In this third episode of my series on the Four Brahmaviharas, I briefly talk about how to use them in daily practice without setting them up as unattainable ideals. Then I discuss what tends to get in the way of unlimited compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and ways to work through those obstructions.
Overview of My Series on the Brahmaviharas
This is the third episode in my series on the Four Brahmaviharas, also known as the Divine Abidings: goodwill (Metta), compassion (Karuna), sympathetic joy (Mudita), and equanimity (Upekkha). (Personally, I like the translation of Brahmaviharas as “Sublime Social Attitudes” because they’re are all about our relationships with beings, including ourselves.) In this episode I briefly talk about how to use the Brahmaviharas in daily practice without setting them up as unattainable ideals. Then I discuss what tends to get in the way of unlimited compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and ways to work through those obstructions.
To briefly review what I’ve already presented about the Brahmaviharas: In the first part in the series, Episode 63, I defined each of the sublime attitudes, put them in the context of the rest of the Buddha’s teachings, and talked about why they’re valuable for deepening our spiritual practice as well as for harmonious relationships. I also discussed how the Four Sublime Attitudes work together and depend on one another – any one of them in isolation can actually be problematic – and how the key to their sublime nature lies in being able to extend them to all beings without exception.
In the second part of the series, Episode 66, I focused specifically on various ways to cultivate goodwill, or Metta, according to Buddhaghosa, a 5th century monk and author of the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification). I spent a whole episode on Metta for two reasons: First, Metta is generally considered the first Brahmavihara you should tackle. Goodwill is the most straightforward of the social attitudes, and frankly, if you don’t have goodwill, none of the other attitudes are either possible or positive.
Second, it was worth spending a whole episode on Metta because once you’re familiar with the very thoughtful and deliberate ways of cultivating it suggested by Buddhaghosa, it’s pretty easy to generalize the same basic approach to the next three Brahmaviharas. In fact, in the chapter of the Visuddhimagga on the Divine Abidings, Buddhaghosa writes specifically about Metta for many pages, but only devotes about a fifth that number of pages to the next three Brahmaviharas combined. I could be wrong, of course, but I imagine Buddhaghosa figured that if we’ve worked our way through his instructions around cultivating goodwill, we’ll be able to apply similar creativity and discipline to compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
Extending the Brahmaviharas Unconditionally, to Everyone
Finally – that is, before I delve into today’s topic – I talked a lot in previous episodes, including Episode 65 on Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist, about how and why it’s so important to work on making the Brahmaviharas unlimited. That is, the spiritual aspect of these social attitudes is to extend them beyond the beings for whom we spontaneously and easily feel them. We all experience goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity sometimes, toward some people. What’s instructive and transformative is exploring the limits of our ability to extend the Brahmaviharas to certain beings, because that limit is all about our attachment to views and concern for self – things we’re meant to explore and let go of in order to reduce suffering and manifest greater wisdom and compassion.
“But what about people who are doing harm?” many of us immediately think when we’re told to extend the Brahmaviharas to everyone. As I discussed in Episode 65, extending the Sublime Social Attitudes toward someone does not in any way impede our taking necessary actions to protect or take care of self or other. In fact, holding such attitudes make our actions wiser and more effective. In addition, our practice with the Brahmaviharas, ironically, doesn’t have to start with doing it for the benefit of others (especially people we resent or fear). We make the Sublime Attitudes more and more unlimited in order to free our own hearts.
Because of the previous discussions, then, I’ll start today’s episode with the assumption that you’re open to the idea of making your Brahmaviharas unlimited.
Brahmaviharas as Tools for Practice
As I mentioned earlier, in today’s discussion of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, I’m going to leave behind the specific, directed practices of Buddhaghosa and talk about working with the Sublime Social Attitudes in less formal ways, in the midst of our everyday practice. It’s possible to use the Brahmaviharas as reference points or mirrors when cultivating awareness and understanding of our own experience. Or, alternatively, as points of inquiry. For example, if you aspire to extend a Brahmavihara toward an individual, or a group of people, but you’re not feeling it, what’s behind your resistance? Or, if you can’t even bring yourself to aspire to extending an attitude like sympathetic joy, for example, toward someone you resent or fear, what thoughts arise in justification of this? And what happens when you’re able to extend a Sublime Social Attitude beyond your comfort zone?
