This is the first of a three-part series on the brahmaviharas, which show us the way to a kinder, more compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. Read Part II: I’m So Happy For You and Part III: Calm Within.
How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special? What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?
All of us crave this kind of love and acceptance, but few can honestly say we offer ourselves such unconditional regard. The trouble is, if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find it difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way. And, perhaps even more unsettling to contemplate, if we are fortunate enough to find someone who accepts and loves us unconditionally, how can we be open to receiving that love from someone else if we haven’t fully accepted ourselves?
Unconditional love becomes possible when you practice cultivating the four states of mind known as the brahmaviharas. Collectively, these four qualities of friendliness or lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) are the qualities of true, authentic, and unconditional love. Both Patanjali, the Indian sage who compiled the Yoga Sutra in the second century BCE, and the Buddha taught the importance of cultivating these four states of mind.
Quieting the Mind
Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002), yoga master and founder of Integral Yoga, translates Yoga Sutra I.33, which addresses the brahmaviharas, as saying, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Satchidananda says that these qualities are the four keys to establishing the mind in serenity: “If you use the right key with the right person, you will retain your peace.” Cultivating these states of mind is a way of restraining or reversing what Patanjali calls vikshepa, the tendency of the mind to be distracted and outwardly directed. Patanjali tells us that when we react haphazardly or callously to what people do around us, inner disturbance is the result. These four attitudes combat that disturbance and bring us closer to a state of balanced equilibrium.
When we see happy people, cultivating a friendly attitude toward them will help forestall feelings of jealousy and envy. When we encounter those who are suffering, we should compassionately do what we can to help—for our own sake as much as for the person who is suffering. “Our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds. Whether our mercy will help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped,” Satchidananda says.
Appreciating and delighting in the qualities of virtuous people will inspire us to cultivate such virtues ourselves. And finally, when we are faced with those we deem nonvirtuous, the classical yoga tradition teaches that we should strive to have an indifferent attitude toward them. Often, we indulge in judging and criticizing those who we feel are misguided. This hardly helps us maintain a serene state of mind! Commentators in the classical yoga tradition point out that the yogi should not divert attention from his or her own practice in order to try to reform those who are unlikely to heed advice. As Satchidananda points out, “If you try to advise them, you will lose your peace.”
Many contemporary yogis interpret Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.33 more broadly. Chip Hartranft, an author and teacher of Buddhism and yoga, translates the sutra as saying, “Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant, unpleasant, good, or bad.” This broader view is the one emphasized in the Buddhist tradition, where the brahmaviharas are also known as “the Four Limitless Ones” and “the Four Immeasurables,” reflecting Buddhist yoga’s emphasis on social relationships and the interdependent nature of all beings. Both of these perspectives are valuable; reflecting on the intention and purpose behind each gives greater depth to our own practice.
Metta or Maitri (lovingkindness): Buddhist yoga, the word metta (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit maitri used by Patanjali) is most often translated as “lovingkindness.” Metta is related to the words for “gentle” (think of a soft, misty rain) and “friend,” and it signifies the good-natured, kind-hearted feeling we have for a close friend. It isn’t gooey and sentimental, nor is it possessive and clingy; it’s a gentle, loyal acceptance with a deep sense of appreciation and regard.
Karuna (compassion): Karuna is related to the word karma. It is the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering, to lighten sorrow. While the word karuna is generally “translated as “compassion,” which literally means to suffer with,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and teacher, has pointed out that we don’t need to suffer ourselves in order to alleviate the suffering of another person. Doctors, for instance, do not have to suffer illness in order to relieve their patients’ pain. The Buddha described karuna as the “quivering of the heart” we experience when we are open and able to truly see suffering and are moved to do something about it.
Mudita (joy): True love brings joy, and mudita is the joy we take in the simple pleasures of the breath or the eyes that enable us to see a child’s smile or the blueness of a clear sky, and the delight we take in watching a puppy play. When we love, joy seems to surround and pervade us.
Upekkha or Upeksha (equanimity): Finally, the word upekkha (or upeksha in Sanskrit), translated by those in the classical yoga tradition as “disregard” or “indifference,” is understood in the Buddhist yoga tradition as meaning “equanimity,” or the even-mindedness of nonattachment. True equanimity is neither indifference nor detachment. It is the ability to feel connection fully, without clinging or possessiveness. Upekkha is traditionally the last of the brahmaviharas we work with, and it is the one that allows us to deepen and extend the other three immeasurably, avoiding pitfalls like compassion fatigue, emotional burnout, and stifling codependence.
