Brahma Viharas for Activists

A couple of years ago I wrote about the Brahma Viharas (aka the Four Divine Abodes, aka the Four Immeasurables) and their Near Enemies. If you’ve never heard of these concepts, I highly recommend that post as a more thorough introduction and overview of what they’re all about.

If you’re already somewhat familiar with them, here’s a quick table outlining the Brahma Viharas and their Near Enemies, the latter representing what can happen when we get a bit self-centered vs focusing on others, even if we start out coming from a good place. This table also shows the Antidotes, or the Brahma Vihara we might want to bring into our practice if one of the Near Enemies starts to take over.

Brahma ViharaNear EnemyAntidote
Metta / LovingkindnessAttachment to a person or a particular outcomeKaruna
Karuna / CompassionGrief, overwhelm, or despairMudita
Mudita / Sympathetic JoyIntoxication with someone else’s good fortune, choices, or life pathUpekkha
Upekkha / EquanimityIndifference or apathyMetta

And here’s diagram I created to show the same thing, highlighting in a more visual fashion the interplay between each of the Brahma Viharas… noting also the dynamic between interdependence / care / connectedness (toward the outside edge of the diagram) and self-centeredness / ego-clinging (toward the inside of the diagram):

I created another, more personal version of the same diagram after realizing how regularly I cycle through this exact pattern when it comes to social justice issues:

In my better moments, I find myself at the top right in the land of Metta: filled with a sense of kindness that emanates outward to all beings, omitting none.

But often, particularly when I’m faced with news of the latest injustice — someone has been attacked because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation, for instance, or I perceive some community I’m a part of as not being as inclusive as they could be, for instance — my sense of lovingkindness starts to decay into Metta’s Near Enemy. I can become quite attached to views about how people SHOULD behave, how they SHOULD treat each other, how justice SHOULD be enacted, etc.

According to this system, that’s when I need to bring in the next Brahma Vihara: Karuna, or Compassion. Not only for the beings that I perceive as being oppressed and marginalized, as I mention in this diagram, but also for their oppressors, or the people who are behaving in less-than-inclusive ways, whether due to hatred or just plain old ignorance.

(To be clear, having compassion for people who are harassing or committing crimes, etc, against others does not need to equate to being complicit, or letting them off the hook! I just need to watch that I’m able to choose when and how to hold them accountable, without resorting to unskillful behavior myself.)

I’ve noticed that when I focus on the experiences of the less fortunate, I can get so overwhelmed with emotions of helplessness and grief that I tend to bypass them entirely. It can feel like I can drop straight from Compassion into the very familiar territory of Indignation. I get SO ANGRY that people aren’t looking out for the less fortunate… or that people aren’t looking out for ME in particular, by catering to MY every need as a person of marginalized identity x,y, or z. (I know I know, an unreasonable expectation, but one I fall into regularly.) This is Righteous Anger territory. It usually feels justified, but it’s rarely a very skillful state of mind.

According to the Brahma Viharas practice, whenever these particular Near Enemy scenarios arise, Mudita (Joy) is what I need to cultivate. I’ve found it helps to bring to mind and celebrate those who are really doing the Good Work in whatever area I’m fretting over. Who would have handled this situation really well? Who are my role models and heroes? Who do I wish were by my side right now? Which of their qualities do I really admire? When I can acknowledge and celebrate all the good work that’s already being done, I’m less likely to get stuck in despair or indignation for long.

There is, however a Near Enemy to this Mudita. When I’ve slipped away from Joy, and that sense of connectedness, I fall right into Intoxication with the Cause. I start believing that I am isolated, without any support at all, and therefore I need to BECOME my role models, to take up the baton and run with it. Alone. “I’m the only one here who seems to notice this awful thing happening, so clearly I’m the only one who can fix the problem right now.” As if I had any hope of solving issues like racism, gender normativity, or insitutional colonialism / whiteness on my own! (Talk about self-centeredness!)

And whatever actions I take from this “savior” position are usually quite unskillful. My sudden need to “right a wrong” blinds me to the impact of my tone, or the inappropriateness of my timing. I can get really impatient, interrupting and/or raising my voice at people who I believe have stepped over some line, or even people who are on “my side” just because they happen to be nearby when I’ve gotten riled up.

It’s at time like this that I try to practice bringing in Upekkha, or Equanimity. This requires remembering I have a body and getting out of my head. I need to be able to pause, take a look around, and take stock of my surroundings. Deep breaths help.

Then I can remember: the problems I’m witnessing or experiencing are big, bigger than me, and certainly bigger than anything I can “fix” on my own. It’s taken generations, if not centuries, for these injustices to get to the state they’re in now. Whatever my role is, it will probably be a lot more effective if I can first take a moment (or a month) to really feel my own sadness, hurt, and grief… rather than acting impulsively, out of anger. My actions will be more impactful if taken in collaboration with the actions of others, with sensitivity to conditions and context, and connected with a larger whole. My actions may not even need to be external actions at all; the best thing I might be able to do in any situation might be to work on my own mindset!

If I’m not careful, however, my attempts at Equanimity can veer into its Near Enemies of Indifference and Apathy. This is the land of justifications like, “Whelp, there’s nothing I can do about this unethical situation, I might as well benefit from it along with everyone else.” Or: “Hm, another day, another terrible atrocity, oh well, I guess this is just the new normal, no need to get upset about it.”

When I hear myself making excuses to NOT feel, or to let myself so far off the hook (even if it’s the name of self-care) that I become part of the problem… then it’s time to go back to the beginning of this cycle, and focus on cultivating a sense of Metta again. There is no difference between “self” and “other.” I can wish that all beings be free from suffering, regardless of what side of any issue they may be on.


Of course this cycle is a lot more fluid and dynamic than I’ve made it out to be here. If I remember to practice in this way at all, I spend a lot more time in certain areas than others. And some Brahma Viharas are a lot easier for me to practice than others. (Practicing Compassion for myself without stooping to wallowing in self pity? Actually feeling my challenging feelings without jumping straight into trying to fix things? Let me know how you’ve managed those!)

Overall, I’ve really appreciated having a map like this to help me identify and name patterns that I’ve noticed, and a set of tools to help me navigate my way through the spots where I tend to get stuck. I offer thanks to my teacher Ratnavyuha for introducing me to the Brahma Viharas in the first place. And I hope that this explanation of how I work with them may inspire you to get to take up a similar practice as well.

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