Mature Emotions

Ajahn Vajiro is the senior incumbent of Bodhinyanarama Monastery in New Zealand.

"Mature emotions are ... those emotions that allow other people to mature"

In the teachings of the Buddha there are mentioned the Brahma Viharas. These are usually translated as the divine, or heavenly abidings. This is from a literal translation: Brahma - God, and Vihara - Dwelling. They can be brought down from the heavens, to earth, by considering that as emotions they motivate and encourage the transcending of the limitations of basic human existence. This `transcending of limitation' is a definition of growing. For the seed of this idea I am grateful to a friend who pointed out that they can be considered the mature emotions. What follows are a few further reflections; not intended as a comprehensive analysis of the Brahma Viharas which may be found in a text-book on Buddhism.

Emotions, it seems clear to me, are motivating. I tend to think of them as those things that cause, or fuel, or drive us to, motion. They provide the fuel that drives the movement; the action, towards or away from some object or situation. We move and act through body, speech or mind and that movement is a response to the stimulation of the senses. It is in the responding that we can first notice the arising of emotions. Before the movement there is stimulation of the senses; this is the contact. A feeling follows, then perception; it is this which is mixed with, or linked to, the mature emotions. There is then in Pali no direct translation for the English word emotion. An emotion is a mixture of perception and sankhara - habit pattern; both of which may be consciously trained. Mature emotions are those emotions that are the response of, and fuel the movement of, the mature person.

Sometimes the goal of Buddhism can be described in terms that lead me to think that what is being sought is a cold emotionless passionless heart - no response, no feeling, no desires, no motivation. This conflicts with our image of the Buddha as someone with a strong motivation, a strong compassion to lead a life that would be of greatest benefit to all beings.

Mature emotions are also those emotions that allow other people to mature. So when a person acts or responds with mature emotion, other humans are helped in a way that allows them to transcend, to grow beyond their limitations. This appears abstract; and yet when we consider how parents can best allow their children to mature, it is through the expression of mature emotion.

The four `maturing emotions', as explained here, may be realised, in practice, as being linked; only divided for the sake of convenient analysis and explanation. They are like different aspects of the same place, different ways of describing heaven. We describe the different aspects to help us to find a way of noticing them so we may express them, play with them, in our lives.

The metta - kindness - engendered in us encourages us to accept ourselves and others, and so to understand ourselves and others. Understanding implies wisdom. And this wisdom is that which allows us to find the way, to grow beyond, or let go of, that which limits and binds the heart. The kindness expressed to others allows them to accept themselves and others. This is an emotional, gut or heart acceptance that allows the acts of body, speech and mind that are a response to that which is perceived as `other' to be kind; not motivated by not-liking, not motivated by aversion or fear. The effect is unlimited.Metta is radiant and attractive, warming to those that are cold, cooling to those that are hot.

Karuna - Compassion - works. It works for us in allowing us to perceive the pain, anguish, affliction, agony, torment and distress of others clearly, through allowing it into our experience also. It is then something that has moved further out of the realm of the ignored or the unconscious into the realm of the included, the accepted, the conscious. Compassion is spacious, allowing the way things are to exist, to change, and to end. Particularly it allows pain to end. This means that it must be patient, not in any hurry to force pain to end or to try officiously to get rid of pain. It is the active side of wisdom and is the supreme purifier. The Buddha's compassion allowed him to realise that there is still something that can be done by a fully enlightened being. It was compassion that motivated him to teach "for the benefit of those with little dust in their eyes".

Mercy is a way to think of compassion, a word not often used and yet evocative of the quality of heart that is willing to bear the burdens of others; willing to always help to the best of its ability, listening out for the cries for help and acting. The `cries' may not be loud. It can be as ordinary as helping to clean-up after an event or set up before the event. Whenever we notice that some assistance would be appreciated and are willing to act to give it, we practise karuna.

Mudita is usually translated as sympathetic joy. This has meant little to me. The suggestions in the words of sympathy, pathetic and joy suggest an omelette that has a strange flavour. `Sympathy' and `joy' seem to mix easily; it is the addition of `pathetic' by alliteration that jars the palate. Appreciate, joy, enjoy, and bring joy to, are words that evoke from me the qualities of heart that are the opposite of envy and jealousy; the opposite of those qualities that wish to bring someone down to a lower level.

Mudita implies full consciousness. We need to discriminate, to be conscious, to open to the possibility of appreciation. Particularly encouraged is consciousness of the good, the virtue and the wisdom of others. What mudita allows is the arising of an aspiration to do or to be likewise. Luang Por Sumedho has said that when we can appreciate the beauty of a rose in full bloom, we can be moved by mudita. The suggestion is to practise at all levels. Sometimes when looking at a rose we can be caught by so-called `realism' and just see that the flower will fade; we can be a bit like Scrooge with "bah humbug", a sour response to any suggestion that beauty can be appreciated without falling into desire to possess or hold on to. The balance is provided when upekkha is present.

Upekkha: again first the usual translation - equanimity. I prefer serenity, with the implied suggestion of accepting limitation and rising above it. The phrase, "be serene in the oneness of things" has always struck me as a beautiful suggestion to my heart when there is frustration with the pace of life; the limitations of the universe; or the limitations of myself or others. There has to be a conscious acceptance of the limited way things are, to allow the heart to train to transcend that limitation.

On a mundane level, if I wish to train myself to touch type I have first to accept that right now there is not the ability to touch type; and only then can the effort be honestly made to learn to train the fingers and the eyes to work together in an automatic way. If I am unwilling to accept the fact that right now there is not the ability and yet I wish to touch type then I can pretend, but the only person I will be really fooling is myself. We do this on a grand scale when we would like to be mature and fulfilled people and we are unable to accept the limitations we find ourselves with. We can then pretend to be mature when we are in fact not really clear about our emotions or intentions and allow ourselves to be motivated by immature and damaging emotions. In the case of touch typing there is no real harm done; in the case of the person pretending to themselves and others that they are grown up, it is more dangerous both for themselves and others.

The four Brahma Viharas work together. Ajahn Buddhadasa talked in terms of upekkha overseeing the other three. In skilful and beautiful situations mudita is the mature motivation of the heart. If it is possible to alleviate a situation where there is pain or distress compassion maybe invoked. An unpleasant or ugly situation invokes metta. Acceptance, an aspect of metta, finds its echo in the acceptance of limitation implied in upekkha, which is why metta is such an important beginning.

For most of us and even in animals it is metta, as found in the acceptance of the mother of the child, that is the first emotion that allows us, and others, to grow and begin to mature. If there is no metta expressed to an offspring, particularly a human child, it will either die quickly or grow to be a very warped and immature individual. It is the primary motivation that allows the very young to mature. The young express it in the way they reach out and learn about the place in which they find themselves. Young children can pick up things without discrimination and, to the horror of the adults, place them in the mouth. There is in this action of the child a very crude level of acceptance and lack of discrimination operating as the child begins to reach out beyond itself.

Compassion allows us to recognise the changes and developments that are a part of the natural changes from baby, to child, to young person, to adult, to old person - and the pain of separation from the known, which is part of this process - and bear the changes sensitively.

Mudita allows us to enjoy life. The beauty and the wonder of this strange experience of being a sensitive separate life somehow mysteriously connected with it all. And when all the fear of the unknown has been allowed to fall away, the wonder of the unknowable can be appreciated and enjoyed.

What moves us through life, through the uncertainties and changes is what can bring some freedom for people. Our intentions move us through life, our intentions are the area of our greatest freedom. To use and train this freedom wisely is the challenge.

Ajahn Vajiro