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I have a fairly straightforward question. When I visualize without aim, or even sometimes with aim, disturbing or aggressive images sometimes arise in consciousness. Can I practice meditations on the brahma viharas without visualizing?

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The subject of your meditation should be a subject which is a live being or some category or grouping of real living beings (loved ones, same part of the country, humans, some animals, northerners, neighbours, etc.). You can use any visualization or verbalisations. But when you try to visualise X some other unrelated things happens. In this case do not react with despair and anger. When things are not in your control know that it is not / non self.

Also objective of Brahma Vihara is to:

  • develop these qualities
  • break the tendency to classify into favorable, unfavorable and neutral categories and react to the sensations and feelings due to the perception creating unwholesome roots
  • break the tendency to classify into superior, inferior and neutral and and to react to them creating sensations and feelings due to the perception creating unwholesome roots
  • Is this the same for any visualization? Simply be aware that the visualizations are not part of a permanent self and not reflective of motivation? For example, aggressive urges arise and, without identifying with them, observe them without linking them to actual intentions? – Eggman Mar 29 '17 at 14:12
  • What you visualise is never reality but what you put together in your mental model. In you mental model there will be sence of being permanent entity view of people, but in reality they are changing, aging, etc. Also you have no control over your visualisation. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Mar 29 '17 at 14:16
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To practice Brahma Viharas you should have at least one living being.

So it is not possible to practice without an object.

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There is a Zen story that goes something like this, a Zen student ask the master if in the state of no thoughts, are there any sins left. The Master replied: "Sumeru!". Sumeru being the mythical World Mountain at the center of the world, a metaphor for immense afflictions.

The fact is that we have a great deal of suffering buried deep within our mind. And it is during the calm state of meditation that many start to surface. I once watched a documentary "Dhamma Brothers" about these prisoners who underwent an intensive 10 days meditation retreat. One of the things that stood out was that some of these murderers interviewed said they start to relive and become aware their horrible crimes. For them it was like coming out of a haze, and making realizations that they have hurt their victims unjustly.

This is why it is Ethics that is the foundation for a successful meditation practice, because we will be reliving a lot of our karma and negative mental habits. According to traditional Buddhist views, this buried afflictions are so deeply embedded all the way from our past lives.

So the question is what to do when these memories/thoughts/visual imaginations resurface? We should apply the antidote to these poisons in our mind. If we have deep anger and resentment for a person, we need apply compassion and forgiveness towards that person. The feelings of loving kindness and good will are the tool needed to overcome these negative mental states. ("Love" very much in the Christian sense). Repentance likewise is very helpful.

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Those are perfect appearances, Eggman. Developing, for example metta means to hold on an attitude of goodwill (metta) "like a mother holds on here only son", even so hold on a mindstate of metta. Special perfect, because those phenomenas cause you to fall into aversion. That's a perfect working place. So when such things arise, put more effort into keeping up goodwill and don't tend to aversion if it arises. Itks good when you also observe how mind reacts, phenomenas arising and decay. When you use metta as object for your concentration (thats actually the dhammic purpose of it), also obsere the comming and going of phenomenas. It's good to become aware of such, much better then to dwell dull in the Brahma Vihara realm.

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The practice of the brahma vihara meditation is given in the suttas as follows:

[One] dwells pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with [brahma-vihara quality], likewise the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter. Thus above, below, across, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he dwells pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with [brahma-vihara quality], vast, exalted, measureless, without enmity, without ill will.

Where the quality in brackets stands for one of the four immeasurables: mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā ("loving-kindness", "compassion", "empathetic joy", "equanimity").

If we regard this practice description as complete, we can follow it as is. In this case, it doesn't seem to emphasize specific visualizations. Instead, it seems to instruct us to do an active immersion of the mind in a certain quality, say, spreading it and filling every corner of one's mind with it.

Using mettā as example, one immerses the mind in this quality gradually:

[...] one quarter with a mind imbued with mettā, likewise the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter [...]

One makes it pervasive, ubiquitous:

Thus above, below, across, and everywhere [...] vast, exalted, measureless

One directs it and applies it to every being, to the entire world:

[...] to all as to himself, he dwells pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with mettā.

When this practice is undertaken, unwholesome qualities diminish:

[...] without enmity, without ill will.

They diminish because if these are effectively practiced, the mind becomes interested in these qualities; it grabs the interest of the mind once it finds them pleasurable. As result, the mind incorporates them.

They also diminish because of "incompatibility". For example, it's not possible for a mind immersed in compassion to have cruelty taking hold of it. Cruel thoughts appear distant, tasteless, sterile and weak in a mind soaked in compassion.


With the brief practice contextualized, let's talk the specifics:

You said: disturbing or aggressive images sometimes arise in consciousness.

If the aggressive images that arise (e.g. towards another or towards oneself) are born out of anger or are enticing, metta and/or karuna can be ideal primary practices. If the aggressive images are born out of envy, jealous or discontent sentiments, it might be interesting to focus more on mudita (see AN 6.13 and also DN 34). All these can be complemented and calibrated by upekkhā, which is also one of the recommended practices for dealing with disgust and passion.

On the other hand, if the disturbing thoughts have as origin remorse or, generally, non-virtuous past behaviors, it might be fruitful to focus more on reestablishing the precepts, making amends to past mistakes and strengthening virtuous behavior.

Naturally, all the above are not mutually exclusive, meaning one benefits from doing them all, but certain difficulties might be approached better with a focused/dedicated effort.

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I read once (in a modern, non-Buddhist psychology book) that some people are more visual, some more auditory, some more tactile (or haptic):

  • Most people are visual so you show them something.
  • Most of the rest are auditory (by which I mean, prefer to learn by hearing) so you tell them something.
  • The minority are haptic so they learn by doing something.

I guess it's possible that most people practice Bhavana by visual imagination, but that some people could do it via other forms of imagination. For example is it easier for you to identify people by sound instead of sight?

You're supposed to pervade kindness and so on in various directions -- maybe that means you can use your sense of proprioception.

  • What I mean is within thought saying, for example: "May X be happy, healthy, safe and live with ease." Repeating this multiple times for example. Or reason about the qualities of the person, etc. Would these be defined as metta? – Eggman Mar 29 '17 at 14:10
  • Yes. This is a meditation involving words ("May X be happy"); and this is a chant not a visualization (I suppose someone might visualize as well as or while chanting, but perhaps you understand words without trying to visualize objects which the words describe). – ChrisW Apr 3 '17 at 10:56
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Visualizing is just one of the way to trigger happy feeling to arise, but not all of us could visualize thing. So, visualizing is not compulsory to practice brahmavihara.

Verbalizing too is one of the way to trigger happy feeling but if you chant "may you be happy" all the time, you won't get deeper in your meditation.

The problem with practicing brahmavihara is that there's only a few teachers who could teach this practice. Bhante Vimalaramsi from Dhammasukha.org [My Teacher | Highly Recommended] [easy to practice without too much theory] [Free Online Retreat | Guidance]

Pa-Auk Sayadaw from paaukforestmonastery.org [Someone that i Recommend too] [Burmese Tradition, Theorical and Too much Abhidhammic and Commentaries]

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