Four ways to open the heart, and their evil twins!
Early Buddhism features four heart-opening practices, usually called the Brahmaviharas (which you'll sometimes see translated as Divine Abodes). The same practices also show up in Tibetan Buddhism as the Four Immeasurables. (The topic of heart opening is treated a little differently in Zen, which I'll probably discuss in a future article.) They actually seem to pre-date Buddhism, but are a central part of the early teachings, and an important asset on the meditative path.
I have a page on this website in the Early Buddhism section which describes the basic practice of the Brahmaviharas, so I won't repeat that material here - do check it out if you aren't familiar with them. What I'd like to do in this article is to dig a bit deeper into what the Brahmavihara practices are pointing to - how we, as 21st century people, can understand the sometimes strange and archaic language used to describe them, and how we can potentially miss the mark if we're not careful.
What the Brahmaviharas are and aren't
The Brahmaviharas are four qualities of the heart which can be cultivated through practice: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (resonant joy) and upekkha (equanimity). (See below for more on what these terms mean in practice.)
The key word here is 'cultivate'. These are practices, not moral commandments. The Buddha isn't saying 'you must be kind, compassionate, joyful and equanimous at all times or you're going straight to the Eight Hot Hells'. He's saying that these are good qualities to have - good both for you and for the people around you - and that it's a good thing to take active steps to cultivate those qualities, in just the same way that it's helpful to cultivate calm abiding (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana).
In particular, it's better not to try to force anything. Don't go around trying to be kind, compassionate and so forth - honestly, it's usually pretty obnoxious when someone decides to make a 'project' out of being compassionate towards you and won't leave you alone until you acknowledge how wonderfully open their heart is. Don't do that.
Instead, look upon the cultivation of these qualities as you would cultivate a garden. You have a certain practice - planting the seeds and watering them - which creates the initial and supporting conditions for the growth and ultimate flourishing of the plants, but you don't make the garden grow through sheer force of will, and it's actively unhelpful to keep digging up the garden to see if the plants have started to grow yet. It's much more effective simply to follow the practice of tending the garden, and let the results take care of themselves.
In the same way, through diligent meditation practice over an extended period of time, these heart qualities will shine forth in a natural, integrated way; you will find your behaviour becoming naturally kinder, more compassionate, more open to the good fortune of others, and more stable and balanced in the face of strong emotions and difficult situations. You don't have to 'force' anything - and in fact it's better not to.
Near enemies of the Brahmaviharas
There's a classic practice manual which is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism (the tradition which developed out of the teachings of early Buddhism) called the Visuddhimagga (literally 'Path of Purification'); the Visuddhimagga is the source for many of the meditation practices which these days are typically attributed to the Buddha himself, since the actual discourses in the Pali canon are generally not enormously detailed in terms of specific practice instructions. By comparison, the Visuddhimagga goes into incredible (and often tedious) detail about every little aspect of practice, so, although it's a bit of a dry read, it can be a very useful sourcebook for fleshing out aspects of the path which are of interest to you.
In the case of the Brahmaviharas, the Visuddhimagga gives us both the traditional practice instructions of using a sequence of people and phrases to evoke each Brahmavihara (as described on my Brahmaviharas page). It also gives us 'near enemies' for each quality.
The 'near enemy' of something is another quality which looks pretty similar, but is different in an important way which subverts the practice. For example, early Buddhism teaches that grasping leads to suffering, and that a kind of detachment towards worldly things can free us from this suffering. But this healthy 'detachment' - in which our sense of wellbeing is not so bound up in factors beyond our control - can easily turn into a kind of indifference or even callousness. My first Zen teacher told a story of a time when his son was very ill; he was understandably very concerned, but a fellow Zen practitioner explained to him rather loftily that 'your problem is too much attachment'. For the avoidance of doubt, this statement - even if it was well-intended - was neither helpful nor compassionate. It was a demonstration not of an appropriate detachment but a near enemy of it.
