Living in the Divine Abodes

Heaven is nowhere else but right here on this earth, when we live with friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Sylvia Boorstein
23 March 2018
Photo by Sam Schooler

Brahmaviharas is the Buddhist name for the set of four emotional states that includes equanimity and its direct derivatives—impartial goodwill, spontaneous compassion, and genuine appreciation. A vihara, in Pali, the language in which the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written, is a dwelling place. Brahma is the word associated with divinity. Classic texts translate the term brahmaviharas as divine abodes, and name the four basic ones: metta (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathic joy), and upekka (equanimity). I love the term “divine abodes,” and I think of these four states as wonderful conditions of human consciousness in which the mind can rest, feeling at ease, as if at home.

Equanimity, it seems to me, is the ground out of which the other three flavors of benevolent mind arise. Everything depends on it. Equanimity is the capacity of the mind to hold a clear view of whatever is happening, both externally and internally, as well as the ability of the mind to accommodate passion without losing its balance. It’s the mind that sees clearly, that meets experience with cordial intent. Because it remains steady, and thus unconfused, it is able to correctly assess the situations it meets.

If there is enough equanimity in the mind to fend off confusion, wisdom can prevail.

This correct assessment brings with it what the texts call “clear comprehension of purpose,” the sure knowledge of what response is required and what is possible. Clear comprehension creates a response, sometimes in action, sometimes just in thought. And because we are humans and have empathy built into our brain structure, when we are touched by what we encounter—and when our minds are balanced—we respond with benevolence. With friendliness or compassion or appreciation. It’s a beautiful truth about the potential of human beings. “A little lower than the angels…” is the phrase that comes to my mind. Or maybe not lower. Perhaps divine.

Here is how it works. I’ll explain it using traditional Buddhist psychology, and I’ll include examples of how this works in my life. As you read, see if these centuries-old postulates about the natural responses of the mind are true for you as well.

There are three possible valances of emotional response to every experience: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. (Here you might think for a moment about how many times in a day, or even in an hour, you think, “Oh good!” or, “Oh phooey!” or even, “Boring day. Not much happening.”) The Buddha taught that these different flavors of experience are normal, just the facts of life, and that they aren’t, by themselves, problematic. They do, however, have the potential to create unhappiness. If they are not recognized, and acknowledged, they create thoughts that carry an imperative for change. “I need more of this.” “I must get rid of this!” “I can’t stand this.” The imperative agitates the mind into confusion.

If, on the other hand, there is enough equanimity in the mind to fend off confusion, wisdom can prevail. Then the mind can respond to ordinary (neutral) situations with goodwill, to frightening (unpleasant) situations with compassion, and to beguiling (pleasant) situations with relaxed, nontroubled appreciation.

Here are three examples that come from my living in France several months each year and traveling back and forth between San Francisco and Paris frequently. The first is about ordinary goodwill, friendliness, which is what the Pali word metta means. Perhaps I understate it by calling it ordinary friendliness. It is closer to intentional, omnipresent, devout friendliness based on the awareness that everyone, including oneself—because life is complicated and bodies and minds are often uncomfortable—needs to be working hard all the time just to keep things okay. Here’s an example:

The overnight flight from San Francisco to Paris takes more than ten hours, and in the time between midnight and morning, the hours seem longer and the space between the seats in the coach section seems shorter. When I get up to stretch, and perhaps walk down an aisle, I see men and women, old and young, large and small, all unknown to me, some traveling with young children, all trying to figure out how to be comfortable. I see them wrapped up in airplane blankets, scrunched up into whatever position of repose they can organize for themselves, leaning on each other if they are traveling together or trying not to lean on each other if they aren’t. Often a man or a woman is patrolling the aisle across from me, holding an infant against his or her chest and moving in the rocking gait that often soothes a baby’s distress. I feel a pleasant intimacy with them. I too am trying to stay comfortable. I’m not frightened for them, or for me, because I’m relaxed about flying and I assume we will land successfully, but I wish them well. I enjoy the feeling of my own good-heartedness. In fact, in that moment of mental handholding, all those people look a bit more familiar than ordinary strangers. That moment of easy, impartial, benevolent connection—metta—buoys up my mind. I feel better as I sit back down in my seat.

Compassion is a variation of metta. It’s different from relaxed friendliness because it’s hard for the mind to stay relaxed and friendly when it encounters a painful, unpleasant situation. In fact, it’s normal, and often helpful, for human beings to startle at the awareness of distress. The startle is an instinctive response, a signal to the mind: “Uh-oh. Something is wrong, and you might need to do something.” Sometimes, when the startle is strong enough to frighten the mind into confusion, there is a period of unease as the mind tries to cope, either by accommodating the experience or distracting itself if it can’t. In contrast, when the mind is able to stay steady, it moves immediately to act, in thought or in deed, in consolation. Traditional Buddhist texts say, “The heart quivers in response.”