Using the Brahmaviharas as practice tools in this way is much like the way we use the moral precepts or the paramitas (or perfections: generosity, morality, forbearance, diligence, concentration, and wisdom). Rather than adopting these kinds of ideals as standards against which we judge ourselves, or as goals to attain, we regard them as descriptions of enlightened behavior. Part of us knows how a Buddha or a saint would act in a given situation. We can picture it. As the Christian bible verse from Corinthians says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” The Buddha said “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
Even when we hold on to our anger, resentment, and judgment, part of us knows better. This is why, when I practice with ideals like the Brahmaviharas, I think of them as pointing toward my own Buddha nature, or my own aspiration and internal wisdom. They’re not something imposed from the outside in order to make us feel inadequate, they’re reminders of how much more intimate and expansive our life could potentially be.
This brings us to the second Brahmavihara, compassion, or Karuna. As I mentioned in the first episode of this series, Ajahn Thanissaro says compassion is what arises when you have goodwill for someone and you witness them suffering. The English word “compassion” derives from a Latin word, compassio, meaning “suffer with,” which suggests an empathetic resonance where someone else’s suffering actually makes us suffer to some extent. While empathetic sorrow or pain on another’s behalf reflects the Buddhist teaching that there’s no inherent separation between self and other, Buddhist compassion doesn’t necessarily have to have an emotional quality to it. Especially when we balance it with another Brahmavihara, equanimity, compassion can simply be a sincere wish for someone’s suffering to be relieved.
Ironically, even though goodwill is the foundational Brahmavihara, compassion is often easier for us to feel. When we see someone in pain or difficulty, most of us do feel an empathetic response which helps open our hearts to them and allows us to also feel goodwill toward them. A classic example of this is when a person gets injured in public; suddenly strangers – who moments before were completely indifferent – will jump to assist with great warmth and unrestrained goodwill. We also easily feel compassion for loved ones or even strangers who are suffering through no fault of their own.
Two things make compassion much more difficult to extend to someone: 1) A sense they’re to blame, at least in part, for their own situation, especially if they don’t seem ready or able to change, and 2) When they have inflicted – or continue to inflict – harm on others.
When we think someone’s responsible for, or significantly contributing to, their own suffering, our compassion is often dampened because we feel it’s not “doing any good,” or because it’s not deserved. While it’s natural for these kinds of thoughts to arise in us, they reflect a misunderstanding about the nature of compassion as a Sublime Attitude. We’re not extending compassion to someone in order to get a result, and compassion is not a reward people have to earn through their behavior. Instead, spiritual compassion is unconditional. Not matter what their behavior, when a being is suffering, they’re suffering.
In order to get over compassion stinginess or exhaustion, there are (at least) two things we can do. We can expand our sense of what’s causing someone’s suffering to include their own mindset and behavior. When you call such a person to mind and think, “May you be free from suffering,” go ahead and include a wish for them to learn, grow, mature, and break free from negative habits and addictions. We can also unlock our compassion by tapping into equanimity to take an even larger perspective, and recognize all beings ultimately have to make their own choices, and it takes a long time to work through difficult karma. Our wish is for said person to be free from suffering, no matter how long that takes. It can be challenging to let go of expectations or timelines but still extend our compassion.
When our ability to feel compassion for someone is blocked because of the harm they are inflicting on others, things can get a little trickier. Many of us hold on to a belief, consciously or not, that extending compassion to such a person will only encourage them. In other words, we believe withholding goodwill and compassion will have somehow have a positive effect and convince the person to stop what they’re doing. Of course, this doesn’t actually work. When we respond to someone’s suffering with indifference or even take satisfaction in it, we only alienate or anger the suffering person while corrupting our own minds and hearts.
