach is that you can live a totally grounded, normal life whilst following it, rather than needing to renounce the world and live in a cave.
Indeed, in such a tradition we may well include seemingly dualistic heart-opening practices, partly because we understand the importance of continuing to lead kind, compassionate lives at the relative level, but also because we can use them to explore our sense of duality - why is it easier to feel loving kindness for one person than another, when their essential nature is exactly the same?
Conclusion - context matters!
What I hope I've shown over the course of this article is that there are not only many different ways to meditate, but also many ways to understand why and how the practice is working and where it's taking us. As we've progressed through these different views, we've progressively redefined 'suffering', allowing ourselves to keep more and more of our ordinary experience, so that we can participate more fully in our lives whilst minimising or mitigating the hardships we must endure. Depending on where you draw the line between 'unnecessary suffering' and 'pain which must necessarily be endured in order to do xyz', the approach we take in practice will be substantially different.
Many teachers are not particularly explicit about the specific view of practice that they're teaching, and will simply use terms like 'enlightenment' and 'Right View' like everyone knows what they mean and everyone means the same thing by them, but this is not the case at all. Having some kind of sense of what you're trying to do and why is really important in the long run.
On the other hand, it's true that there's a lot of commonality in the actual techniques of meditation. One way to approach the practice is simply to try out different techniques until you find one that you like, maybe because it's enjoyable or simply because it seems interesting or intriguing somehow. In the short term, practising anything at all is a good start! At some point, though, you may find yourself wanting to understand more deeply what exactly is going on in these practices - and that's where context is everything.
Maintaining a steady footing, no matter what
Over the last few weeks, we've been looking at the heart-opening practices of early Buddhism commonly known as the Brahmaviharas - previous articles have addressed loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy, so check those out if you aren't familiar with them.
This week, it's the turn of equanimity - the fourth and final practice, and one of the less well known. (Loving kindness and compassion get almost all the attention, and when equanimity does show up it's often in a different context, so there probably aren't many people who have deliberately engaged equanimity as a Brahmavihara.)
So, first things first - what is it?
A stable footing
The Pali term upekkha (Sanskrit: upeksha) is most commonly translated as 'equanimity', although sometimes you also see 'equipoise', 'non-attachment' or 'even-mindedness'. My Zen teacher prefers 'unshakeable peace', which I like very much, although it does tend to make the quality sound rather intimidating and unattainable! I'll stick to equanimity for the purposes of this article, because it's the most commonly used term.
On the simplest level, equanimity is about keeping your balance - not being swept away by thoughts or emotions, lost in reactivity or suffering. We probably all know someone who manages to keep their cool even in difficult circumstances - that's the kind of quality we're shooting for here. Another way of putting it is that we're immune to the Eight Worldly Winds, which I've written about previously - check out that article for a fun story about someone losing their cool in dramatic fashion!
Traditionally, equanimity's 'far enemies' are greed and hatred, i.e. exactly those qualities which cause us to get hot under the collar. More generally, we might think of any kind of extreme emotional volatility or instability as a far enemy to equanimity. If we routinely explode when the slightest thing goes wrong, our lives will be unpleasantly intense and chaotic, and that isn't good for us either psychologically or physiologically.
While the far enemies are easily identified and distinguished, the near enemy is a bit more complicated. The fact is that early Buddhism, and especially the Theravada tradition that developed out of it, are strongly renunciate. The ancient Indian world view was that we are endlessly reborn into an existence of suffering and misery, and the only way out is to arrange for ourselves to stop being reborn. If we can totally purify ourselves with equanimity and become totally devoid of attraction or aversion for anything in the material world, then we will at least live out the rest of our lives in relative peace, although even then we can't escape the aches and pains of having a physical body, or the negative karmic consequences of our prior actions. But it's the best we can do (so the teachings go), and once we finally die we'll be off the wheel of rebirth for good.
Now, I can't speak for you, but I don't tend to see the world in those terms. I don't know what happens after we die, but I want to use my time here productively, and engage with the people around me, ideally in a beneficial way. As such, I tend to regard any presentation of equanimity which seems to imply a turning away from the world as not much use to me. The Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is a better fit for that kind of aspiration, especially when paired with the much more life-affirming view of Chinese Buddhism (including the Chan tradition, which Japanese Zen developed out of). Indeed, one of the things I like about Zen is that its traditional 'maps' of spiritual progress tend to end with the practitioner living a completely ordinary life helping the people around them, rather than floating off on a rainbow toward a heavenly realm. Consequently, for the rest of the article, I'll present a Zen-informed view of equanimity, rather than the most traditional variety that you would find in a Theravada text like the Visuddhimagga.
