While on retreat with Sayadaw U Tejaniya a couple of weeks back, I asked him what the relationship was between the brahmaviharas and the mindfulness practice that he teaches. (The brahmaviharas are the four sublime states described by the Buddha: unbounded kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity)
He smiled and replied that when the defilements are absent, the brahmaviharas are present.
The defilements are the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion, understood in the broadest possible way. It seemed a confirmation of something I already knew. If there is no grasping in this moment, then peace naturally occurs. If it happens when someone else is there, wholesome, appropriate feelings arise towards that person, according to the situation.
Later, I read essentially the same explanation in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s booklet called “Going for refuge and taking the precepts”:
Another reason why the precepts are worded in terms of abstinence is that development of positive virtues cannot be prescribed by rules. Rules of training can govern what we have to avoid and perform in our outer actions but only ideals of aspiration, not rules, can govern what develops within ourselves. Thus we cannot take up a training rule to always be loving towards others. To impose such rule is to place ourselves in a double bind since inner attitudes are just simply not so docile that they can be determined by command. Love and compassion are the fruits of the work we do on ourselves inwardly, not assenting to a precept…
And so we come back to the question of the inner work that can assuage our everyday suffering. We can notice and cultivate the wholesome mind states when they are present, and we can actively work to notice and uproot the defilements in our hearts that prevent the brahmaviharas from arising.