The 4 Brahmaviharas
The Brahmaviharas or Sublime Attitudes are the 4 main heart practices of Buddhism, limitless Loving Kindness (Goodwill), Compassion, Sympathetic Joy (Gratitude), and Equanimity. These qualities are limitless in two senses: One that we apply them to all beings without exception, and two that the physical/mental experience of them feels expansive without boundaries.
A Brief Overview
Metta: Loving Kindness/Goodwill - A heartfelt wish for all beings to find true happiness within
Karuna: Compassion - A quality in response to someone suffering, doing what we can to relieve it
Mudita - Sympathetic Joy - A wish in response to someone's good fortune, wanting it to continue
Upekkha - Equanimity - A balanced state of mind governed by wisdom and acceptance
These qualities are intended to be given rise to and cultivated through dedicated meditations for each one. There are endless guided meditations on these topics available on YouTube if you do some searching, we will also link a few below.
When the Buddha was asked about the benefits of these heart practices he shared:
“One sleeps in comfort, wakes in comfort, and dreams no evil dreams, one is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings, their mind is easily concentrated, the expression of their face is serene, when they are dying they are unconfused and at ease, upon death they will be reborn in a good destination.”
An Exploration of The Heart Practices
Metta: Limitless Loving Kindness and Goodwill
What it is:
Loving Kindness(Goodwill): In essence is a heartfelt wish that all beings without exception find true happiness within, acknowledging that true happiness comes from internal causes, meaning no one's true happiness (including our own) conflicts with anyone else's nor causes harm to others. This is a pure and blameless happiness that through practice we can give rise to at will.
Understanding that this quality is at its most powerful and transformative when it is universal, we cultivate Metta even for people who bring harm to others. Realizing these people’s actions come from a place of deep suffering, and that wishing for them to find true happiness doesn't mean we condone their actions, it means wishing they will do the things that cause true happiness (including abstaining from causing harm). If someone is truly content, their suffering won’t overflow and spill onto others. We may find ourselves wishing for these people to suffer even more, however that won't solve anything, it would only lead to them causing additional suffering to others.
It's always helpful to remind ourselves that the world can be a much kinder and more enjoyable place for everyone if people aren't clawing for scraps of happiness in an ever shifting external world.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu an American Buddhist Monk and scholar touches on this often:
“You realize that the happiness you’re looking for now as you meditate is not in competition with anybody at all. Nobody’s struggling to get to see your breath. You’re not fighting with anyone else as you’re trying to get the mind to settle down. It’s all internal. You’re not harming anyone and you can take joy in that fact… In other words, you’re not constantly looking for the newest flashy object or trying to listen to the latest tunes that are attractive. You realize that your true happiness comes from within. You don’t have to keep searching outside, because the more you’re searching outside, the more you’re going to get into conflict with other people… You’re increasing your ability to find happiness in a way that doesn’t get into any conflict, that doesn’t require laying any claim. You don’t have to push anybody out of the way or away from something they’ve already laid claim to.”
What it isn't:
Each of these 4 heart qualities has what are called ‘near enemies’ and ‘far enemies’. These are qualities of the mind that interfere with developing the heart. Near enemies are qualities that could be mistaken for the quality we are trying to develop, whereas far enemies are the qualities in direct opposition to what we are trying to cultivate.
For Metta the near enemies are: Possessive love, codependency, and obsessiveness “I will love and care for you.. as long as you meet my expectations or behave in a way i find acceptable” “I need you, I’m only happy when I’m with you”
While the far enemies are: Ill will, hate, and bitterness “you did blah blah blah so you don't deserve happiness” ”you need to suffer a few times to learn a lesson, then maybe I will wish you well”
Karuna: Limitless Compassion and Being of Service
What it is:
Compassion: Just as goodwill wishes beings to be happy and at ease, compassion wishes for beings who are suffering to be freed from their suffering and stress. Actively inspiring one to make a difference where they can, creating a sense of connection, being fully with someone in their time of need, able to appreciate what the other person is experiencing without getting swallowed up in their pain and suffering.
We have a tendency to think we are obligated to commiserate with someone in pain, but in reality just being with them as a steady presence and hearing them out can be of more benefit. In this way we avoid “compassion fatigue” and allow ourselves to remain clear headed and energized so if something can be done to help others we can more easily see it.
Compassion is more than a mind-state, it is an action. When we encounter people suffering we do what we can to help alleviate it. Understanding that there will always be some limitations to the help we can safely provide, we learn to navigate these situations while establishing proper boundaries. This reduces the chance of additional harm to either party. It's critical to remember that our compassion is meant to be universal, meaning it applies to ourselves as well.
Even when we encounter situations where we can’t directly make a difference, we can still cultivate this heart of compassion. Wishing for all involved to be freed from their difficulties.
What it isn't:
Near Enemy: Pity stemming from a subtle sense of superiority or arrogance, used to inflate our sense of self importance.
Thinking things along the lines of “oh you poor thing let me grant you my compassion from atop my pedestal” “how kind of me to help the less fortunate, everyone should know I'm such a good person”
We aren't practicing compassion so that everyone sees us as a saint. Instead we practice compassion because we understand what it is like to suffer and we don't want anyone to have to go through that.