With this in mind, I'll suggest that any practice which appears to be anaesthetising you to your life is not actually helping much in the long run. If you find yourself sitting in a peaceful bubble totally disconnected from everyone around you, indifferent to their suffering because 'that's not my problem', something has gone very wrong in your practice. I'm sure you can find other teachers and texts who would disagree if you search hard enough, but that's my take on it.
Rather than turning away from what's going on, I would instead suggest that a useful definition of equanimity which is both compatible with the other Brahmaviharas and helpful on the Zen path is that quality of emotional stability that allows us to turn toward what's going on, and take a stand right in the thick of it, without being overwhelmed. It's the quality of inner peace that provides just enough space for us to hold our difficult experiences without falling into reactivity. It doesn't mean that we shut down our emotions and become blank, soulless robots, but rather it gives us the capacity to experience those emotions fully without being ruled by them. In a nutshell, it isn't 'I don't care, I'm fine'; it's 'this may be uncomfortable, but that's OK, I can handle it'.
This kind of equanimity is a powerful support to the other three Brahmaviharas. If we aren't careful, our earnest wish for someone to be happy may manifest as interfering ('helping') in their lives where we aren't wanted, or overly empathising with someone's suffering to the point that we become burnt out. So a key part of the practice is not simply wishing that both we and others can experience peace, but also consciously taking a step back from the potential entanglements of our relationships and seeing people and situations exactly as they are, rather than as we might like them to be.
So let's see how we do this!
If you've been following the last few articles, it won't be a surprise to hear that we're going to work again with a sequence of people, generating equanimity toward them one after another, gradually working up to the point that our equanimity is equally potent in all directions, rather than easier for some people than others.
The major difference this time is that, whereas the others have a kind of 'reaching out' quality to them, equanimity is more inwardly focused. You might think that we would be using phrases like 'may you be at peace', but we already have another practice that covers wishing someone well (loving kindness). Instead, equanimity practice is about finding ways to be with people and situations exactly as they are, finding a source of peace within ourselves that we can rest in no matter what else comes and goes.
With this in mind, we actually start this one with a neutral person, the theory being that if we don't know someone terribly well or don't have strong opinions about them, it's probably relatively easy for us to see them in a neutral way, unclouded by thoughts of how much easier their lives would be if they would just change that one annoying habit they have. Then, from the neutral person, we go to ourselves, and then to a friend, then a teacher/mentor/very dear friend/'boon companion', and finally to a negative or hostile person. And, as before, we practise until we can experience the same level of equanimity towards all types of people, 'breaking down the boundaries' in the traditional language. You can do these one at a time, or use the practice I suggested last week to work with them all at the same time.
If you like to work with visualisation, one option is to see the person as if from a distance, going about their business without your interference, getting used to seeing them as they are without feeling the need to jump in and help (or hinder!) them. Another option is to see the person resting, at peace, perhaps with a calm, unfurrowed brow.
If you prefer the phrases, here are some suggestions (gathered from a variety of modern teachers, since the classic texts don't offer any suggestions!):
As an aside, those of you who are familiar with the Zen practice of Silent Illumination/shikantaza, or with modern mindfulness techniques which emphasise being with experience without trying to change it, may notice a strong similarity here in the attitude of the practice, if not the specifics. That's no accident! It may be encouraging to know that, even if the specific Brahmavihara practices I've presented in these last few articles aren't quite to your taste, there are other ways to connect with equanimity - and indeed with the others as well.
Four facets of one jewel
We're arriving at the end of our journey through the Brahmaviharas, and in closing, I'd like to say a little about how these practices fit together. At first sight, maybe they seem like an odd grouping, particularly now that we have equanimity in the mix. But most people who've spent a decent amount of time working with these practices tend to agree that all four qualities are deeply connected.
The foundation of each of these practices is the experience of an open heart. We tend to live our lives with our shields up, uncomfortably conscious that the people around us can say and do hurtful things, sometimes deliberately, often unintentionally, and so to avoid pain it's better to protect ourselves by closing down, either a little or a lot. When we start trying to generate loving kindness or compassion, we rapidly find that it can be extremely difficult to open ourselves towards certain people (including ourselves) in that way - all of our emotional muscle memory is pointing in the opposite direction. So the first challenge is simply to get the practice to work at all.
Over time, we learn to open ourselves to others, at least within the safe container of a meditation practice. Many people find that one practice in particular provides a 'way in', and then the others start to come online subsequently. This can sometimes be a little confusing if (for example) you've tried the traditional compassion practice without success, but after getting really into mudita practice you find yourself having a strong instinctive response to suffering as well - if you're only really familiar with one of the Brahmaviharas at that point, you might find yourself wondering what's going on. 'It feels like mudita, but it was suffering! That's weird.'
