Category Archives: Four Brahmaviharas

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

Uppekka – Be like the sky!

The fourth of the Four Brahma Viharas is Uppekka, the ability to hold all that passes through our current experience with equanimity.


When something delightful and something sorrowful are happening at the same time, the ability to hold it all in an open embrace is such a blessing! But for most of us it is very difficult to imagine. I remember a woman saying she didn’t know how she could attend her daughter’s wedding with joy when her lifelong closest friend was in the last stages of dying in a nearby hospital. She felt completely split, pulled in both directions. She felt guilty for not being completely there for her daughter and guilty for not being completely there for her friend. There was no escaping the discomfort of her thoughts and emotions.


As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with the grace of uppekka that we are able to hold them. How? That is our exploration today.


Each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality for me. (It may have for others but I haven’t heard or read about it from any other teachers.) As previously mentioned, metta (loving-kindness) is radiant like the sun, karuna (compassion) is solid, present and receptive like the earth. Mudita (sympathetic joy) could be likened to dancing sparkling water, reflecting back all that is near it, and flowing without any sense of obstacle. Now here we are at uppekka, and I would liken it to the sky. The sky can hold clouds, rainbows, thunderstorms, and snow all at the same time within its spacious expanse. The sky holds it all, whatever it is, with equanimity. The sky is still the sky.


Try to imagine the sky dealing with clouds and other phenomena in a more typically human way: running away, avoidance through distraction, either over-efforting or getting lost in the pursuit of pleasure, turning its back on it all, throwing up its hands, falling apart, turning to drugs to numb itself, etc. Ridiculous, isn’t it? For the sky, and for us as well.


We can be like the sky. Whatever arises in our experience, we can expand in our ability to hold it in an open embrace. With attention, with tenderness, with compassion, but without clinging or grasping.


For example, a daughter’s wedding happening the very week a friend is dying. How do we do it? Like the sky! We attend each moment — whether at the betrothal or at the bedside — with our fullest possible attention, anchoring into physical sensation as we do in meditation and any time we want to bring ourselves fully present.


While at the wedding, we probably at times notice threads of thought and emotion streaming through our field of awareness. They arise and fall away, ebb and flow: Thoughts of the friend, memories of times together, sadness at the thought of losing future moments. Natural thoughts to have, natural emotions to experience. But as we anchor into physical sensation to be present in the moment, we find we are able to experience thoughts without getting lost in them.


Most commonly people want to know how they can ‘get rid of thoughts’ that will take them out of the present moment. Uppekka is the answer, but it points up the error in the question itself. It answers the deeper need. We don’t ‘get rid’ of anything. We use our meditation practice to expand our ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious way. We anchor into physical sensation to be present as much as possible, but if there is something else going on, thoughts and feelings may very well arise. We see them, note them, send metta, loving-kindness, to the person or situation that keeps coming up in our awareness. We do this even as we maintain full awareness of physical sensation, including the sights and sounds of our current experience. But if we have lost our attention to it, we simply reset our intention to be present, to follow the breath, etc. We create space. We don’t get entangled in judgment. And when we do, we reset our paired intentions to be present and compassionate. These two activities together create uppekka, the ability to hold all of our experience with equanimity.


There is a shift of consciousness that happens as we develop a steady meditation practice. With Wise Intention, Wise Effort, and Wise Concentration, a quality of Wise View will naturally arise. Instead of believing yourself to be tiny and separate tossed about by the sea of thought and emotion, swallowing, choking and feeling you are drowning; you come into a sense of infinite connection and spaciousness. A quality of Wise Mindfulness will arise: You are the sky that holds all experience, spacious and alive with equanimity. Not just when the sun is shining or the clouds are cute and fluffy. You can hold the hurricanes that pass through as well. Expand into equanimity! That is the practice.

