How to Grow During the Pandemic

Summary: Bhante gives guidance on how to deal with the pressures of living during a pandemic by introducing the concept of Brahmavihara or “The Four Safe Houses”. These include:

  1. Metta – loving-kindness or benevolence
  2. Karuna – compassion
  3. Mudita – empathetic joy
  4. Upeksa – equanimity

Recorded on March 23, 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can read more about Brahmavihara here.

With the meditation practice, there are two things that are happening. 1) We are finding a quiet, calm mind. Most people call this their meditation practice.

But, the Buddhist meditation starts from there, from that quiet or calm mind, and in that environment 2) we cultivate certain qualities. Those are the qualities we call brahmavihara. The direct translation is divine houses. If we go a little beyond, we can see the meaning behind it is “safe houses”.

In safe houses, people feel safe. Regardless of gender. You have total safety for all living beings there. Equal safety is there. [Sometimes] we think human beings are much more important than other living things. Or, some people think my cat and dogs are more important than deer in the backyard. Some people think that dogs are better than cats. or my horse is much more important than any dog or cat. What is happening there, we have separate values for certain living beings. This means we think, “Your life is not as important as another living being.” You can see the discrimination or that division or that separation.

This is not a quality for a mindful person. Or a person who is practicing brahmavihara or safe house. With Buddhist meditation, we are mainly talking about how to cultivate those four qualities in our minds and our hearts.

If I touch on another layer, to explain this, sometimes we bring a fake value into our life. Which means it is not really you. But, you pretend like you are somebody else. Sometimes you pretend that you have compassion. But, you don’t have compassion in your heart. But, you pretend. Sometimes you pretend that you are calm.

For example, imagine you are having an argument with your family. But all of a sudden, a neighbor comes to the door. What happens to you? You have a nice smile on your face. Sometimes you don’t respond according to your mind.

If you have a certain response from somebody at work who is under you, you may respond in one way. But, if somebody is powerful you give a different response. Somebody that does something you love very much, you might have one way of responding to that person. But, somebody you don’t respect, and you don’t have love, or you don’t care, you might have a different response. That is what we call fake values. You really don’t represent yourself.

What is happening with mindfulness first of all you are establishing these qualities within. What are those qualities? Compassion, Loving Friendliness, or most of the time people call that Loving Kindness, empathetic joy or appreciated joy, and equanimity.

But, when we talk about those four qualities (brahmavihara) we want others to have those qualities toward us. We want others to treat others with compassion. We want others to treat us with full friendliness, forgiving us right away, and understand us. We want others to treat us equally. Even more than other people. Better than the others. Then, we want others to be happy with our happiness. Not, having jealousy when we win something. We want others to have it.

But, in the mindful way, what is happening we are finding those Safe Houses for us. We are finding those Safe Houses for us. And, when you have those for yourself then that person can expand them [to others]. Think about it… You have a house where you can be by yourself. But, to whom are you opening your house? You’re opening your house to someone who is not disturbing you. To your family, someone you trust; and people you want to support. You are welcoming them into your house. But, when you have these Safe Houses for yourself, you are willing to open them for all other living beings, knowing they are equal to you. We all have the same desire to live, just like me.

The main part of Peter’s question is, In this kind of time how can we practice this? We go back to our base, mindfulness, then mindfully we recognize all of us are equally vulnerable. We all have the same human body. This body is vulnerable to a virus like [the COVID 19]. This mind is vulnerable to fear and anxiety. And you can see some people are overreacting and some people are blind. They are not taking the precautions they need to take. But, sometimes we appreciate one person, but we don’t appreciate the other person.

But, as a mindful person, you can see how blind somebody can be without knowing the danger they are in. And also you can see, how bad another person can be if they happen to be over fear. And when you understand that vulnerability you will not have anger toward this person. First of all, we apply it to ourselves. “If this happened to me… I would do exactly the same thing.” Therefore, how much you want you to be protected you want to support and protect that person in the very same way. That basic understanding, that mindful understanding will be there. By knowing I am equal to others, others are equal to me.