As I mentioned in Episode 65, we have to explore how to extend compassion to someone who’s causing harm while still taking whatever measures are necessary to end or mitigate the harm they’re doing. This really is possible. People who actively work to make the world a better place and manage to avoid burning out usually have found a way to act without hatred and anger. They act according to their consciences without sacrificing compassion, because they differentiate real compassion from accommodation or passivity. Compassion can actually manifest as fierceness in certain circumstances.
It can help to imagine how someone causing harm to others is actually suffering inside, whether they currently realize it or not. Despite appearances, they may be deluded, fearful, cut off, lonely, repressed, or in denial. This does not in any way excuse their harmful actions, but according to the Buddhist view they’re not escaping the consequences of those actions even if that appears to be the case when you view the situation from the outside.
Even when you contemplate all of this it may still be difficult to extend compassion to certain people, so you might try an approach I’ve used. I picture the subject of my resentment walking by me, and then stumbling and falling. I try to imagine the instinctive, compassionate response that would most likely arise within me. I can’t think of anyone I hate so much that I would be unmoved by their immediate, simple suffering as they fell and hit their knee. Ultimately, goodwill and compassion are about recognizing all beings are fundamentally like me: They want to avoid pain and seek happiness.
That brings us to Mudita, or sympathetic joy. According to Thanissaro, sympathetic joy arises when we feel goodwill for someone and we witness them experiencing happiness or good fortune. This Brahmavihara is often more difficult for people to grasp than compassion because you can imagine why it’s important to feel compassion (so you’re motivated to help others), but what’s so important about feeling happy about someone else’s happiness? Especially if the feeling doesn’t arise spontaneously? Why work on extending sympathetic joy to all beings or situations? As someone at my Zen center recently put it, “Why should I feel glad some neighbor just got new countertops?”
Again, Brahmavihara practice starts with opening our own hearts, more or less for our own sake. It’s not so much about how sympathetic joy is going to benefit the neighbor with new countertops; after all, he’s doing fine. It’s more about noticing and letting go of what’s getting in the way of our sympathetic joy, which should arise naturally if we feel sincere goodwill for someone and witness them experiencing happiness.
It’s helpful to me to imagine myself feeling unconditional sympathetic joy for a child who’s just accomplished a task like brushing her teeth all by herself for the first time. The child smiles with pride and raises her arms in triumph and excitement. In an uncomplicated way, I think and feel, “Yay! Good for you!” That’s pure sympathetic joy, the generous, connected, and friendly attitude that it’s theoretically possible to feel for anyone when they experience a success or reason for joy.
However, a whole lot of things get in the way of sympathetic joy in just about any circumstance more complicated than the example of witnessing a child’s innocent pleasure. We consider whether someone’s joy is deserved, or wonder why they’re experiencing better fortune than we are. We judge whether their joy is silly or merited, shallow or deep, material or spiritual (compared, of course, the things we take joy in). Are people looking down on us because we don’t have a similar reason to rejoice? Envy, jealousy, judgment, and comparison impede our natural sympathetic joy, and all of these things are negative internal habits we greatly benefit by letting go of. Alternatively, maybe you can’t really care less about someone’s good fortune because they’re not important to you. In that case what’s missing is an extension of goodwill beyond the people directly relevant to your own life.
To extend our sympathetic joy further and more often, it helps to recognize the self-centered thoughts that get in the way. When you witness someone’s success or happiness, watch what happens in your body and mind. Chances are good you immediately start thinking about numero uno even if you smile and congratulate someone. Someone’s engaged to be married but you’re all alone. Or you know they’re silly to be so excited about getting married because marriage ends up being miserable. Or you wonder whether they’re feeling one-up with respect to you as you think desperately about something can report from your life that would be comparable.
Then try to put your self concern aside. Or, on a more positive note, shift your attention and concern to the other person. Without envy, jealousy, judgment, or comparison, just witness the person’s joy. Remember what it’s like to feel joy. And try to have some faith that joy and happiness aren’t limited commodities like the material resources we often tie them to.