Mudita – The Antidote to Envy

So there you are, walking down the street and you see a toddler splashing joyfully in a puddle or pointing to a ‘boid’ with delight, and your own mood lifts. Your heart lightens. You are reminded of the beauty and wonder of life. That is mudita, sympathetic joy, the third of the Four Brahma Viharas. But maybe joy isn’t what you experience at all. Perhaps you don’t even notice the child because you are so caught up in ‘thinking, thinking’ that you are not present in the moment. Or perhaps you find children annoying so feel immune to childish delight. Or maybe the child is a symbol of something you wanted in your life or something you’ve lost, and the sight and sound of that little person’s delight opens painful wounds. As we practice metta (loving-kindness) and find a softening and a deepening sense of connection with all of life, even with difficult people, we develop authentic compassion (karuna), and this quality of sympathetic joy, mudita. These are some of the fruits of practice. For most of us, there are people we love so much — family and close friends — that to see them happy makes us happy. But we may not be so familiar with experiencing joy at the sight of a stranger’s happiness. In fact, we may have experienced quite the opposite, when at the sight of someone else’s happiness we felt envy or self-pity. As you meditate and become more aware of the nature of mind, you have probably come upon some difficult thought or emotion arising in your field of experience. Envy is just one of them. When we notice it, we might then experience some shame at its existence. Mudita is a mental state we can savor when it occurs, but mudita practice helps us to work with the difficulties that arise, especially around envy, feelings of failure, comparison and general disgruntlement. When we discover constricted, grumpy thoughts or feelings, we are in a position of awareness. We may be in the habit of beating ourselves up or finding an external distraction. What a lost opportunity! With practice we can face the fear and discomfort, and find joy in the process. What is envy? This emotion, that arises around the perception that other people have what we want for ourselves, is rooted in fear. Looked at with Wise View, we can see that this is the same old fear that is at the root of all difficult emotions: The fear of being separate. This fear manifests in worry about not being enough, in feeling we have something to prove. Whom do we have to prove it to? Someone we feel separate from, someone we long to be recognized by, someone we want to love us unconditionally and respect us for who we are, even the bits we are not proud of. Wise View lets us understand that we are not separate. We are in this amazing experience of being, briefly, seemingly separate, the way a drop of water soaring over a waterfall is temporarily separate from the cycles of water of which it is intrinsically a part. On a molecular level, we are not at all separate from the rest of life. Yet much of what we do in our lives is actively create a sense of separation, build a separate identity, make a mark, matter in the eyes of others. On one level that may be our purpose here, who knows? But how much richer is the experience if we also sense the deeper connection, the intrinsic nature of being! We can celebrate this gift of life, this brief sense of separate volition and identity without succumbing to the belief that it is all there is. The gift of life is not the accumulation of stuff or relationships or prestige or anything else. It is simply the gift of being fully present with whatever arises.
When we find we are experiencing envy or another related emotion, it doesn’t help to compound that misery by saying, ‘What a terrible person I must be to feel envy when I should feel mudita.’ Instead, we can use the awareness of mudita to shine a little light on our thoughts and emotions, ask a few questions, and find some spaciousness in our experience. We can ask, for example, if the envied person’s happiness is the cause of our own unhappiness. If that person lost what they have, would we gain it? Usually not. And in the rare circumstance that that would be true, would that gaining actually create our happiness? We can look to our own experiences of happiness to recognize that whatever joy comes from external circumstances is temporal. We think that purchase or experience or connection will make us happy, but we quickly absorb these new conditions into our lives. They become the new normal. External conditions are unreliable and cannot create true and lasting happiness. We may still want them, but we would be foolish to rely on them for happiness. We create happiness by taking the time to be present, to experience what is true in this moment. We create suffering (dukkha) by grasping and clinging and wanting things to be different from how they are. If we begrudge other people the things we wish we had, then we expand our suffering to include them as well. Not purposely probably but just out of the discomfort of being around people who have what we crave. It’s like a sugar addict sitting at a table where desserts are displayed but denied. Check in to see if you believe that the other person is responsible for your suffering. And if so, really take some time to quiet down, center in and question that belief. Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of someone’s inability to tolerate your happiness. From your perspective the person seems like a self-destructive razor-sharp tornado of misery. Any effort you make to reach out causes you pain. If you can see that it is your situation — the very existence of your success, your love life or your children — that aggravates them, then it’s easier not to take it personally. And there is no reason to feel guilty for your own situation, unless achieved in some unethical way. Just letting other people have their happiness without faulting them for it is a major step for some of us. It’s important to remember that this letting go is not a loss but an opening to joy, a joy not dependent on causes and conditions. We can’t know with any certainty another person’s suffering. Likewise we can’t assume they are happy simply because they have a nice house, or good health, or any other item or situation. There are happy and miserable people in every walk of life and profession. The person who wins the lottery may have a temporary thrill, but within a year studies show they return to their previous level of happiness. We are very adaptable, and we adapt to changes of circumstance, treating it as the new normal. So mudita is feeling happy for the happiness of others because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness. From this perspective we can see more clearly that no person’s good fortune is stolen at our expense, and that no human being has a life devoid of pain, no matter how perfect their life may seem to us. How do we find mudita? When we quiet down in meditation, anchor into physical sensation to stay present with whatever is arising in this very moment, tap into this infinite source, deeply know that all is one, then we find that joy is contagious and bountiful.