A man died, suddenly, in the middle of a flight I was on from Paris to San Francisco. I didn’t see it happen, but I knew something was wrong because the plane icon on the TV map on the screen in back of the seat in front of mine reversed direction. Soon after that, while the people all around me were showing one another the map and discussing what might be happening, the pilot announced that there had been a medical emergency and requested that any medical personnel come forward to assist. My husband Seymour responded, as he had on previous flights when there was a call for a physician, and was gone for an hour.

The flight continued as if nothing were awry. Flight attendants served lunch. People watched movies. The icon on the TV turned westward again, and I assumed (correctly, I later learned) that the person had died and that landing for emergency medical care wasn’t necessary. I wondered who the person had been, whether he or she had been traveling alone, how his or her family would learn the news. I thought about how my family would feel if it were I, or Seymour, who had died. I thought, “I hope I don’t die in a plane,” but then I realized that at the center of my startled mind was the awareness that I can’t choose when or where I’ll die. No one can. Seymour told me later that as the flight personnel carried the dead man’s body down the length of the plane to the front galley, where they made the requisite CPR attempts, people turned themselves in their seats and averted their eyes to avoid seeing what was happening. I’m imagining many of those people were thinking, as I was, “That could be me.”

I knew that I was too unnerved to read or watch a movie, and I did not want lunch. I sat quietly, and after some few minutes, I heard my mind, on its own, beginning to recite wishes of consolation. “May the dead person’s consciousness, wherever it is now, be at ease. May that person’s family, on this plane or wherever they are, be strengthened in their loss. May the memory of this person be a blessing to them. May all the people on this plane who have been frightened feel at ease. May I feel at ease. May we land safely.” There are traditional Buddhist karuna phrases, but I didn’t say them. I rarely do because they don’t feel natural to me. I make up my own. But the traditional ones and the ones I make up mean the same thing: I am aware of painful feelings in me as a result of what is happening to you (or to me), and even though I know that everything passes, now is a suffering time. I hope we all have the strength to endure what is happening without creating extra turmoil. I don’t say all that as a prayer! Much too unwieldy. I say, “May I be at ease,” or “May you be at ease,” or “May you [I, we, all beings] come to the end of suffering.” I say words that are regular speech, like something I might actually say to a person. Saying prayers of consolation always makes me feel better. And it settles my mind. I thought, “This plane is like a small city. Three hundred people. Lots of new babies. Lots of old people. All ages of people in between. People eating, people sleeping, people working, people dreaming. And one person who just died. It’s like regular life.” I felt sad for the family of the dead person, but I felt okay.

Seymour came back to his seat. He’d spent some time talking with the wife and daughter of the man who died. His death hadn’t been a surprise to them. He’d been very ill. Still, it was a shock, happening all of a sudden, in mid-flight, and among strangers. They seemed to appreciate, he told me, having someone to talk to. We noticed that members of the flight crew took turns sitting with them for the rest of the flight, talking. It might be part of standard airline training, but I think it is, anyway, the instinctive response of human beings to pain. We console. (The heart quivers in response.)

And here’s the third story, an example of how the mind (surprisingly) needs equanimity when it meets pleasant situations. It seems as if pleasant situations should leave the mind unruffled. Not true. If an experience inspires yearning, when a moment before, yearning did not exist…

On the last day of a winter month spent in France, Seymour and I drove to Les Angles, a ski resort two hours from where we live. We had enjoyed seeing the snow on the peaks of the Pyrenees from our deck, but this was the first time up close. The resort was full of Christmas holiday skiers, and we stood at the bottom of the easiest beginner lift and watched people learning to ski. I was feeling particularly glamorous in my new high-heeled fake-fur-lined boots and purple tweed cap and scarf that my friend Toni had knitted for me. I thought about all the years Seymour and I had skied and all the trails we’d raced each other down before we’d stopped skiing, ten years previously.

“We could ski again,” I said. “This is an easy hill. Next year, let’s ski.”

“No we can’t. It’s not worth the risk. We’re old. We could break something.”

“Look, though. This is so easy. It would be such fun to put on skis again. We’d choose a sunny day, like today.”

“Forget it. It would be ridiculous. Your back isn’t so good. You have bursitis in your shoulder. Last year you pinched a nerve in your neck. Let’s go have lunch on the deck. We’ll watch the skiing from there.”

I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as we walked to the restaurant. I looked shorter and plumper, definitely less glamorous, than I had imagined. We ordered lunch. I felt my mind, mired in nostalgia, dragging itself along, seeming to arrive at the table after I did. I thought momentarily of sulking, pretending to be peeved at what I had perceived as a peremptory dismissal. I realized, though, that what I was peeved about was being old. Then I noticed two women sitting at the table adjacent to ours, not unlike me in size and age, carefully made up, coiffed, wearing brightly colored, warm (nonski) jackets and big, beautiful earrings. They were eating hearty lunches, talking and laughing as they ate. I thought they looked marvelous. I looked down at my boots and was glad about the high heels. Later on, before we left, I took some great photos of what I guessed was a three-year-old girl in a pink snowsuit, balanced on her skis with their tips crossed, trying to get her pole straps over her wrists. She looked marvelous, too.