Now, I took a look at the near enemies of the Brahmaviharas listed in the Visuddhimagga - and, to be honest, some of them were pretty puzzling. I've heard it said that emotions were understood (and perhaps even experienced) differently in the time of the Buddha - we're facing a 2,500-year cultural gap. So, rather than attempt to tease some relevance out of the Visuddhimagga, I'm instead going to walk through each of the Brahmaviharas in turn and try to give a 21st century interpretation of what they are, and how they can become twisted into near enemies.
Of all the Brahmaviharas, this one probably has the most translations, as different teachers try to find ways that don't sound nauseatingly sappy to half their audience whilst retaining enough force to inspire the other half. 'Loving kindness' is the most common translation, and it's the one that I tend to use myself these days, although when I started teaching I would cringe every time I said it and would often simply say 'kindness' instead. (Even today, if I'm talking to a room full of sceptical people, especially men, I'll tend to say 'kindness'.)
Other translations include benevolence, friendliness, well-wishing. From this constellation of terms, we can start to get a sense of what metta is all about. The basic attitude is one of wishing people well - but not because we believe (or assume) that they're not doing well right now. There's no 'corrective' quality to metta. It's more like this: do you like to be happy? You probably do, right? It's a good thing to be happy. And so it would be a good thing for other people to be happy too.
(Credit to my teacher Leigh Brasington for this approach to explaining metta. It's the best I've found, by leaps and bounds.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of metta is greed, since 'both share in seeing virtues'. Meh. Personally, I see metta going wrong in a couple of ways.
One near enemy is a kind of 'faux niceness'. The person who always has a sugary compliment handy, often dressed up in 'spiritual' language so you can tell they're 'practising metta'. Such a person also often wants to tell you about all the wonderful things they've done which show off their strongly developed metta. Again, don't do this!
The other near enemy is to become a human doormat - never saying no to anyone. Metta is not about trying to 'like' everyone, and it isn't about being taken advantage of - it's about trying to relate to everyone, including the people we really don't like, with an attitude of kindness. The Thai Forest master Ajahn Sumedho uses the example of a belligerent, drunken person bursting into a meditation hall in the middle of a practice period, causing a ruckus and being generally obnoxious. It would be very difficult to like such a person in that moment - but you can still make the choice to respond with kindness (perhaps ushering the person out of the meditation hall in a tactful manner) rather than responding with cruelty (perhaps shouting, throwing things, mocking or attacking the person).
Pretty much everyone translates this one as 'compassion'. Sometimes you see 'empathy', but this term seems to mean wildly different things to different people (and is sometimes used as a very specific technical term), so I tend to stick with compassion.
The basic attitude of compassion is to recognise that suffering is a universal human experience. I suffer, you do too, and that will continue to be the case until we're dead or attain full, final enlightenment (which seems to be pretty difficult).
Compassion can be difficult to see and understand. Our heart's first, natural reaction to a situation is quickly obscured by the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on. An initial stab of self-compassion is replaced with either a tale of woe ('This isn't supposed to be happening to me!') or perhaps self-criticism ('I deserve this after what I did yesterday...'). But the basic attitude we're looking for is that initial flutter of the heart: this sucks! If metta is about how it's a good thing to be happy, compassion is the recognition that it's a bad thing to be unhappy, whether it's our own unhappiness or that of another.
The Visuddhimagga says that compassion has 'grief based on the home life' as its near enemy. Okaaaaay... There are two other options which - to me - seem much more common and problematic.
One near enemy is what we might call 'pity' - feeling sorry for that person over there, at a distance, perhaps with a subtle undercurrent of 'and I'm glad it isn't me!', or a judgemental quality ('well maybe he wouldn't be homeless if he didn't spend all his money on cigarettes'). True karuna is a recognition that suffering is part of the human condition; that which is in me which suffers is also within you. As our practice matures and the boundaries between self and other soften, we find ourselves responding more and more to 'suffering', as opposed to 'my suffering' or 'your suffering'.