Begin with Yourself
In this article, the first of three exploring the brahmaviharas in detail, I will begin with an integrated approach to the first two, metta and karuna, which I often encourage students to combine into one seamless practice. When we practice metta and karuna, we start by cultivating a friendly, unconditional regard for ourselves, before attempting to cultivate the same for others.
This kind of radical self-acceptance can be challenging for those of us who have trouble feeling worthy or deserving of love. When we practice lovingkindness toward ourselves, we might come face-to-face with feelings of self-deprecation that we’ve been suppressing or ignoring, feelings that have been affecting our hearts and relationships unconsciously. I practice and teach metta and karuna together because it is often through opening to these suppressed feelings with compassion that a friendly, accepting love for ourselves and others can develop.
In the Buddhist yoga tradition, detailed instruction on the practice of cultivating the brahmaviharas has been maintained through the millennia, and the practice I teach is reflective of this tradition. To begin, seat yourself in a comfortable position. As a preliminary practice for metta bhavana (or cultivating metta), call to mind your own goodness, a time when you did or said something that was kind, generous, caring, or loving. This can be something as simple as offering your seat on the bus, or preparing your family a nourishing meal. If you can’t think of anything, turn your attention to a quality in yourself that you enjoy, a strength or skill that you can recognize and appreciate. If nothing comes to mind, you can simply reflect on the basic rightness of your innate wish to be happy. After settling in with the breath and the reflections of the preliminary practice, bring your attention to your heart center and acknowledge how it feels here—whether open and receptive or closed and defended, whether heavy or light. Open to how it feels, without judging, and simply witness and befriend the heart. Then begin to repeat the following metta phrases:
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be safe from harm.
May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind, and spirit.
If you experience any physical or emotional pain, or if any difficulty arises as you practice saying these, such as having feelings of unworthiness, anger, fear, or sadness, add in these phrases of karuna bhavana (cultivating karuna):
May I be free from suffering.
May I hold myself with softness and care.
May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May I be free from the suffering caused by greed (or anger, fear, confusion, and so on).
May I experience ease of body, mind, and spirit.
May I respond to suffering with compassion.
As you repeat these phrases to yourself, feel your breath and notice your body’s response to each phrase. Settle into the reverberations of each phrase as it echoes in your mind’s ear. You may find that you cannot connect with feelings of friendliness and compassion. It might feel mechanical to repeat the phrases, as if you’re being inauthentic. If it does, remember that sending love to a closed heart is still part of the practice, and that you can, as one of my teachers once said, “Fake it till you make it!” Just as you would in any other meditation practice, notice when the mind strays into story, memory, fantasy, or planning. When it does, simply let it all go and return to the practice.
After you express metta karuna to yourself as the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others, the next step is to direct these phrases to benefactors—those who have been good to you and for whom you feel respect and gratitude, such as parents, friends, teachers, or anyone else who has helped you in any way. After benefactors come beloved friends, a group that includes family members, lovers, friends, and animal companions. These are beings whom you already hold dear in your heart.
Sometimes, when working with these categories, I find it difficult to conjure up the image of just one benefactor or beloved friend. I feel that I have to make my heart bigger to make space for all the beings I love. And indeed, this growing awareness and appreciation of the love we already have is a great source of joy that we can access through this practice at any time. I like to allow the faces of the many loved ones I hold in my heart to arise in my mind’s eye, and then I address each person with a phrase or two, so as to really feel the connection between us.
The next step is to direct the phrases toward a neutral person, someone you have no strong feelings for one way or the other. Perhaps it’s someone you see around your neighborhood but do not know. When I first began to practice metta karuna, I was living in Brooklyn, and there was an older man who walked his dog down my street several times a day. I knew nothing of this man, and realized I had no strong feelings about him, so I chose him as my neutral person. And then a funny thing happened.
After several months, I realized I could no longer send him love as a neutral person. While I still did not know anything about him, I found that I had come to really care for him! When I brought up his image, I felt the familiar warmth of concern and kindness. He had moved into the “beloved friend” category.
