On the first Monday of the month, we have been practicing, one by one, in turn, the four Divine Abodes or Brahma Viharas, which characterize an awakened heart: love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Each of these qualities has what is called a “near enemy,” which might seem similar, but which lacks its basic essence.
In Bringing Home the Dharma, Jack Kornfield writes that understanding these near enemies reveals how spirituality can be misunderstood or misused, thus separating us from life—instead of connecting us with life.
The near enemy of metta, the first Brahma Vihara, is attachment, which masquerades as love, but communicates, “I’ll love you because I need you or if you love me back, and only if you will be the way I want you to be.”
Attachment is rigid and stems from fear and clinging. While love honors and appreciates others, attachment grasps, demands, and tries to possess.
Attachment is conditional and exclusive, offering love only to certain people in certain ways.
Loving kindness, or what the Buddha called metta, is a universal, non-discriminating feeling of caring and connectedness. It’s possible to love a person whose behavior we dislike, not condoning unskillful actions, but cultivating forgiveness for the person who committed them. The Buddha taught that hatred never ceases through hatred, but only through love. Metta is an antidote to hatred or ill will.
The near enemy of compassion or karuna, the second Brahma Viahara, is pity, which communicates, “That poor person. I feel sorry for people like that.” With pity, we feel different or separate from those who are suffering.
True compassion recognizes another person’s suffering as a reflection of one’s own pain. Karuna allows us to feel empathy and a mutual connection with life’s sorrow. Compassion shares suffering and wishes to alleviate it.
Another enemy of compassion is despair. Karuna does not involve immersing ourselves in someone else’s suffering to the point of anguish. With compassion, a tender heart is ready to respond to one’s own or another’s pain without despair, resentment or aversion. Compassion is an antidote to cruel thoughts.
The third Brahma Vihara, sympathetic joy or mudita, is the ability to feel joy about the happiness of others. The near enemy of shared joy is comparison. When we compare our amount of joy to that of someone else, we often feel jealous. Jealousy separates us from others and stems from the belief that there are limits to joy: “If others have joy, there may not be enough for me.”
Genuine shared joy is gladness about being alive, and an openhearted celebration of all life. With sympathetic joy, we delight in the success and happiness of all beings, wanting their happiness and our own to increase. Mudita is an antidote to comparing mind.
Equanimity or uppekha is the fourth Brahma Vihara. Its near enemy is indifference or callousness. We may appear serene if we say, “I’m not attached. It doesn’t matter what happens because everything is impermanent.” We can feel a measure of peace and relief by withdrawing from engaging with life’s experiences. But indifference stems from fear.
True equanimity does not entail withdrawal, but rather a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. Upekkha allows us to be open to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things. With equanimity, we can embrace the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the pleasure and the pain. Upekkha is an antidote to clinging and aversion.
As we practice the four Brahma Viaharas, we cultivate love instead of attachment, compassion instead of pity, joy instead of comparison, and equanimity instead of indifference. We learn to open to and accept the truth of each moment, to feel an intimate connection with all things, and to see the wholeness of life.
Tonight let’s practice compassion or karuna:
In compassion practice, we usually repeat two or three phrases.
There is a passive stage, during which we tune in and feel the suffering of other beings, and an active stage, when we send them compassion.
In a minute, I’ll read some short phrases to repeat silently. Whenever you catch your mind wandering, reconnect with the heartfelt meaning of the phrases, and continue concentrating on the recipient.
I care about your pain.
May you be free of suffering (sadness, fear, loss, illness).
May you find peace.
Now visualize yourself dealing with a painful situation. You may repeat the following phrases silently:
I care about my pain.
May I be free of suffering (sadness, fear, loss, illness).
May I find peace.
You may continue by sending compassion in turn to a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person. We will end by saying aloud the first names of people associated with our sangha who are experiencing especially challenging circumstances.