Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches us how to use wisdom to cultivate compassion
The fourth principle [of karma] to remember concerns the karma you’re creating right now in reaction to other people’s pleasure and pain. If you’re resentful of somebody else’s happiness, someday when you get happy there’s going to be somebody resentful of yours. Do you want that? Or if you’re hard-hearted toward somebody who’s suffering right now, someday you may face the same sort of suffering. Do you want people to be hard-hearted toward you? Always remember that your reactions are a form of karma, so be mindful to create the kind of karma that gives the results you’d like to see.
When you think in these ways, you see that it really is in your interest to develop the brahma-viharas in all situations. So the question is, how do you do that? This is where another aspect of the Buddha’s teachings on causality plays a role: his teaching on fabrication, or the way you shape your experience.
Fabrication is of three kinds: bodily, verbal, and mental. Bodily fabrication is the way you breathe. Verbal fabrications are thoughts and mental comments on things—your internal speech. In Pali, these thoughts and comments are called vitakka—directed thought, and vicara, evaluation. Mental fabrications are perceptions and feelings: the mental labels you apply to things, and the feelings of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain you feel about them.
Any desire or emotion is made up of these three types of fabrication. It starts with thoughts and perceptions, and then it gets into your body through the way you breathe. This is why emotions seem so real, so insistent, so genuinely “you.”
But as the Buddha points out, you identify with these things because you fabricate them in ignorance: you don’t know what you’re doing, and you suffer as a result. But if you can fabricate your emotions with knowledge, they can form a path to the end of suffering. And the breath is a good place to start.
If, for example, you’re feeling anger toward someone, ask yourself, “How am I breathing right now? How can I change the way I breathe so that my body can feel more comfortable?” Anger often engenders a sense of discomfort in the body, and you feel you’ve got to get rid of it. The common ways of getting rid of it are two, and they’re both unskillful: either you bottle it up, or you try to get it out of your system by letting it out in your words and deeds.
So the Buddha provides a third, more skillful alternative: Breathe through your discomfort and dissolve it away. Let the breath create physical feelings of ease and fullness, and allow those feelings to saturate your whole body. This physical ease helps put the mind at ease as well. When you’re operating from a sense of ease, it’s easier to fabricate skillful perceptions as you evaluate your response to the issue with which you’re faced.
Here the analogy of the lump of salt is an important perception to keep in mind, as it reminds you to perceive the situation in terms of your need for your own goodwill to protect yourself from bad karma. Part of this protection is to look for the good points of the person you’re angry at. … If you focus just on the bad points of other people, … you’ll get bitter about the human race and see no need to treat it well. But if you can see the good in other people, you’ll find it easier to treat them skillfully. Their good points are like water for your heart. You need to focus on them to nourish your own goodness now and in the future.
If, however, the person you’re angry about has no good qualities at all, then the Buddha recommends another perception: Think of that person as a sick stranger you’ve found on the side of the road, far away from any help. You have to feel compassion for him and do whatever you can to get him to the safety of skillful thoughts, words, and deeds.
What you’ve done here is to use skillful verbal fabrication— thinking about and evaluating the breath—to turn the breath into a skillful bodily fabrication. This in turn creates a healthy mental fabrication—the feeling of ease—that makes it easier to mentally fabricate perceptions that can deconstruct your unskillful reaction and construct a skillful emotion in its place. This is how we use our knowledge of karma and fabrication to shape our emotions in the direction we want— which is why head teachings are needed even in matters of the heart. At the same time, because we’ve sensitized ourselves to the role that the breath plays in shaping emotion, we can make a genuine change in how we physically feel about these matters. We’re not playing make believe. Our change of heart becomes fully embodied, genuinely felt.
This helps to undercut the feeling of hypocrisy that can sometimes envelop the practice of the brahma-viharas. Instead of denying our original feelings of anger or distress in any given situation, smothering them with a mass of cotton candy or marshmallow cream, we actually get more closely in touch with them and learn to skillfully reshape them.
All too often we think that getting in touch with our emotions is a means of tapping into who we really are—that we’ve been divorced from our true nature, and that by getting back in touch with our emotions we’ll reconnect with our true identity. But your emotions are not your true nature; they’re just as fabricated as anything else.
Because [your emotions] are fabricated, the real issue is to learn how to fabricate them skillfully, so they don’t lead to trouble and can instead lead to a trustworthy happiness.
Remember that emotions cause you to act. They’re paths leading to good or bad karma. When you see them as paths, you can transform them into a path you can trust. As you learn how to deconstruct emotions of ill will, hard-heartedness, resentment, and distress, and reconstruct the brahma-viharas in their place, you don’t simply attain an unlimited heart. You gain practice in mastering the processes of fabrication. As the Buddha says, that mastery leads first to strong and blissful states of concentration. From there it can fabricate all the factors of the path leading to the goal of all the Buddha’s teachings, whether for head or for heart: the total happiness of nirvana, unconditionally true.
Which simply goes to show that if you get your head and your heart to respect each other, they can take each other far. Your heart needs the help of your head to generate and act on more skillful emotions. Your head needs your heart to remind you that what’s really important in life is putting an end to suffering. When they learn how to work together, they can make your human mind into an unlimited brahma-mind. And more: They can master the causes of happiness to the point where they transcend themselves, touching an uncaused dimension that the head can’t encompass, and a happiness so true that the heart has no further need for desire.