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Apr 1, 2022

Peace, Brahmaviharas

Lovingkindness, or mettā, is one of the most beloved practices in our tradition. Alongside mindfulness, in which we give wise attention to every experience that arises moment to moment, in mettā we practice radiating friendliness to every living being imaginable. This training in universal well-wishing unfolds, in the style most often taught at Spirit Rock, through a series of categories.

We send mettā to our teachers or benefactors, ourselves, close friends, neutral people, difficult people, and then to all beings, gradually expanding the circle of care to encompass the entire world, and even beyond. Mettā can be beautiful, challenging, and profoundly transformative, promising to the wounded, hopeful heart a vaster love than we ever thought possible. It is the practice of unconditional peace: in our hearts, offered to the entire world.

Many of us are watching the terrible war in Ukraine, and including the victims—innocent Russians as well as Ukrainians—in our mettā practice. This is an expression of the neutral persons category of the brahmavihāra (“divine abidings”), and comes naturally to the heart, which is said to “quiver” in response to suffering. It’s not easy, however, to take the practice further, to the category of the difficult person, if that means sending lovingkindness and compassion to the people ordering such devastating violence. It may not even feel appropriate to do so! But without this aspect of the practice, we can never truly wish well to all beings. Some will always be left out.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, in Being Peace, about working in Vietnam during the war and maintaining compassion for people on both sides of the conflict. “We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides.” 

The brahmavihāras take us out of the comfort zone of only caring for our close friends and community, and beyond the relatively easy stretch of caring for people we don’t know but perceive as good, into the charged territory of sending kindness to those we might feel do not deserve it. Thich Nhat Hanh is open about the risks of this kind of unconditional compassion: “Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of us got killed. … But we did not want to give up and take one side.”

Some of the most powerful images in the current war are of acts of kindness that reach across the political boundary. A group of Ukrainians give tea to a captured Russian soldier and help him phone his mother. Thousands of Russians protest the invasion knowing the high risk of dissent in their country at this moment. The practice of sending lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to the difficult people in our world crosses a border constructed in our own hearts: the idea that some people deserve care and others don’t. Once we are willing to open our hearts beyond that ancient bias, the full power of brahmavihāra practice becomes available to us. As the Mettā Sutta invokes:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart should we cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill will.

(Sn 1.8)

As we cultivate the practice of mettā and the other brahmavihāras, we bring ourselves face to face with the tendency to take sides, and are invited to grow beyond it. We may still act in defense of those victimized by violence, and must sometimes hold strong boundaries to protect ourselves and others, but the baseline of the heart can still be kindness. “Man is not the enemy,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminded his friends working for peace in Vietnam. “The only thing worthy of you is compassion—invincible, limitless, unconditional.”

This month’s Dharma teachings include talks or meditations on each of the four brahmavihāra: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, plus gratitude, sometimes called the “fifth brahmavihāra” for its power to awaken connection and open the heart. Rev. Liên Shutt, Donald Rothberg, Amana Brembry Johnson, Fresh Lev White, James Baraz, Oren Sofer, and Pawan Bareja explore these qualities of the awakened heart, inviting us to cultivate what beloved Spirit Rock teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls “natural benevolence.” 

May our practice be for the benefit of all.

Mettā: Lovingkindness

 
March 15, 2019 - Bringing Intentions Into Action: Embodying Wise Kindness

Mettā is a quality of heart-mind that traditionally is talked about as to be cultivated. I like to think of it much more as accessed. We have a sense of what kindness, goodwill, friendliness, peacefulness, happiness is, and yet sometimes it's hard to connect to that, especially during challenging times. So in this meditation the phrases will be “May I…” or “Let it be possible…,” or some version of that. Mettā is something you already have. It’s a muscle you have, and you’re just pumping your muscle. You’re strengthening it. So then when you need it, you have the strength for it.

 
January 14, 2022 - Mettā and Forgiveness

First, a reminder that mettā practice is a training. We’re training to lead with our kind hearts—to lead with the heart in our own experience, and in our interactions. Sometimes we can do that by asking a question. “Where’s my heart at right now?” This is a great daily life practice. “Am I present? Am I present to my heart?” Or as Julia Butterfly Hill asks, “Am I meeting this moment with love?” Just like the mettā phrases, questions like these are not demands, but invitations to the heart.

Karuṇā: Compassion

 
March 9, 2019 - Cooling the Fire with the Waters of Compassion

Not much has changed in the trajectory of time and history. Samsāra, the circular pulse of suffering through birth, death, and rebirth, is the heartbeat of this worldly existence. It is obvious, especially in today’s world, that we live in a climate of extreme violence, unfathomable hatred, and cruelty.

As technology increasingly brings the world into closer contact, intolerance sweeps the terrain like raging fire. Injustice burns through lives, destroying spaces that once were sanctuaries—sacred places of family, work, and communities of worship. These fires sear deeply into the tender expanse of the heart, leaving scars of protective woundedness. An essential part of waking up is to stay present to the suffering in the world, to courageously turn our face toward it and feel it tremble the heart. The practice of facing the fire is one that cannot be separated from the journey that leads toward liberation.

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January 14, 2022 - Practicing Self-Compassion and Patience as Nutrition for Our Journey (given at East Bay Meditation Center)

Mudita: Sympathetic Joy

 
February 15, 2022 - Mudita Practice

Mudita is being activated by another’s well being. Just delighting that there’s a little bit more well being in this world. It’s really looking for the good, having your radar out for goodness. Don’t you love goodness when you see it? Just delight in goodness. When you’re feeling sympathetic joy, it’s not joy about somebody else’s happiness because they ripped somebody off—where they did something that brought them pleasure at somebody else’s expense. You’re rooting for a bit more wholesomeness in this world, a bit more goodness or kindness in this world.

Upekkhā: Equanimity

 
March 26, 1028 - Equanimity: A Wise and Balanced Perspective

Equanimity develops slowly, it’s not something that we can just turn on. It's like a fruit ripening on a tree—it takes time, day by day by day, living with awareness. We don’t grow wise just by being alive. We actually have to pay attention. We have to bring awareness, intelligence, and curiosity to our life, looking closely at what happens, in order to learn. If we do that, over time, wisdom grows, and we mature in the wise, balanced perspective of equanimity. The brahmavihāras, these four qualities, are all connected. They’re just different sides, different facets, of the heart. And equanimity plays a very important role in each of the others. It balances them, it brings a wise perspective to them.

Gratitude

 
February 17, 2020 - Embodied Gratitude

As the Buddha said, meditation can be practiced sitting, standing, lying down, and walking. So whatever feels comfortable to you, wherever your body is in this moment. As we get started, really finding the bottoms of your feet. Raise your toes and gently set them down. You're lifting your toes and bringing them down. Waking up your feet. And then curl your toes as if you're going to grab a pencil and then release. We usually look for a deeper breath that comes when we do movement. If you're sitting on a chair, I want you to move your feet side to side with your heels planted just moving your feet side to side like windshield wipers. And now lift your heels and set them down. Lift your toes and set it down. Just this much movement… and get a sense of the effect on your body. See if the feet feel a bit more planted on the floor.

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