We all have a vulnerable body. We all have a vulnerable mind. When you recognize that you don’t have those negative things going on against other people. That could be anger, blame, or you cannot understand somebody’s reaction. But you will see that this person is ignorant about the situation that is why this person is responding [the way they are.] When we treat others with compassion by understanding who they are, then we don’t have enemies outside of ourself. And we don’t have enemies within. Having enemies against you. You are an enemy against yourself.

Think about it simply: When you are angry or when you have anxiety even when you fear. Just when you are caught up in fear. You don’t lose yourself. That is how you are becoming an enemy to yourself. But, when that happens? What do we do with mindfulness? We recognize it the vulnerability of ourselves. We are trying to come back to ourselves and save ourselves to overcome that challenge.

In the same way, when you happen to see another person involved in the same situation. What do you do? You are trying your best to help that person. We are very familiar with these actions of compassion and loving-kindness.

But, how familiar with empathetic joyfulness? How much are we willing to enjoy another person’s happiness during this time of challenges. Some of you can stay at home. Others have to go to work. You begin to think, “I have to go to work but others can stay at home.” What is happening? You are comparing yourself to others. When we happen to compare ourselves to others we always think, “They are better than me.” We always think, “They might have this better than me.” Sometimes we might find that most of the time we find something else.

A simple example: Think about when you are looking at a picture. or photograph, and you have a bunch of people in there including yourself. What are you going to see first? You are going to see exactly how you look. You will think that everyone else looks fine but except for yourself. If you agree with yourself then you’ll think that everyone else is fine too. But, most of the time, you think, “I’m not fine, but everyone else is okay here. Not me” You find a way to blame yourself. What is happening to empathetic joy?

With empathetic joy, you don’t choose yourself over others or others over yourself. You would be generally happy for other’s successes as well as for your own. You maintain that. Once you have this empathetic joy, you don’t have jealousy at all. Because you are truly happy for another person’s success. You don’t think,”Why did my neighbor win the lottery and not me?” You are genuinely happy because your neighbor got the winning lottery if that happened. You would honestly be happy for the other person. “That’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing you got this.” You don’t blame the other person but are happy for them. That stands as a quality.

Now, in this period [the COVID-19 pandemic], by understanding how uncertain life is, how uncertain our plans… Think about it. All of us made a lot of plans, two months ago, even last year. But, we may have to keep canceling things. I don’t know how long we are going to have to do that. But, what can you do? Do you have power over it? Who is going to choose it? Can we change it?

In this way, we would realize how vulnerable we are. How uncertain we are. We will recognize the value of having Safe Houses, knowing we are helpless. Now, this helpless situation is not a negative thing. It is a reality. What is happening to us when we get blind, we don’t realize this reality. We always run away from this reality because we get blind by ego, and not knowing.

Just think about all of you from birth to now, the time has gone very fast like a blink [of the eye]. That would be the same story 10 years later. You would say those 10 years have gone by very fast. But, when you look at it from this end [the present] you would think, “Oh ten years, that’s a very long time.” But, after ten years you will say, “It is just like a blink. It went very fast.”I remember, after being in the US for 21 years that was very fast. I still remember the day, how I got on the plane from Sri Lanka, to come to Detroit. [It was ] just like yesterday. Time goes very fast. Think about any event in your life. You may remember those events just like yesterday. Time goes that fast.

That means that time is nothing. When we realize of this uncertainty, we can see we are giving value to some things you don’t have to give any value to. Just think about, when you are angry with somebody. When you have a bad memory of somebody, we are giving a lot of power into something that has no value. There is no power carrying that. But we are giving a lot of values [power] When we realize this Uncertainty of Life, then we recognize the value of cultivating unconditional love, compassion, happy and joyful for another person’s success, empathetic joy and equanimity. Everybody is equal. Then, you are trying to treat all other living beings equally.