Before I leave the subject of sympathetic joy, I should say something about extending it to that favorite class of people, those who have caused, or continue to cause, harm to others. This is really, really tough. We may be too spiritually mature to actually wish harm on an enemy, but at least we don’t have to wish for them to be rewarded! This is another case where it helps to take a larger perspective. We know real happiness and joy helps to soften and support people. If a harmful person experiences good fortune and love, perhaps they will become a little less inclined to continue their negative behaviors. At the same time, we may recognize how greater wealth or power isn’t actually going to increase said person’s long-term happiness, so when we see them taking joy in such things we can at least wish for them real happiness in the future.
And so we come to the last Brahmavihara, equanimity, or Upekkha. This Sublime Attitude is a little different in nature from the other three, which you can see as positive emotions arising out of a sense of connection and comradery with other beings. Equanimity, on the other hand, is a balancing and sometimes even cooling attitude. At times people think this ideal is more or less synonymous with indifference, or just not being moved by the fortunes of others, or by anything. It might not be so clear how equanimity might be a beneficial “social” attitude.
Bhikku Bodhi explains this beautifully:
“The real meaning of [upekkha] is equanimity, not indifference in the sense of unconcern for others. As a spiritual virtue, upekkha means equanimity in the face of the fluctuations of worldly fortune. It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings. True equanimity is the pinnacle of the four social attitudes that the Buddhist texts call the ‘divine abodes’: boundless loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. The last does not override and negate the preceding three, but perfects and consummates them.”
Experientially, we know our concern for others, no matter how positive or unlimited, can end up being overwhelming, exhausting, distressing, or depressing. Sincere goodwill, compassion, and sympathetic joy are noble, but inevitably beings suffer and meet difficulty – if only when they encounter old age, disease, and death. These first three Brahmaviharas alone can be unsustainable because if we’re too wrapped up in the changing fortunes of life, we’ll be on an emotional roller coaster. We can end up closing our hearts back up because it’s takes too much out of us to keep them open.
Equanimity is what gives us the ability to remain strong and keep our hearts open no matter what happens. It’s difficult to describe the experience of this Brahmavihara, so what springs to my mind is a bunch of metaphors and descriptions, none of which exactly nail it: Keeping the largest possible perspective, creating a bigger container to hold everything, taking refuge in the unconditional truth of our lives, finding ground to stand on that doesn’t depend on anything…
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how to we cultivate equanimity? To some extent we can obtain greater equanimity with experience and maturity. We see dramas play out over and over, we witness good fortune come and go in our life and in the lives of others, we know first hand how much everything changes. It actually becomes difficult to get too excited or upset about things because you see them from a larger perspective.
There’s a deeper equanimity we can cultivate, though, and it’s intimately tied to our spiritual practice. Over time, we aim to become more and more personally familiar with the Ineffable. As I discussed in Episode 8, this is the Divine, or God, or That Which Is Greater, or the Dharmakaya. Whatever words you want to use to point to it, it’s the indescribable aspect of existence which permeates everything and makes it infinitely precious, just the way It is.
Lately, I’ve been describing this Ineffable preciousness this way: Imagine a close human relationship you have or had, complete with its imperfections – hurts, resentments, disagreements, things unsaid, irritations, etc. When you’re faced with losing that person, what happens? Chances are, the relationship suddenly seems extremely precious and the imperfections seem utterly irrelevant. It’s not that the flaws and problems are gone or no longer true, it’s that they don’t in any way obstruct the preciousness of the relationship. That’s the kind of shift in perspective we can have with respect to our whole lives, intimately experiencing their unconditional value. This gives us equanimity, because that unconditional value is something we can rely on even when we, or other beings, are facing great suffering.
The only way I know of to cultivate this deeper kind of equanimity is through spiritual practice, whether you call it that or not. We become more and more intimate with the Ineffable by exploring, studying, questioning, opening, and letting go. All of those Buddhist practices that may seem to be aimed at self-development and self-liberation – like meditation and cultivating insight – actually come around to strengthening our equanimity. And then equanimity, the pinnacle of the Four Sublime Social Attitudes, helps us more fully and skillfully manifest goodwill, compassion, and sympathetic joy.
 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 New International Version (NIV)
 Dhammapadda, Chapter 1 verse 5 (https://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/scrndhamma.pdf)
 “Toward a Threshold of Understanding”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_30.html .