Far enemy: Cruelty stemming from self-righteousness, wishing for someone to pay for the wrongs they have committed “someone needs to give you a taste of your own medicine”
Mudita: Limitless Joy and Vicarious Gratitude
What it is:
Empathetic Joy(Vicarious Gratitude): Delights in all beings’ good fortunes and good qualities wishing for them to continue and increase, inspiring us to help those striving to make a positive difference in their lives by supporting them in whatever way we can, be it just voicing our support, lending an ear, or sharing how we have overcome similar challenges in the past when appropriate.
Gratitude also applies to those who are more well off than us, even those we dislike or are envious of. Understanding that no one benefits from anyone being deprived of the good things in their life. If you can’t appreciate the good fortune of others it also makes it challenging to feel secure in your own good fortunes.
We begin to realize that we have the potential within ourselves to let all beings' good fortune be appreciated as if it were our own. This shift in our perspective can completely change our relationship with others. We become less likely to constantly operate from our own self interests because we have found joy in the act of helping others find joy.
When talking about Mudita His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama often says:
“If I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”
What it isn't:
Near Enemy: Excitability & Exuberance. These qualities are anxiety & attachment in disguise.
One way to distinguish joy from exuberance is to notice how we react when the stimulus ends or is taken away, seeing if it causes discomfort. Mudita is joy without attachment, so there shouldn't be a sense of loss when the stimulus ceases.
To identify excitement simply notice if it is building tension in the body. Heartfelt joy actually puts the body at ease. However, when there is an element of expectation or attachment part of the mind is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, which generates tension.
Maybe thinking things like “this is awesome, I hope it never ends”
Far Enemy: Resentment & envy “they don't even appreciate what they have, they don’t deserve it, I do”
Upekkha: Limitless Equanimity and Finding Balance
What it is:
Equanimity: a balanced state of mind governed by wisdom and acceptance, it acts as the check and balance for compassion and joy. Discerning when and where we can make a difference and where we can’t, working towards the former and abandoning the latter. Realizing that there's no benefit to being weighed down by things we can’t change and instead conserving our energy for areas we can.
Upekkha literally means to be standing on a mountaintop “looking over” it is a quality of stepping back and taking in the whole picture. Remaining balanced and not getting sucked into situations, freeing ourselves from discrimination, prejudice, and clinging to our views.
Equanimity reminds us to keep a broad perspective. When our focus becomes too narrow we can end up neglecting our own well-being by becoming overly invested in the affairs of someone else to the point where it is suffocating for them. This quality of being able to take a step back and reassess can prevent entire worlds of suffering from coming into being.
To quote the great Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:
“true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upekkha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination. It is “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.”
What it isn't:
Near Enemy: Indifference & Detachment “everything is empty so nothing matters” “everything is subject to change so why bother trying to make a difference” “my problems are not worth resolving because there is no self”
Far Enemy: Craving & Aversion. “I want/need…” “I don’t want/can't deal with…”
Preparing the Heart Through Forgiveness Meditation
Forgiveness meditation is a way of opening up to the possibilities of true healing and love for oneself and others. Forgiveness meditation is a soft, gentle way of learning how to lovingly-accept whatever arises and to leave it be, without trying to control it with thoughts.
For many people, forgiveness meditation is often the prerequisite condition for the practice of these 4 heart qualities or Sublime Attitudes. Some people who have unprocessed grief or trauma may need to gently work through it in order to give rise to truly limitless goodwill, compassion, gratitude, and equanimity. Otherwise the practice of the brahmaviharas will feel forced or robotic and we may find it nearly impossible to give rise to the sensation of goodwill.
Here are four phrases for use in forgiveness meditation:
- I forgive myself: for not understanding,
- I forgive myself: for making mistakes
- I forgive myself: for any pain I have caused myself or others
- I forgive myself: for not handling things differently.
We start by picking whichever phrase we identify with most strongly and use it as an anchor, first beginning by forgiving yourself for a while, then forgiving another person, then visualizing them forgiving you in return. Focusing on the phrase rather than getting caught up in any particular story of guilt or resentment and simply noticing the sensation of forgiveness in the body and mind
This process can be emotionally taxing. Therefore, it's important to adopt a gentle approach to dealing with any distractions that come up. This will ensure we aren't piling on even more tension.
When we notice we’ve become distracted we drop our interaction with the distraction, relax our shoulders and forehead, calm our breathing, mentally restate the phrase, then turn our attention back to the sensation of forgiveness.
In this practice it's important to be very honest with ourselves about what we are currently capable of, being careful not to push our limits and acknowledging that healing happens gradually. There is no need to head straight to our deepest shame and resentments. Start with baby steps, learn and become comfortable with the technique before increasing the depth.
Over time as we soften any resentments we may have, it becomes easier to genuinely give rise to and maintain the Sublime Attitudes.
These 4 heart practices when developed and cultivated can radically change your life. They are useful tools for expanding the mind through the heart.
They remind us that if we solely focus on ourselves, concerned with only our suffering, our enjoyment, our needs, we lose perspective. Our world shrinks and the mind begins to narrow, as the mind narrows our suffering broadens. So by learning to make our hearts limitless we broaden our minds, reduce our suffering, and spread joy and compassion to all those we encounter.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama sums this up nicely:
“If we think only of ourselves, forget about other people, then our minds occupy very small area. Inside that small area, even tiny problem appears very big. But the moment you develop a sense of concern for others, you realize that, just like ourselves, they also want happiness; they also want satisfaction. When you have this sense of concern, your mind automatically widens. At this point, your own problems, even big problems, will not be so significant. The result? Big increase in peace of mind. So, if you think only of yourself, only your own happiness, the result is actually less happiness. You get more anxiety, more fear.”