Even the ant or the bug. Which is bugging you… The bug who will bug you in the summer or the mosquito sucking the blood from you. They are trying to survive, looking for food. They are not going to kill you, but we are going to kill them because they are looking for food. When we see that, what will happen to us, we will recognize it. We will not find any enemies around us.

Somebody was telling me last year as he was coming out of meditation in a cabin at the Center. He was happy. But later, one by one, mosquitos tried to fly around this person. First, he tried to chase those mosquitoes away. But later, he became very angry with those mosquitoes and tried to kill them. I asked him, “How did you find enemies around you? Did all those mosquitoes become your enemy? How come you made them be your enemy?” He looked at me and said, “You are right.” “I made enemies around me by being angry. That is why I was going after them and trying to kill them.” Did that happen suddenly or automatically? No. That enemy you find gradually. First, dissatisfaction, dislike. Then, you let that dissatisfaction to grow.

In the same way, in this kind of time, you can let this equanimity to grow; compassion to grow. First, you will have a fraction of compassion, let it grow. A fraction of unconditional friendliness. Let it grow. A fraction of compassion. Maybe you are just having a small action. Just one action. Let it grow. So what is happening? Your mind is becoming lighter and quieter. You will begin to appreciate yourself. This is how we can cultivate those four qualities within this kind of time. This is a wonderful opportunity we have. If we are wise enough we will use this opportunity to support us and to grow ourselves. Not to lose. This is a wonderful opportunity we all have. Any questions or thoughts?

Those four qualities in the Pali language are called Metta [loving kindness], Karuna [compassion], Mudita [empathetic joy], Epeksa [equanimity]. Just recognize and find those Safe Houses within. There was a monk. He was a prince first, and then a monk.

After he became a monk he came to the Buddha and asked, “Venerable Sir, you are always encouraging us to practice these four qualities, Metta [loving kindness], Karuna [compassion], Mudita [empathetic joy], Epeksa [equanimity]. I can easily practice these when I am happy. When I am not happy or challenged by something, it is very difficult to practice these qualities. Do you want us to still practice those things while I’m not happy?

The Buddha replied, “Yes.”

Because that’s the moment you can be highly benefited by those qualities. When you are happy those qualities are already there. When do you want to go to your home? When you need protection, in the dark, protect yourself from the cold, or find security, safety, and comfort. But, when you have those things you don’t have to go into your home. When you are comfortable outside, you don’t need to go to your home. Just think about when you come into your home, how much freedom you have. “Oh, I’m finally here.” You find a place to just relax. When you need it, you need it when you are not free. You need that safety. So, therefore, when your mind is not settled, that is the moment you can utilize those qualities. When you are angry, that is when you can benefit from the conditions of friendliness.

So, therefore, there is no bad time to practice [these four qualities]. Face these challenging situations. How to mindfully face the life challenges that come during this time.

And also, this situation is impermanent. This is not a permanent situation. This is impermanent, just like everything else. Maintaining the peacefulness of the mind. If you can really see [these concepts] you would really enjoy [this time]. You will enjoy it by seeing reality.

We all enjoy the birth of a human being. Right? When you have a new family member you enjoy that. You are happy just thinking of somebody’s birth. Before that person is born, people are having parties, and meeting, and are really excited and then afterward, enjoying. And then, every year, we are celebrating our birthday. We are still thinking about that. Not only you but your people and families around you. They are enjoying your birth.

A mindful person equally enjoys this time. It is wonderful. For a mindful person, it is not a time to cry. It is a wonderful opportunity. How can we build our mind to see reality and even enjoy and observe it mindfully? It is a part of Life. Something to enjoy. In the same way, in this situation, it is a wonderful opportunity for most of us. One of the nice things I’m starting to see is that so much of Nature is enjoying this.

Think about it from the angle of Nature. Nature is enjoying this very much. Less pollution. All the birds and animals are thinking, “Oh, we are having party time!”


Recorded on March 23, 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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