In Buddhism, the Four Brahmaviharas are the treasured mindstates cultivated by our mindfulness practice. They are considered the sublime abodes, the home of the enlightened mind. They are the resting place of compassionate awareness. And, as it turns out, they fit in perfectly with our ongoing Veil Metaphor, but certainly not in any of our veils of tangled thoughts and emotions!
Neither are the Brahmaviharas some distant destination at the end of an arduous journey to enlightenment. Instead, they are ever available here and now as we develop the healthy habit of gently and firmly returning our attention to this moment just as it is. These Sublime Abodes welcome us home after the exhausting chase our attention so often goes on, caught up in greed, aversion, and delusion. Letting the veils soften, settle, and fall away, we feel the welcome invitation to dwell in the very center of our radiant being.
The first of the four Brahmaviharas is Metta, infinite lovingkindness, which I have taught and written about regularly. I have also explored the second, Karuna, usually using its English name of compassion. But I’ve written much less about the last two, Mudita, sympathetic joy; and Upekkha, equanimity.
Why? Because until we truly experience the infinite quality of lovingkindness and compassion, unselfish joy and equanimity can’t find root. And when we come home to the first two, the last two follow. But knowing more about them helps us to recognize when they are missing from our experience and why.
Coming home to these sublime abodes is not an escape from life but a realignment or attunement with it, as we drop the veils that blind us to the true nature of being and recognize the interconnected and impermanent nature of existence. The Brahmaviharas give us greater stability of mind. We let go of the unhealthy habit of delving into tangled thoughts and isolating emotions that cause us to be unskillful. When our attention is entangled in one or more of the many veils our attention weaves about ourselves, other people, and the world, it’s impossible to access true Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha, only shallow imitations of them. For example:
Entangled in a veil, whatever kindness we manage is conditional, not the boundless lovingkindness of Metta. Instead, we act kind because of some thread in the story we tell ourselves, being nice out of a sense of duty, wanting to think we are a nice person and to have others see us that way, or giving well-wishing out as a reward to people we deem worthy of our effort to be kind. True Metta has no strings attached!
Entangled in a veil, whatever compassion we manage is conditional, not true Karuna. The veil version of so-called compassion depends on whether we relate to the person’s story, whether we see that they genuinely couldn’t help their situation, that they are a helpless victim. Then and only then will our harsh judgments quiet down, and we deem them worthy of an act of charity that we give from a safe distance, tainted with disdain. True Karuna knows there is no ‘other.’ We’re all intrinsic expressions of life loving itself into being and our compassionate actions, no matter their size, come from that deep knowing.
Entangled in a veil, it can be challenging to feel happy for someone’s good fortune, true Mudita, especially if they are experiencing something we want. We may be more likely to experience comparing mind and feelings of envy, wondering why they have what we want? And finding it unreasonable to be happy for them. And maybe even actively scheming to undermine their happiness or steal it, as if that would ever create happiness for us. Mudita is a lightening of the heart, a bubbling up of joy at the sight of someone being joyful. Because we are all interconnected, we all have access to joy. Not to another person’s stuff or relationships or position in life, but to the joy that abounds and is free for the noticing, even in life’s most challenging moments.
Entangled in a veil, we stumble around blindly, unable to find Upekkha, equanimity in life. Our view is inherently unstable and distorted. We are so lost in our worries, plans, deadlines, hopes, hunger, and hatred that we cannot find any sense of easeful balance in life. We may chase after escape routes or other unskillful ways to gain balance, but true Upekkha holds all life experiences in an open and loving embrace, and we can too when our attention is present, and our hearts are radiant and receptive.
So welcome home to the Four Brahmaviharas that arise from unveiling! Meditation practice, if done with wise intention and wise effort, brings our attention again and again to the radiant center of our being, where we feel our intrinsic interconnection with all life and unconditional lovingkindness for all life forms. Therefore, we treat all beings with respect and kindness without exception.
If we come upon suffering, we feel genuine compassion as that sense of interconnection activates our heart and mind to find creative ways to provide meaningful help to whatever extent we are able. Self-compassion reminds us that it’s not all up to us in most cases, but that together with others, we can make a difference.
If we come upon others experiencing joy, we recognize that joy is not finite. And we are not finite beings, limited to enjoying only what happens to this seemingly separate being we call ‘me.’ Unveiled from stories of longing and separate self, we find joy everywhere. Our attention is freed from the entangling emotions of ill will, competitiveness, having something to prove, envy, jealousy, and cold-heartedness. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are no longer strangled by the narrow view of a separate self, so they are not selfish, indifferent, preoccupied, or listless. Instead, we experience a bounteous and buoyant joy we may not have even known was possible, caught up as we were in such limiting views.
Sometimes life gets complicated! Our attention feels pulled in all directions. Upekkha comes to our rescue! With it, we can see the fleeting nature of experience. This, too, shall pass. And by being fully present instead of entangled in veils full of fear-based stories, we find we can expand our awareness to hold all that arises with the compassionate wisdom of equanimity.
Again and again, we return our attention to the center of our being, our true home, where we can rest and rejoice in the sublime abodes of Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha. The Four Brahmaviharas.
This is not an escape from life! This is connecting with life as it is, not as all the veils of tangled thoughts and emotions trip and trigger our attention into mistaking for reality. Fully present in this moment, anchored in awareness of pure sensation, all the veils having softened and settled, our attention return to our most natural mind state of lovingkindness, compassion, shared joy, and equanimity. Each of them feels as fresh as a breath of fresh air. And each of them welcomes us home.