How the three flows of compassion can help your Brahmaviharas
Over the next few weeks I'll be putting out a series of shorter articles exploring aspects of the Brahmaviharas. I'm currently writing a four-week course exploring these rich, beautiful practices, and I'll be using these articles (and my Wednesday night class) as a way of beta-testing the material. They'll probably be a little bit shorter than usual because I already have fairly comprehensive Brahmavihara instructions elsewhere on my website, so feel free to check those out if you aren't familiar with these practices and want a concise introduction.
What are the Brahmaviharas anyway?
The Brahmaviharas are a set of four heart-opening practices. The name of these practices comes from a discourse in early Buddhism, Majjhima Nikaya 99, in which Subha, a practitioner of Brahminism, comes to the Buddha. Subha has heard that the Buddha teaches 'a path to companionship with Brahma', and wants to know what it is. Buddha replies with the following:
Firstly, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. [...] This is a path to companionship with Brahma.
The same formula then repeats for 'a heart full of compassion', 'a heart full of rejoicing' and 'a heart full of equanimity', giving us four heart-opening practices in all. This week we'll focus on the first one.
The first Brahmavihara: loving kindness, goodwill or well-wishing
The first Brahmavihara is best known either by its Pali name, metta, or by its standard English translation, loving kindness. However, a wide variety of other translations exist - benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing, and so on. Personally, I like 'goodwill' (which I'm borrowing from Soto Zen teacher Domyo Burk, whose 'Zen Studies Podcast' I highly recommend), for reasons I'll explain momentarily. You'll sometimes also see the Sanskrit spelling, maitri, especially in Tibetan circles. (This is the same word that forms part of the name of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, 'the kindly one'.)
However you want to translate it, the general idea is that it's the quality of wishing someone well - not because they aren't currently doing well, but just because it's good when things are going well.
Genuine metta is sometimes compared to its near enemies - qualities which are superficially similar, or have something in common, but miss the point in important ways. Traditionally, lust and greed are said to be near enemies of metta, because all involve a kind of attraction (a 'movement towards'), but metta is open-hearted and no-strings-attached whereas lust and greed have personal gain in mind. There's also another kind of 'near enemy' of metta that people in the spiritual world are often prone to - a kind of showy, ostentatious 'kindness' which is really just another ego support. Genuine metta practice actually does make you feel good, but not by lording your infinite kindness over the people around you!
Metta can also be contrasted against its far enemy - ill will, or wishing harm to others. (Contrasting metta with ill will is why I like 'goodwill' so much as a translation!) Ill will is 100% in the opposite direction to metta, so much so that metta is often given in the early discourses as an antidote to ill will.
The three flows of compassion
So far so good - but not everyone has the textbook experience of boundless love and goodwill when they sit down to do metta practice. In fact, for many people, this practice can leave them totally cold, or even bring up unpleasant feelings. What's going on here, and is there anything we can do about it?
A very helpful concept that's been doing the rounds for the last few years is the idea of the 'three flows of compassion' (although they aren't limited just to compassion - they work equally well for all four Brahmaviharas). These are three directions that emotions can travel:
It's very common in Western society to find people with extraordinary levels of self-hatred, or who have had extremely damaging experiences that make them mistrustful of others. Consequently, we can find ourselves 'blocked' in one or more of these directions.
Traditionally, metta practice starts by wishing ourselves well (self to self), then moves on to wishing others well (self to other). But if we're blocked in the self-to-self direction, it can feel like we're pushing against a brick wall even to get started. Or if we're blocked in the self-to-other direction, we might start out okay but then come to a screeching halt when it comes to extending goodwill to others. To make matters worse, there's usually at least one person in each group who falls in love with metta right from the first practice session and can't stop talking about how great it is - which only makes us feel worse if we're experiencing blockages in our own practice. What kind of stone-hearted monster are we, anyway?
If our blockages are really severe, perhaps because they're rooted in trauma, then actually it might be more helpful to speak to a therapist rather than continuing to bang our heads against a brick wall. Silent meditation is a great practice but it isn't a universal panacea, and if our inner landscape is a difficult place to be then closing our eyes and turning inward for long periods of time might actually not be the most skilful thing we can do until we've done some other work first.
That said, it can be worthwhile playing around with the three flows of compassion, to see if we can find any direction in which we can connect with the feeling of the Brahmavihara in question. Once we have it up and running, we may be able to turn very gently in another direction, and gradually chip away at our blocks over time. So if you find it difficult to start with yourself, you could either put yourself last, or you could swap out the 'self-to-self' step for an 'other-to-self' step: imagine someone else sending goodwill to you, and see how it feels to receive it. You can experiment with feeling the goodwill coming from a friend, a mentor, a parent or anyone who has helped you in the past. If nobody comes to mind, or the relationships that do come up are too fraught, complex and problematic, you can alternatively imagine an ideal caregiver - the kind of person you would love to have in your corner, who always has the time, patience, care and interest to give you, whenever you need it.
As with any meditation practice, go gently, and remember that you can come out of the practice at any time - you're in control of what's happening. If difficult memories or emotions start to surface, and it's all getting too hot to handle, you can open your eyes, look around, feel your feet on the floor, and deliberately notice that you're safe right now, no longer in the difficult situation that the practice has brought up.
Designing your own metta practice
If you're one of the fortunate people for whom traditional metta practice works straight off the bat, then enjoy it! It's a great practice, with many benefits that we'll explore in coming weeks.
But if it doesn't feel like such a good fit on your first try, don't worry about it. It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you - it just means that the practice might need to be tweaked before it's a good fit, perhaps by exploring the three flows of compassion to find the direction(s) that are easiest for you, or even set aside for a while so that you can pursue other practices that do resonate better with you.
Personally, it took me quite a while to get into metta practice, and from time to time I would wonder if I was some kind of monster with a cold, dead heart of stone! These days, metta is a go-to technique for me, and I'm immensely grateful to the teachers who have shared it with me. I hope you benefit from it too.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!