What we're discovering in that moment is really the experience of an open heart. That one experience underlies all four Brahmaviharas, whether we use their names or not. When our heart is open, we naturally look upon those around us with kindness, we are naturally moved to help those who are suffering, we naturally notice and celebrate the wholesome joys of others, and we discover a capacity within ourselves to withstand just about anything life throws at us without losing our footing. In the long run, this open-hearted quality becomes a profound resource in every aspect of our lives.
I hope these articles have been helpful - I'm planning to put on a four-week course sometime in the new year so that a group of us can dive deep into the practices, and you'd be very welcome to join us. Details will go up on my Teaching page when the course is confirmed, but you could also sign up to my (very low-traffic!) mailing list if you'd like to be notified when it's ready.
Thank you for your practice, and may all beings everywhere be at peace.
The untranslatable opposite of schadenfreude
This week's article is the third in a series on four heart-opening practices, known variously as the Brahmaviharas, Four Immeasurables, or the 'heart's limitless release'. (The first two parts are here and here.)
This week is the turn of perhaps the most easily overlooked and misunderstood of the practices, mudita. We'll take a look at what it is and how to work with it, then take a step back and look at the benefits of heart-opening practices more generally. Finally, I'll offer another suggestion that builds on last week's article, working with an extended visualisation to help us to make these wholesome emotions truly boundless.
What is mudita?
Mudita is a tricky word to translate, because we don't actually have a directly equivalent concept in the English language. It's sometimes translated as 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', but those terms are generally pretty cryptic, so we might as well stick with mudita for now.
The simplest way to describe mudita is that it's the movement of an open heart in response to good fortune, success or happiness. If you've ever seen a small child laughing, or a baby animal playing, and felt a kind of immediate upwelling of positive emotion in your heart, that's mudita right there. So there's a joyous quality to it, but it's a joy that comes about through a recognition of something that inspires joy through a kind of resonance - hence 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy'.
It's tricky to pin down at first. Stephen Batchelor sometimes jokingly defines it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - which is, of course, another word that doesn't have a direct equivalent in English, but means something like 'taking pleasure is another's misfortune'. Another way to look at it is that mudita is the flip side of compassion - compassion is the open heart's natural response to misfortune, while mudita is the corresponding response to good fortune.
It can also help to define mudita by what it isn't. For starters, mudita practice isn't simply about wishing that others be happy - that's metta (loving kindness/goodwill), the first of the Brahmaviharas. It's about recognising the good fortune that is already present, and rejoicing in that good fortune.
(What if there's no good fortune to be found? Here, it can help to look more closely. If something difficult is going on in our lives, it can be easy to feel that everything is universally bleak. But if we look more closely, we can find small moments of pleasure, peace, contentment or happiness even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. Recognising and honouring those moments can be a profound asset when things are tough. This is particularly helpful when it comes to cultivating mudita for ourselves.)
The 'far enemy' of mudita is traditionally said to be envy and/or jealousy. These terms can be understood in a few different ways, but I tend to see envy as wanting something that someone else has, while jealousy is about feeling negatively toward someone who has something we want - so, in Buddhist language, envy is a manifestation of greed, while jealousy is a manifestation of aversion. However you want to use those terms, though, it's clear that they're a million miles away from mudita.
The 'near enemy' of mudita - a quality which is similar, but missing the point in a vital way - is insincere praise or flattery. Pretending to take pleasure in someone else's good fortune in order to get on their good side might externally look like mudita, but from the first-person perspective it feels totally different. If there's a sense of agenda, of wanting to gain some advantage for oneself through the other person's good fortune, then things are most likely going astray.
One final point - although mudita is usually translated as sympathetic or appreciative joy, really any positive emotional tone will do, even quite a subtle form of happiness. It doesn't have to be fireworks-and-brass-band levels of amazingly wonderful joy, and indeed if your typical emotional range is a little more constrained, a practice that seems to require you to step outside your comfort zone may not be particularly welcome. So, rather than feeling disappointed if all you get is a mildly positive glow rather than the world's greatest experience of joy, you can regard the practice as working just fine if you feel any kind of positivity at all,
So how do we do it?
Whereas loving kindness and compassion are very well known practices with a bazillion books, videos, talks and guided meditations, mudita is comparatively less studied. Even the traditional Buddhist texts like the Visuddhimagga are not terribly helpful in this regard - the entire instruction is as follows:
[O]n seeing or hearing about a dear person being happy, cheerful and glad, gladness can be aroused thus: 'This being is indeed glad. How good, how excellent!'
So, get right on that.
In keeping with the practices I've offered for the previous two, we can approach mudita either through the feeling itself (simply conjuring up a sense of delight in another's good fortune and staying with it), through a visualisation, or through phrases.
One visualisation I like to use is to imagine a golden light pulsing in the other person's heart, and as their light pulses, a golden light in my own heart begins to pulse in harmony with it. Another approach is simply to see the other person smiling with joy in response to some good fortune, and allowing their happiness to wash over me too.