The mind wobbles when it discovers it can’t have something it wants, and then, when it catches itself, it appreciates. This wobble was a small one, easily overcome. Other yearnings are much more painful. The cycles, though, of “Oh, a pleasant thing,” “I want it,” “I lament not being able to have it, I feel sad,” and “This is the way it is. It can’t be other, now,” are the same regardless of whether the yearning is trivial or tremendous.

In the end, relief comes in two stages. The first is the moment that the mind stops struggling and says, “I wanted something different, but this is what I have.” The second is the ability to rejoice with other people, delighting in their pleasure. “May you two beautiful women enjoy this lunch and many others.” “May you, lovely little girl in pink who reminds me of my own children and grandchildren, grow up to enjoy skiing and also your whole life.” (The Pali word for the capacity to fully appreciate and bless is mudita.)

And here is one final piece of Buddhist theory that I can add, now that I’ve told these three stories of what seem to me to be the natural goodwill responses of the mind balanced by wisdom. The responses of friendliness, compassion, and appreciation that I felt in these three situations—all situational permutations of basic goodwill—depended on my mind’s being relaxed and alert enough to notice both what was happening around me and what was happening as my internal response. In each case, even though the situation included challenge, my mind had enough equanimity in it to allow me to stay connected with affection. My refuge was my own good nature, available for expression.

And it might have been otherwise. If my mind, in the long overnight flight, had been preoccupied with stories of my life, past or anticipated, or had it been agitated by fears about flying, or even if I had simply been too tired to pay attention to the scene around me, I would have missed it. I would not have been able to recognize the fundamental truth about human beings—that we do our best to keep ourselves comfortable, in orderly ways so as not to disturb others, in whatever situations we find ourselves—and I would have missed the opportunity to be touched by human courage. Instead of feeling warmly connected to the other people on my flight, I would have been indifferent. On the outside, I would have looked the same. On the inside, I would not have felt nearly as good.

And I really don’t know if my mind could have stayed balanced enough to rest in consolation if someone had taken ill, or died, in the row next to mine. I might have felt frightened about not having the skills to help. I’ve been with friends as they died, but I wanted to be there and I wasn’t surprised. Perhaps, on a plane and caught off guard, I’d be wishing that it weren’t happening, or that I were somewhere else. I don’t know. If my mind was overwhelmed by resentment or fear, the wisdom that reminds me that these things happen—people take ill, and die, according to conditions beyond their control, just as I will someday—would not have been available to comfort me. I might have forgotten to pray.

And perhaps if I had been less happy than I was on the day at Les Angles, I would have fallen prey to envy or jealousy, and to avoid recognizing those feelings, I might have started a quarrel about being spoken to peremptorily. As it turned out, I had enough wisdom available to me to think, “Things change. That was then. Now is now. There are other pleasures I can enjoy. Everyone takes turns being able to do this or that in life. We can for a while, and then we can’t. May everyone, including me, enjoy this moment.”

Indifference, pity, envy, and jealousy are what the Buddha called the “near enemies of the brahmaviharas.” Indifference, for example, might masquerade as equanimity, looking very balanced and even, but representing, in fact, the very opposite of emotional connection. (Think of the expression “I couldn’t care less,” which I’ve always heard as having a sad ring to it.) Pity looks a little like compassion, because it acknowledges suffering, but it is still an arm’s-length awareness of the pain and carries some aversion in it. “It’s too bad this is happening to you,” the mind thinks, without remembering, “This, or some other painful thing, will sometime happen to me or my kin. May all beings always be comforted in their suffering.” And without balancing awareness in the mind, delight and affection morph into envy and jealousy when other people’s joys are joys we covet or when we require something in return for our friendship. All of the near enemies are unhappy, tense states. The brahmaviharas all establish connections that nourish and enliven the moment. The near enemies create distance and isolation.

What keeps me connected to the world outside myself, as well as to my own natural goodness, is wishing others well in moments of both bad and good fortune, and acting with ordinary benevolence toward people as they go about their regular business of life—of appreciation, consolation, and friendliness.

Both those perspectives act for me as safety nets. Staying alertly connected to the world outside myself keeps me from falling into the limitations of self-absorption from which no reality check into wisdom is possible. And the reconnection with my own benevolent nature, each time it happens, protects me from the despair of feeling that nothing I (or anyone else) could do can make a difference. Safely connected to my life, and reassured of my essential goodness, I feel at ease, at home, really in the most sublime of homes.

And here’s one more detail from the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience that—because the Buddha sounds so human in it—is particularly inspiring to me. He is reported to have hesitated before starting out to teach, thinking of the enormity of the task before him. Some legends say that heavenly messengers appeared to him urging him on, reminding him of what benefit his news about ending suffering would be to those people who heard it. The Buddha’s decision to teach was, presumably, the result of hearing those heavenly messengers.

I know that in situations where I am hesitating about doing something—something I know will be helpful—my own kindness pushes me to do it. I anticipate how bad I’ll feel if I don’t act. I think it was the same for the Buddha. “Heavenly messengers,” I think, are our impulses of natural kindness.

From Happiness Is an Inside Job, by Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D. © 2007 by Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.