The Brahmaviharas, or Four Divine Abidings, circumscribe the four attitudes of mind that are the highest level response to one’s experience and to other beings, human or animal. They are metta, translated as loving kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy (sometimes translated as appreciative joy); and upekkha, equanimity. These qualities of mind can be cultivated through practice in meditation, until they become the framework for one’s interior life.
The most familiar to western Buddhists is metta, an attitude of unconditional love toward every living thing. There are phrases we can repeat to ourselves in meditation for individuals or all beings: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, may you live with ease and with joy. The exercise is most effective when concentration is deep, but we need not be perfectionists about it; repeating the phrases throughout the day, whenever we happen to think of them, is also well worthwhile.
The far enemy of metta is hatred, while the near enemy is attachment. When we first attempt to do metta, we unfortunately realize that we can’t say with sincerity that we wish good things for every living being. An immediate example is certain kinds of harmful creatures, like wasps, mosquitoes, or poisonous snakes. There are even harmless insects and reptiles that bear enough of a resemblance to harmful ones that we feel an immediate response of disgust when thinking of them. How are we supposed to wish good things to a bug?
More troubling are people towards whom we have complicated feelings, or even uncomplicated hatred. That is why it is recommended that we undertake metta practice in stages. There are four specific types of recipients: ourselves, benefactors or friends, neutral persons, and adversaries. Many Westerners have even more trouble expressing love for themselves than for adversaries, feeling they don’t deserve it, or that in loving themselves they are in danger of becoming narcissistic. A good beginning might be a benefactor, or even a neutral person, someone one sees from time to time but with whom one doesn’t have a close relationship.
As we begin working with metta, we encounter attachment as well as ill-will, which is why saying metta for intimate partners or family members is as complicated as for adversaries. We want our partners or children to be happy, successful, healthy, and strong because when the people we love are thriving, we are thriving, whereas when we have a depressed spouse or a sick child, we ourselves are naturally wounded as well. While such responses are understandable, they ultimately do not lead to peace of mind, and can even get in the way of our ability to care for the very persons whose lives are most important us. Ask any adolescent what they most want from a parent and the answer is likely to be, “space.”
Karuna, or compassion, is the response to the suffering of others that opens us to intimacy without the burnout we are likely to feel when we become identified with it. The far enemy of karuna is cruelty, while its near enemy is pity. Pity, feeling sorry for or commiserating with someone, turns the other’s story into our own, making it all about how awful we feel for them, or conversely it can set us apart from the other, causing us to see ourselves as immune to the other’s affliction. Cruelty is rejoicing in another’s suffering: “Good! I’m glad he got what’s coming to him!” While we like to feel that there is justice in the world and that “bad” people get punished, indulging in the desire to judge and punish other people can only be a source of unhappiness.
Compassion is characterized by spaciousness, which can occur only by our emptying ourselves of ulterior motives. Just as metta is wishing good things to everyone unconditionally, karuna is openness to the suffering of all regardless of what anyone deserves. There can be feeling for others, a movement of emotion through ourselves that brings us into intimacy with them, including tenderness and sadness, but without resistance, rumination, or the urgent need to fix whatever is hurting.
The third brahmavihara, mudita, is a joyful response to something beautiful and good. Sympathetic joy is the rejoicing in something good that happens to another, which may possibly be the hardest of all the divine abidings. When we think of someone we dislike for any reason, the last thing we want is to see that person thrive and prosper, especially if that person benefits through actions of injustice. We certainly don’t want someone who is arrogant, unprincipled, phony, or undeserving to get a promotion, admiration, or love from someone we admire.
The near enemy of mudita is identification, while the far enemy is envy. In the case of identification, we want those whom we favor to thrive because their success enhances our sense of self. Professionally, we want people we’ve mentored to do well as a testimonial to our influence and good advice. Still, we may not want them to do too well, which would put us in danger of being surpassed by the beneficiaries of our patronage, and tip our good feelings over into the territory of envy and resentment. We feel envy when we see people who are richer, better looking, healthier, or more influential than ourselves. Why should they have that big house, that beautiful family, that loving spouse while we are stuck in a small apartment, divorced, childless, and sick with worry over our bills?
Practicing any of these brahmaviharas is fiendishly difficult because they bring us up against our own sense of lack. Envy, ill-will, or identification all speak to a depletion within ourselves, a feeling of not being enough. When we think of another person having what we lack, we want to latch onto that person’s success in the hopes of owning some of it, or else see that person’s happiness diminished. We don’t even have to experience misfortune in our own lives to feel this way; we can want to see someone fail even when we are ostensibly doing well. The driving force is the deficiency we feel within.
The last brahmavihara is equanimity, upekkha. This is the ability to be with whatever comes up, to disattach oneself from outcomes. At first glance it may seem to negate the other three, which call for all-embracing good wishes, compassion in the face of suffering, and joy in the face of good fortune. Underlying all of these attitudes of mind, however, is the recognition that we do not control outcomes, and that good and bad things come to everyone.
The near enemy of upekkha is indifference, while the far enemy is panic and despair on the one hand and manic joy on the other. It is easy to confuse equanimity with a lack of caring. How can anyone be reconciled to the death of a child, or the tragedies that affect entire populations displaced by war or famine? How can a good person say “let it be” to monstrous cruelty? No matter how deep our practice, there will be circumstances that plunge us into overwhelming grief and pain. The point is not to no longer feel these things, but to be willing to feel them on behalf of ourselves and others. Having felt them, though, we go on; we do what is necessary, comfort ourselves and others, and above all not add any more than necessary to the weight of suffering in the world.
The Divine Abidings are a recognition that all beings desire happiness, regardless of their relation to us in life, and that our goal is to promote the sum of happiness in the world, and to diminish suffering. When we repeat phrases to ourselves—in the case of karuna, “may your suffering diminish, may it end,” and in the case of mudita, “May your good fortune continue, may it increase”—we are training the mind to turn to these thoughts automatically. We can think of them throughout the day as we encounter others, while express compassion for ourselves when we find we are feeling a sense of lack or depletion. The overriding recognition that things are as they are is what returns us again and again to inner peace.
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