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.

Continue reading “Brahma Viharas for Activists”

Using the Brahma Viharas to work with their near enemies

I recently spent 8 days at a retreat on the topic of the Brahma Viharas (also known as the Four Divine Abodes, or the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism), which are:

  1. Metta = Loving Kindness / Goodwill;
  2. Karuna = Compassion (…arises when we meet suffering with metta);
  3. Mudita = Joy (…arises when we meet happiness, good fortune, or positive qualities with metta); and
  4. Upekkha / Equanimity (…arises when we meet change or impermanence with metta).

We also covered the so-called “near enemies” of each brahma vihara, which can arise when we tend toward self-centeredness or see ourselves as separate from others:

  1. Metta / Loving kindness can turn into a kind of possessive love or attachment to a particular path for them (eg going from genuinely wanting the best for someone, to believing you know specifically what is best for them);
  2. Karuna / Compassion can turn into grief or overwhelm;
  3. Mudita / Joy can turn into a sense of intoxication with one’s own or another’s joyful situation; and
  4. Upekkha / Equanimity can turn into indifference or apathy.

The most powerful part of the retreat for me was a practice in which we were encouraged to use a specific brahma vihara to “lift up” each of the near enemies as they came up, in a particular sequence.

  • If you start to get too attached to a person or an outcome, compassion can help you remember that they are on their own journey;
  • If you’re getting overwhelmed with your own suffering (or someone else’s, or the suffering of the entire world), you can reflect on people’s positive qualities or the positive aspects of the situation;
  • If you become so intoxicated with someone else’s choices, positive qualities, or way of being that start wanting some aspect of their life for yourself, you can cultivate a sense of contentment with your own path;
  • If you find yourself becoming apathetic or nihilistic because you’re taking “accepting things as they are” to an extreme, a dose of loving kindness can rekindle your sense of care.

Here’s my best attempt at a diagram to describe this practice. May it serve those of us who would like to cultivate a bit more connectedness in a world full of forces that would like us to believe we are separate from each other.

Brahma Viharas + Near Enemies.jpg