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:
- Metta = Loving Kindness / Goodwill;
- Karuna = Compassion (…arises when we meet suffering with metta);
- Mudita = Joy (…arises when we meet happiness, good fortune, or positive qualities with metta); and
- 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:
- 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);
- Karuna / Compassion can turn into grief or overwhelm;
- Mudita / Joy can turn into a sense of intoxication with one’s own or another’s joyful situation; and
- 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.