After the neutral person, this practice challenges us to send metta karuna to a difficult person. This is someone toward whom you feel anger, fear, or a lack of forgiveness, someone you perceive as having hurt you in some way. It is important to be patient with yourself when sending love to a difficult person. Begin with the less challenging difficult people in your life; over time, you can work your way up to the really challenging difficult people. While practicing, if strong emotions arise, you may need to honor the limits of your present capacity and go back to directing love and compassion toward yourself. Go back and forth between yourself and the difficult person, reflecting on how much pain holding on to these feelings is causing you.
I had a student who had been estranged from his abusive father for nearly 30 years. After he directed metta karuna to himself for nine months, I suggested he begin to broaden his circle to include benefactors, loved ones, and neutral beings. After a few months of this, he began to consider the idea of sending metta karuna to his father.
Feelings of anger and resentment arose, so he’d go back to sending love to himself. In growing to accept his own reactivity with love and compassion, he eventually developed the capacity to send love and compassion to his father. Although his father is still a toxic person for him, my student has grown in inner peace, stability, and compassion. He still keeps his distance from his father—while love can be unconditional, relationships require conditions—but he now feels compassion and understanding, not fear and rage.
The final step in the practice is to direct metta karuna toward all beings. If you like, before doing this you can choose to send metta karuna to more specific groups of beings, such as those in prisons or those who are hungry, abused, or homeless. Don’t forget other species, as all beings wish to be happy and free from suffering just as you do. And that’s just where this practice ultimately takes us: to wishing that all beings everywhere, seen and unseen, great and small, are happy and free from suffering.
Metta Karuna on the Mat
As important as it is to practice metta karuna as a formal seated meditation, you also need to take it off the cushion into your life, and your asana practice can serve as a wonderful bridge. To bring metta karuna into your asana practice, recline in a gentle, supported backbend, with a rolled blanket or bolster supporting the lower tips of the shoulder blades, to encourage greater awareness of the heart center. Tune in to how you’re feeling as you start practice, not judging whether the heart is heavy or light, or whether you feel nourished or vulnerable in this position. Simply attend to how you are, and then set your intention for practice by repeating the phrases of metta karuna. As you move through your asana practice, if you’re practicing backbends, shoulder-opening stretches, and twists, you may find that a physically opened heart center allows for easier access to loving feelings. By mindfully moving through the poses, you can feel how the quality of the heart changes.
Your reactions to the sensations of asana practice can serve as a mirror for your deep-seated patterns. As you move into a more challenging posture, fear or anger might arise, and you can use that as an opportunity to send compassion and love to yourself. One student, after holding Vrksasana (Tree Pose) for a long time, noticed that she was irritated by the pins-and-needles feeling in her standing foot. Looking deeper, she saw that her aversion was not because the sensations were painful but simply because they were different. With wonder she noted, “This is how I react whenever I am confronted with difference, whether it’s a new situation or someone’s opinion about politics or religion.” In sending compassion to herself and her aversive reactivity, she was able to soften and, over time, become more accepting of other people’s differences. This is just one example of the freeing potential of boundless love!
Many students notice how critical their inner voices are as they move through their asana practice; without the focused awareness of mindfulness, they believe these voices. But when practicing with mindfulness and the intention to open the heart, they are able to nonjudgmentally note the voices and use them as “bells of mindfulness” to remind themselves of the metta karuna phrases.
Metta Karuna in the World
Off the mat and throughout the day, you can cultivate metta karuna by simply paying attention to all of the opportunities around you to do so. As you wait in line at the grocery store, you can send metta karuna to the others in line, the stock clerks, and the cashier. Walking down the street, you can send karuna to the homeless woman sitting beside her shopping cart. And if you notice that aversion arises when you see that homeless woman, you can send some karuna to yourself, as well.
I’d like to now share a practice that my students and I have found invaluable for transforming our relationships to all of the people and situations that life presents. The first thing every morning, set your intention to cultivate metta karuna throughout the day by reciting the following verse:
Waking this morning, I smile,
A brand-new day is before me.
I aspire to live each moment mindfully,
And to look upon all beings
With the eyes of kindness and compassion.
May you, and all other beings, be happy and free from suffering.