Compassion (Karuna)

We have been talking about metta, loving-kindness. We have been practicing sending it to ourselves, other individuals and out to all beings with phrases like May all beings be well.

Metta is the first of the Four Brahma Viharas, which in Pali (the language the Buddha spoke) means ‘heavenly abodes.’ What are these heavenly abodes? You could say they are states or qualities of being. They are also practices that help us feel those qualities.
For example, perhaps as you have been practicing metta you have noticed a shift in how you feel. Perhaps your heart has softened a bit around some situation or relationship. And if so, perhaps this has informed your view of the way things are, created some spaciousness around your previously unquestioned assumptions.

Metta practice also causes to arise the three other Brahma Viharas:
  • karuna — compassion;
  • mudita — sympathetic joy
  • upekkha — equanimity


There are specific practices for each of the Brahma Viharas as well.


We will look at Karuna now, and then the other two in the next two weeks.

We might think that compassion and loving-kindness are pretty much the same thing. Metta practice does bring about a sense of compassion, but they are not the same. I describe loving-kindness as being radiant like the sun, an expansive embrace that wishes every good blessing to all without exception.

Compassion is more like the earth: solid, supportive, available. The earth has no particular agenda in regard to any individual. But talk about a shoulder to lean on! The earth is ever ready to receive whatever tears we might shed.

In my December 17, 2008 post I said:

This earth-like quality, Karuna, gives effortlessly from its bounty. You never see the earth running around assessing needs, doling out its nourishment in fair proportions for each plant. The earth is just there, fully present and fully supportive. 

So how does this translate for us? Can we be like the earth to someone in need? Can we relax and just be present. Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to receive their tears, and available for whatever they have in mind in any given moment? 

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, if we like to direct the show, if we automatically make assumptions about the needs of others, if we have an agenda, or if we have to try to fix everything.”

I find this earth analogy useful in my own practice. When I try hard to be compassionate and overdo it to the discomfort of the very person I want to help, I can ask, ‘Would the earth do this? I don’t think so!’

We had an excellent discussion about compassion in class. I asked the students ‘What is the difference between compassion and ‘feeling sorry for’ or ‘having pity for’ ourselves or someone else?
Pause before going on and ask that question of yourself.

All the answers in the class were very wise and pointed to different aspects of the dharma, incorporating Wise View. For example, one student said the word ‘for’ suggests that we feel separate from the individual we feel sorry for. Such a good point of distinction. Compassion is an embrace of connection, acknowledging we are all in this together, all made of the same stuff. There is no separate self if we really look closely at the nature of things. When we feel sorry for someone, we falsely believe them to be ‘other’.

Why do we do that? Why do we sometimes (or often) stand back, hold off, or shy away from making ourselves available to those who are suffering? We may want that sense of separation to sustain the belief that whatever calamity has befallen them will not likely befall us. This desire for distance from difficulty causes may cause us to turn away right at the time when loved ones most need our support. If this sounds familiar, notice the self-judgment that arises. Then send a little metta. And hold this experience of noticing with compassion.