If you're not so visual, here are some phrases which may help to evoke mudita:
(Note that 'May you be happy' is not in the list - that's a metta phrase, not mudita.)
The second of the three is the most traditional, but also the most awkward to my ears. Play around and see what works for you.
Once you've got a general sense of the practice, the idea is then to move through a sequence of people, from the easiest to the most difficult, until we can ultimately make our mudita universal and boundless. As with metta, we start with a mentor, teacher or other 'boon companion' (someone who has helped us in some way), then move to ourselves (more on this in just a moment), followed by a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person, before opening gradually wider and wider, ultimately encompassing all beings. At the end of this article I'll discuss another way to do this, but first let's take a moment to look at why we're doing all this anyway.
In last week's article I mentioned that one of the ways to work with difficult people in heart-opening practice is to reflect on the benefits of the practice. So what are those benefits?
Traditionally, many benefits are enumerated. It's said that one falls asleep and wakes peacefully, having pleasant dreams in between. Through the cultivation of these qualities, you will develop a radiant countenance and a serene mind, and as a result both people and animals will love you. Finally, at the end of your life, you will die unconfused.
If that all sounds a bit abstract or fanciful, we can also look at it in terms of mind-training. Modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are very adaptable, and whatever states of mind we routinely cultivate will be more likely to arise again in the future. Essentially, we have emotional habits. If we repeatedly experience and indulge anger in response to difficulties, we will become much more likely over time to experience anger as our default response to similar situations. Conversely, if we actively cultivate qualities like compassion and mudita, it's more likely that those will arise naturally in the course of our daily lives. In the long run, we can let go of our negative, unhelpful emotional habits and replace them with more beneficial responses.
It's also worth saying that these heart qualities are simply pleasant to experience in their own right. Sitting in meditation with a heart full of kindness, compassion, joy or peace is a beautiful experience. Sometimes we can be a little reluctant to do things that simply make us feel good, perhaps because it feels selfish or like it's just a way of avoiding dealing with our problems, but the Buddha was clear that joy and pleasure which come from wholesome sources are not just assets on the spiritual path but actually essential. So give yourself a break - it's OK to feel good in meditation, at least sometimes!
Another approach to cultivating boundlessness
What I'm about to present is not a traditional technique, but rather a mash-up of techniques I've learnt from other teachers. Personally I find it works well enough for me that I think it might be worth sharing, but see what you make of it. The approach combines my Zen teacher Daizan's spin on the Brahmaviharas with a mandala visualisation taught by Michael Taft. It works with any of the heart-opening practices, but since this article is focused on mudita I'll give the instructions with that particular quality in mind.
As before, we're going to work with a sequence of people, but this time we have a couple of twists.
We start by imagining our teacher, mentor or other strongly positive person, visualising them standing in front of us, and cultivating mudita toward them in whatever way we prefer (using the phrases, adding the golden light to the visualisation, seeing the smile, or simply contacting the emotion).
Then, when we're ready to move on to ourselves, we do so, but we keep the first person there too. So we focus primarily on ourselves, but we continue to experience mudita toward the first person at the same time. Our challenge now is to keep both streams of mudita going simultaneously, and work with them until they're balanced - so that we rejoice just as much in our own good fortune as in the good fortune of the other person. (Remember that these qualities are supposed to be boundless - without preference, not stronger for some people and weaker for others.)
But wait, we're not done yet. Next we move on to a friend. As we do this, the teacher/mentor figure slides around to our left-hand side, while the friend appears in front of us. Now we cultivate mudita for the friend, and ourselves, and the teacher/mentor, all at the same time - and, again, we stay with it until we've balanced all three, so that no-one has more or less mudita than any other.
Next, we move on to a neutral person. As we bring them to mind in front of us, our friend slides around to our left, and our teacher/mentor figure slides around behind us. Now we have four people in the mix and four streams of mudita, all of which must be evenly balanced.
Next is the turn of the difficult person. Once again, the new person appears in front of us, and everyone else slides around anti-clockwise. So we end up with the difficult person in front of us, the neutral person to the left, the friend behind us, and the teacher/mentor to the right, with ourselves in the centre. And, again, we stay here until all five people have the same level and quality of mudita going.
(From here, you can expand outward in all directions as usual.)
There's a lot going on in this practice! Some people will find that maintaining a visualisation this complex is extremely helpful for settling and focusing the mind onto the practice, while others may simply find it overwhelming. Give it a go and see how you get on! (And if it does seem a bit too much, fear not - next week we'll be going deep into the peace of equanimity, which is both beautiful in its own right and has a stabilising quality on all the heart-opening practices, allowing us to go deeper into more difficult territory with greater ease. Hang in there!)
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!