These are reflections (more of a ramble than an article) based on notes I took for an Insight Timer Live session on 10/27/21. If you find this interesting, please come join us some time in an upcoming session (there are usually a few per week). You can also learn more about the Divine Abodes in my course Mindfulness and the Divine Abodes. And here is a short metta meditation. Thanks to Glegle for the beautiful image.
The ways are many that the self is spoken about in the various religions of the world. Especially in Buddhism, the idea of not-self or no-self is fairly important. It’s been a useful thought for me, when thinking about the idea of the self, to consider that regardless of what we know for sure, there is an abiding. I don’t have to know any particular parameters of what is abiding- at least, not in the same way that I can say that there’s a body sitting in a house; nevertheless, I can sense it, I know that there’s something here, or at least, insofar as I am able to perceive the world, there seems to be an abiding, at least at present; and there is a teaching in Buddhism, called the Brahmaviharas, that encourages a sense of abiding.
The Brahmaviharas is sometimes translated as the Divine Abodes (abodes of Brahma, sublime attitudes), and there are four of these abodes, or attitudes, to consider: Metta/good will, Karuna/compassion, Mudita/sympathetic joy, and Upekkha/equanimity. I usually use the translation “divine abodes”, but I like “sublime attitudes” also because it lets us flex the definition of what can be called an abode. I think an attitude makes a lot of sense as an abode. Probably the most stark and unpleasant example is someone just stewing in anger and resentment. I’ve been there, and I can reflect and almost see and feel it as a little crooked domicile that I ended up shoved into- or likely I largely shoved myself into it, and started decorating it, and kept gathering the dark resentful thoughts like boards and nails… you see what I mean. We abide in attitudes, we abide in stories, in the multiplicity of interactions great and small. And it’s this interactiveness that in part gives us the idea of not-self. Because what we generally call the self is, upon closer inspection, an array of activities and interactions; it’s therefore impermanent and therefore, as the Buddha said, cannot be construed as I, me, or mine.
The Brahmaviharas are also referred to as the immeasurables. I like the contrast of this idea of an abode- which to me has sort of cozy connotations- and immeasurability. So you get this sense that one could be cozy in infinitude. It’s interesting to picture a “not-self” in an abiding; there being no specific self to find, the hard ego is less likely to be invoked, but there is still a sense of responsibility in inhabiting this dwelling. You could say that the divine abodes offer the spiritual seeker- perhaps a little shaken up by a newfound wobbly sense of self- a place to hang his hat
The two most recognizable factors of the divine abodes are probably Good will (Metta) and Compassion (Karuna). In a way they are two sides of the same coin. I talk about Goodwill as a foundational aspect of practice because it implies a basic wish for well-being, and you could say the same thing about compassion; it’s just that compassion implies that there is some suffering present. So what does it mean to not really have a findable self but still have an understanding of having an abiding in Goodwill, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity. It is partially because of our ability to let go of aspects of self that we’re able to bring these states beyond what would be considered a “normal”- regular human instead of brahma level- way of holding attitudes. A limited sense of self by its nature can only have a limited attitude about something. So by dissolving a hard concept of self we open the possibility of dissolving the boundaries of our Goodwill. For example, if I sit with a strong sense of a wish for well-being for someone that I love, I can then extrapolate that to another being who perhaps I just don’t know very well, with the understanding that that human being is worthy of care, has had difficulties in the world, loves people and is loved- I can begin to feel into this generalized feeling of true Goodwill for them. And if I can do that for them, I can begin to do that for anybody, even the most difficult of people; not as a way of condoning poor behavior but as an acknowledgment in line with what I can experience to be true- they too fit this description of a human. So if I can truly feel benevolence for someone who on paper I should hate, what happens to the self?
I want to be clear that the point of this is not to demolish the self. The Buddha was explicit about not making a categorical, metaphysical assertion on the existence of a self, so why should I? It’s more like a consideration, a holding of a not exactly solvable idea. You might think of it in terms of “self as a problem” versus “self in its place”. This is why the Divine Abodes is such a good tool, because when in doubt, it really is a place of safety- in fact, that’s one of its chief characteristics, because when practicing this well, you are much less likely to be harmful to yourself or others. Self or no self, this practice is safe through and through.