Noticing is key. One student spoke of her growing ability to be present through meditation practice has helped her to notice that when she is bothered by the behavior of someone else, she is actually upset with herself for being angry. Through the practice, she was able to look underneath the anger and says she found sadness. She doesn’t know what that sadness is about, but is for the first time ready to be with it and let it reveal itself. Such insightful noticing! And a willingness to allow the process to happen rather than force answers. (Remember dear Rilke in his advice to a young poet — to love the questions themselves.)

Another student said for her compassion is a quality of acceptance of ourselves and others. This is not resignation. There’s a huge distinction. Acceptance opens us to all that is going on in this moment. If we accept, then we don’t turn away. We face our fears, see the suffering in that fear. Only then are able to be compassionate with ourselves, and in turn feel true compassion for others who are suffering.

We notice suffering in meditation. The harshness of our own self-talk, for example. Not just the particular words we use, but the tone of our voice even when using words that might otherwise seem neutral, like noting ‘thought’ or ‘memory’’ or ‘planning’. No wonder we want to be distracted by some external focus!

Through the regular practice of metta and karuna, we come to understand that we are human, we are not our thoughts and like all beings we deserve kindness and compassion.

Once we are able to have compassion for ourselves, we can have true compassion for a friend, a family member, and a person we see in the street. Once we understand there is no ‘other’, then instead of thinking, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, and count ourselves lucky by comparison, we might recognize the truth: ‘There go I.’


We are all life expressing itself in a myriad of ways.
Read with fresh eyes this well-known poem by John Donne:No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Practical Suggestions for Compassion PracticeWe may want to be of use to someone who is suffering, but we might feel at a loss to know what would be truly useful, what would be the right thing to say or do. Think back to some time when you were suffering a particular big loss — of a loved one, your job, your health, for example — and remember someone who was there for you. You might also remember someone who tried to be there for you but seemed to be struggling with their own discomfort. Then remember how it felt when someone you thought was close seemed to disappear at your time of need. This is not to judge any of them. We are all doing the best we can in any given moment. But when we are learning how to best offer help and heartfelt condolences, it’s good to have some basis of personal reference. So feel free to emulate the person who provided you with the most comfort. And when you are feeling resistance to being there for someone, remember how it felt to have someone shrink away at your time of need. We all have times we weren’t, so don’t bother feeling bad about it. Just use it as a guidepost for future behavior.

The ‘Me Too’ Impulse
A typical response to someone who is suffering is to try to create connection by sharing some similar experience. This desire to connect is natural, but the impulse sometimes goes awry. The student in our class with the most recent experience of great loss was able to give some very useful insight. She said it was very helpful to have someone who had been through the same kind of loss say simply, ‘I understand. Yes, that’s what I experienced too.’ Their understanding helped her to recognize that what she was going through was perfectly normal, part of the experience.
What is NOT helpful, she says, is to take the focus away by launching into a story about that similar experience, or someone else’s that we know, or heard about. I know this is true, yet caught myself doing just this the other evening. (Practice makes us aware, but it clearly doesn’t make ‘perfect’!) The need to create a common bond is very strong. And when we are in a conversation about loss, memories of our own losses do tend to arise. But this is something we can all keep in mind.
The Sudden Stranger
If you’ve ever had a serious life-threatening illness you know how it is to have people suddenly look at you differently, with pity in their eyes. Agh!
I’m still me! you say. Hello! This is just an experience I am having now. Please stop looking at me that way!Can we see beyond circumstance, beyond causes and conditions, and recognize the energetic life force that connects us all? Can we allow people to be seen? Can we allow ourselves to be seen? This is compassion.