Another near enemy is to allow our own discomfort in the face of someone else's pain to obscure what the situation actually needs. If a friend bursts into tears, we may feel anxious, conflicted or uneasy - and so might try to make the situation go away, telling them to 'cheer up' or distracting them with something irrelevant, not because that's what they need but because it makes us feel better. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is simply to be with someone in their moment of despair, not saying or doing anything at all, but equally not running away or pushing away the situation.
Mudita has almost as many popular translations as metta, but in the case of mudita it's because we don't really have the concept in the English language. Stephen Batchelor has described it as 'the opposite of schadenfreude' - if schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, mudita could be described as taking pleasure in the good fortune of others.
Personally, I like to look at mudita as the flip side of karuna/compassion. Both have a 'resonant' quality - and, in fact, you'll sometimes see mudita translated as 'resonant joy', 'sympathetic joy' or 'appreciative joy', to emphasise this way in which it emerges in response to something else. So if karuna is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering suffering - 'oh no, this sucks!' - mudita is the heart's instinctive reaction on encountering joy - 'yay, this is great!'
Again, the initial momentary flicker of mudita is often quickly squashed by stories - 'huh, that person always gets nice things, what am I doing wrong?', 'it's all right for some, isn't it?'. And there are lots of situations that might make a particular person happy which we wouldn't necessarily want to celebrate in this way - if, for example, someone experiences pleasure from hurting others, it seems a little strange to say 'Hooray, the torturer is happy!' (In practice, it's likely that compassion for the victims would be the dominant response in that kind of situation anyway.)
The Visuddhimagga says that the near enemy of mudita is 'joy based on the home life'. Again, meh. In this case, there aren't so many common misunderstandings, because mudita is so rarely taught these days - very often people say they're going to talk about mudita but then just talk about 'joy' in general, as opposed to this 'resonant' heart quality. But perhaps a near enemy might be harbouring a kind of jealous appreciation of others - 'Oh, isn't that nice for you? You're so lucky to have that when so many others don't!'
Equanimity is the usual translation of this one; sometimes you see 'equipoise' instead, but if you didn't know what to make of 'equanimity', 'equipoise' probably won't help much either.
Wikipedia describes equanimity as 'a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind'. (Near enemies of upekkha may be jumping out at you already.)
Equanimity can seem like the odd one out in this list. Loving kindness, compassion and resonant joy are all about experiencing emotions - being touched and moved by the situations we encounter in the world. Yet equanimity seems to be the opposite - being unmoved by what we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like developing equanimity might turn us into emotionless robots or mindless zombies.
But equanimity turns out to be key to the other three Brahmaviharas. Without equanimity, loving kindness can start to shade over into desire and grasping; compassion can quickly overwhelm us with the pain of others; and mudita can turn into a giddy, ungrounded mania. Equanimity is not at all about getting rid of emotions and becoming robotic - on the contrary, equanimity is actually what allows us to feel strong emotions without being swept away by them.
The Visuddhimagga says that 'ignorance' is the near enemy of equanimity, which sounds crazy until you interpret 'ignorance' as 'ignoring' - i.e. consciously turning away. Understood in this way, it's actually pretty good, although I would use the term 'indifference' to describe the mild version of this near enemy, and perhaps 'callousness' for its stronger manifestations. Equanimity gone wrong says 'Who cares?'; equanimity done well gives us the stability to say 'What should we do about this?'
Bringing it all together
Personally, I would say that all four Brahmaviharas represent naturally emergent qualities of an open heart. Loving kindness is the 'default' radiance of a heart which is not bound up in self-centred concerns; compassion and mudita are that heart's natural response to unhappiness and happiness respectively; and equanimity is the stability that holds it all together and allows us to feel these emotions deeply without losing our footing.
Please enjoy your Brahmavihara practice. It's good for you, and it's good for those around you too. What's not to like?
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.