The Brahmaviharas are one of the many jewels of yoga that don’t get a lot of air-time. They don’t make for good Instagram posts, and repeated flowing sequences don’t have a lot of impact on them. Nonetheless they are part of our yoga journey, if we’re curious and open-minded.
Yoga helps with stress. It helps us breathe better. It helps us touch your toes so that we can continue to tie our shoes as we age. But if we were to ask a traditional guru, he or she would say that the point of yoga is to quiet the mind so that the pure and universal awareness that we all contain and connect to can shine through. Traditionally, yoga had less to do with physical exercise and much more to do with transcending our self-centred view of the world. Many tools were developed by the yogis to help reach this aim. One such tool are the four aspirations known as the Brahmaviharas.
The Brahmaviharas show up in the Yoga Sutras (1.33) and also in Buddhist and pre-Buddhist texts (e.g., the Upanishads). They are behaviours we are meant to embody. The word Brahmavihara translates into English as “abodes of the divine” but they are sometimes referred to as the four immeasurable or limitless qualities. Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, describes them in a way that includes “near enemies” and “far enemies.” The near enemy means that you’re in the right territory but are missing the target. The far enemy is the opposite of the quality we are trying to absorb and enact. If you’re confused stay with me; examples will help.
The first quality is called “metta” and is translated as “loving kindness.” Metta is a characteristic that takes work to cultivate, and often that means confronting our own greed, anger and delusion. Traditional metta meditations start with cultivating loving kindness towards ourselves, and then expanding the practice outward in ever widening circles. When the Dalai Lama says “My religion is kindness,” it is this practice he is referring to. Metta is the opposite of tribalism and requires a willingness to let go of our biases and prejudices. As much as we love our memes about kindness on facebook, cultivating metta for people we don’t like is demanding and difficult.
The near enemy of loving kindness is attachment and self-involvement. For example, I will be kind as long as I get appreciation and rewards, and I will also demand that the recipient of my kindness will behave the way I expect her to. The far enemy of metta is hatred. I think we all know of people personally or politically who get under our skin so completely that we can’t abide even hearing their voice. This is where the hard work begins.
The second Brahmavihara is maitri or compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with.” To practice compassion means opening yourself up to intimacy and open-mindedness. It also means being willing to provide companionship and caring without judgment, and without ideas about “fixing” someone.
The near enemies of compassion are pity, overwhelm, and idiot compassion. Pity implies looking down your nose at someone’s pain from the safety of your secure and superior place in the world. Pity creates separation between you and the other. Overwhelm is the opposite: you become so enmeshed that you lose all perspective and thus also lose your ability to be useful. Idiot compassion describes a situation where a well-meaning person showers love and limitless resources onto a person who repeatedly takes advantage of or abuses them. The far enemy of compassion is cruelty: deliberately hurting someone.
The third quality is mudita and it means to be joyful for someone else. Mudita is the feeling we experience when we witness a breath-taking Olympic performance, and we’re thrilled for the athlete regardless of which country they came from. The near enemy of mudita is over-excitement or euphoric behaviour. In the example above that might translate into celebrity worship or stalking the athlete in question. In this case the mudita has a clinginess to it and proliferates beyond the relevant moment. Living vicariously through others might be viewed as mudita gone awry. The far enemy of mudita is envy. Rather than feel happy for the other, we feel sad or angry that they have something we don’t.
Upekkha translates into English as equanimity, and means the ability to tolerate the ups and downs of life without clinging or aversion. Equanimity requires both mental and emotional flexibility. When we’re grief-stricken we do the work of mourning. When we win the lottery we recognize that money comes and goes, and it won’t solve all of our problems. The near enemy of equanimity is indifference or detachment. People who are nihilistic and say that nothing they do matters, or those who believe they’ve transcended the need to participate in relationships or worldly events are caught up in the near enemy of equanimity. The far enemy of equanimity is prejudice, ideological rigidity, and fear. Equanimity is required to go with the flow of change and uncertainty, and to accept both the highs and lows that life brings.
So other than being sourced in yoga-related texts how do these four Brahmaviharas connect to yoga practice? The good news is that we can apply them literally, figuratively, and also as a koan or a riddle (a subject for a future blog). The bad news is that we have to be in relationship with other people to do this work.
Embodying the four Brahmaviharas isn’t terribly hard when we’re away on retreat or on vacation, but in our everyday life we have to practice, fail, make adjustments and repeat. In the end, it’s no different than any other goal. We just help each other muddle along and celebrate the wins when we get them.
PS Would love to hear your thoughts on these. Which one resonates the most for you? Which one is the biggest struggle?