A Karuna Exercise
A
fter you have meditated, or at least spent a few minutes quietly sensing in to physical sensation, notice whatever is arising in your experience: an ache, a tightness, an energetic quality, a difficult series of thoughts, an emotion, a judgment — whatever there is to notice in your experience at this time. Now imagine holding whatever it is cradled in your arm like a newborn baby. Maybe it’s a red-faced angry baby! But hold it in your arms and soothe it in whatever way feels natural to you. The purpose is not to change what is, but to attend it with compassion. You might wish you could set the ‘baby’ down or hand it off to someone else, but just stay with it. Just see what happens. Be the parent who is always there. Be the earth offering unqualified support. That’s karuna.

Loving Kindness Shifts Relationships

In exploring metta, the practice of sending loving kindness, we come to the challenge of sending it to a ‘difficult’ person, someone with whom we struggle or who pushes our buttons. This can be a family member, co-worker, client, or a public figure whose policies, beliefs or behavior seem wrong, maybe even evil to our way of thinking. (If you wonder why we would send loving kindness to such a person, look at the last post under ‘Obstacle #4. Metta Seen as Reward.’)

We picture this ‘difficult person’ and think, ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace,” or similar well wishing. If they are going through difficult experiences, we could send compassion with phrases like, ‘May your difficulties ease. May your struggles or sorrows be held in compassion.’ As you read this, can you sense that the activity of sending loving kindness and compassion softens our hearts, gives ease to our body, allows our mind to be more restful and spacious? Even if we question whether metta has any power or meaning, we can at least acknowledge a certain satisfaction in being able to do some positive action, even though it’s only within our mind. The behavior of others is beyond our control, and that can be frustrating and scary. We can’t change them, but we can send them metta.

So is it just about making ourselves feel better? Maybe yes, maybe no.

One student shared her experience of sending metta to her sibling with whom she had difficulty. She began the practice to find peace within herself, a release from feeling so distressed when this person would cause disruption at family gatherings. She did find peace as she practiced, but what surprised her was how her sibling began to open up and become less prickly. Remember that we are not saying this blessing out loud. The other person is not even aware of it. But the softening that comes with wishing someone well changes not just ourselves, but them too. Now the sibling have a closer more loving relationship than they have had in their whole lives. (The student did not have that goal in mind, remember. If she had hopes or expectations that her sibling would change, then probably that hope would have sabotaged the pure practice of sending metta.)

This is not the first time I have heard such a story. But most of us don’t take the time to do the practice it in a consistent way. It takes intention to do so. If our intention is to access the infinite quality of loving kindness and compassion, to allow ourselves to dwell in it, and then share it, perhaps with special focus on those with whom it is challenging to do so, then the loving kindness can be transformative.

Sending metta to a challenging person might feel like too big an assignment. So we start with what we can do. ‘May you be well…far from here.” “May you be happy…somewhere else.” That doesn’t sound very friendly, but it is a start. If we feel vulnerable and unsafe with this person, then it is skillful to keep our distance, but we can still send metta. If our well wishing seems half-hearted, at least it is a little crack in the door we can begin to enter more wholeheartedly as we follow our intention.

Metta is a practice unto itself, but it is also a gift that arises out of mindfulness practice. As we become aware of our connection with all life, the oneness of all being, we feel included, safe, loved without striving to earn it, and are then able to give love to all beings, even the difficult ones. These two practices combine create loving awareness.

If you are curious about where metta fits in the scheme of Buddhist concepts:
Metta – Loving Kindness –  is the first of the Four Brahmaviharas.The other three are: 

Karuna – Compassion – is a feeling that naturally arises out of that sense of connection. It is quite different from pity.
Mudita – Sympathetic Joy, happiness for the happiness of others, that also arises out of that sense of connection. Don’t be frustrated if this doesn’t feel so ‘naturally arising.’ Have compassion for yourself.
Upekka – Equilibrium. When our practice provides so much spaciousness that we can hold the extremes of emotion as in those when a loved one is dying and another is being born or getting married or having some positive experience. Our ability to make room for all to be held in a loving embrace is upekka.

The Four Brahmaviharas infuse our lives with connection, joy, meaning and a sense of balance.  Each of the four has its own practice to help us develop, but each is also a gift of mindfulness, a fruit of the practice. Let knowing they exist keep you coming back again and again to meditation practice. But don’t turn them into a goal. Let go of striving. Practice with simple joy.

Autumnal Equinox

We have been exploring the concept of balance, inspired by the coming of the autumnal equinox, when night and day are equal in length. We have looked at: how to be in balance in the midst of chaos and how to create balance in our lives. And here we are at the autumnal equinox (Happy Fall!), only to discover that balance is not any particular moment in time, but something that we can find in any moment, even in the midst of challenging, seemingly out of balance circumstances.

Yet hearing or reading about a concept such as balance is just the first of a series of ways we incorporate it into our lives so that it can be of value. After learning about it, we live with it as an interesting idea. If it holds our interest, we study it in greater depth. With each exposure to the concept, we pause to notice our own response, what it activates within us: curiosity, fear or greed, for example. Our process is to question the concept itself, our understanding of the concept, and our reaction to the concept. By testing it for veracity, opening to it, walking with it, sitting with it, we can ultimately awaken to the truth through our own insights. Through this process we may find that we have incorporated this concept into our own view and our own way of being in the world.


What has come up for you in this exploration? Is the concept of balance valuable for you at this time? Is there a sense of imbalance in your life? If so, what is causing that sense of imbalance? Is it the causes and conditions of life that feel askew and you are struggling to stay centered amidst them? Or are you out of balance in your own patterns, not getting sufficient sleep, exercise, nourishment, meditation, pleasure, social engagement, mental stimulation, peace and quiet, laughter, order, simplicity or space for contemplation?

Through the regular practice of meditation we find the still point of center, a sense of being present and compassionate with whatever arises. From this vantage point, we can accept circumstances beyond our control and be empowered to change what is within our control. This sounds like the AA Serenity Prayer, which is based in deep wisdom. Whether we are prone to addictive behavior or not, we can incorporate this saying into our lives when seeking balance, for it is when we get out of balance that we fall into unskillfulness in whatever form is our personal pattern.
The Serenity Prayer concludes by asking for the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things that are beyond our control. This kind of discernment, being able to see when we are creating the imbalance in our lives and when it is something that we need to find a way to make peace with, comes with the regular practice of meditation. Without this clarity, we may believe we have no power to change a situation that is destructive, disruptive or out of balance in some way. Conversely we may believe we have it all together and it is our business to ‘correct’ someone else’s situation. We may spend our time railing against the world rather than accepting our seat at the table to co-create the world.

What comes up for you as I say these things? Notice images and associations. Make notes or journal if that is useful. What is the story you have been telling yourself? How has that story prevented you from seeing the balance that exists or seeing the imbalance that exists in your life?

When we talk about balance it is easy to assume that happiness is somehow only attached to one state of being, that happiness will come when all our ducks are in a row, all the stars aligned and we have gotten our act together. If we think we can only find happiness under certain conditions, as if we were hot house flowers, then we are creating a false narrative, an overly narrow and virtually impossible standard for happiness to exist.
Seeking happiness in itself is a sure means of never attaining it. If happiness is always on the horizon, then it is always beyond our reach. We are in a constant state of waiting, of hoping and dreaming. Look at the horizon. Does it ever get closer? No matter how far you travel you will never reach it. Is that not so? So our practice isn’t about some moment days, weeks or years hence, when all will be perfect. Our practice is about this moment: Being present, being compassionate, being here for the only gift we are given, again and again, fresh in each moment. Balance is only possible in this moment.
This sense of presence brings us the gift of being in balance, aka Equilibrium or Upekka, one of the Four Bramaviharas, or divine abodes. The first three Bramaviharas are Metta, loving kindness; Karuna, compassion; and Mudita, sympathetic joy, when we are happy for the happiness of others.
These states of being arise naturally out of the practice of meditation, of being present. We don’t have to go on a trek to find them. They are here and now, always arising from our regular practice of meditation. As you practice with consistency you may notice a sense of lovingkindness arising in you, not just for people you like for a particular reason, but for all beings. That is Metta. May ALL beings be well.
You may notice as you continue to meditate regularly that compassion arises. Compassion for yourself as you let go of erroneous ideas of who you are; and compassion for others, not because you feel sorry for them, but because you feel connected to them – no longer ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ but ‘There go I.’ That is Karuna.
As you practice you may begin to notice that you feel true joy for the happiness of others where before you may have felt gnawing envy, as if their happiness was stolen from you. Now you see that joy creates joy and is contagious. It is an infinite rather than finite resource. That is Mudita.
And you may discover that thanks to your meditation practice you are developing the ability to be present fully even when two strong emotions are vying for your attention. For example, it is not unusual at some point in life to be attending the wedding of a child and at the same time mourning or worrying about the ill-health of a parent or other loved one. In such a situation without the gift of a regular meditation practice, we might feel incapable of holding these two experiences or some other complexities of life without being plowed under by them. With meditation we find emotions can be full, rich and powerful, but there is a spacious awareness that gives us the abiding strength to hold it all in a loving open embrace. That is Upekka.
These four states, these heavenly abodes, are the naturally arising gifts of the practice. And Upekka, equanimity, the ability to live in a balanced way is indeed a great blessing. Explore this concept of balance in your own life and in your way of being in the world. Distinguish between what is within your control and what is not. If it is within your control, find the strength of love and gratitude within you to choose to create in each moment a balanced and harmonious life. If it is beyond your control, find within you that still point of center again and again, using the paired intentions: to be present and compassionate.

Mudita, Sympathetic Joy: Yet Another Gift of Meditation Practice

This exploration of freedoms we have been doing for the past couple of months has much in common with the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes.’ These are states that are the gift of the practice, just as our freedoms we’ve been discussing are gifts of the practice. They are states that can’t be achieved by goal setting, by trying to be ‘good,’ or by pretending to be kind, compassionate, happy or wise. They arise out of the practice of being present, and in that being present, guided by the wisdom of the Eightfold Path, we may find ourselves in these states of connected authentic generosity of spirit: happy, kind, truly compassionate and well-balanced.

We have explored two of these Brahmaviharas in this class: Metta, loving-kindness and Karuna, compassion. Now we turn to Mudita which means sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy is feeling happy for the happiness of others. Not because we think we should feel it in order to be a nice person, but because we sense our underlying unity. From this deep rooted sense of connection, we feel their joy as if it were our own. And then we drop the ‘as if.’ Because the shared joy melts the possessive edges that can never adequately contain true happiness.

The other day I was driving home from Spirit Rock and was descending White’s Hill into Fairfax behind two cyclists. Usually bicycle riders stay to the side of the road in their designated lane, but these two rode in the middle of the car lane, and since they were descending at a pretty rapid rate, they weren’t causing me to slow down.

I was coming home from a lovely morning of yoga, meditation and dharma, more relaxed and connected than I might have been, so it felt quite natural to purposely keep my car at enough of a distance so they would not feel I wanted them to get out of my way.

In fact, I wanted them to feel that they truly had the road to themselves, as a reward for all their uphill exertions. Then I enjoyed watching them and I relaxed into feeling in my body the sympathetic sensation of their hunkering down to be aero-dynamic, their leaning left or right on the curves. I relished the whole rich sensate experience of speed and freedom.

And that is a form of mudita: Letting go of any sense that the cyclists were obstructing my ability to get home to eat lunch, I allowed myself to share in the pleasure they were experiencing, to be truly happy for them having this lovely ride on a beautiful autumn day.

But sometimes we are faced with situations that don’t easily inspire mudita. Even in that fairly benign situation, I could just as easily have fallen into a story of personal loss, since I love bike riding, a childhood joy I had to give up many years ago as it is too hard on my knees. I could have felt envy, sadness, depression. I could have mourned the feel of the wind in my face, instead of enjoying it through sharing in their experience. And maybe on another day, in a different situation, my thoughts might have gone there. But on this day, they didn’t. On this day, I was delighted to find myself in the state of mudita.

Each of us has our personal losses and unfulfilled dreams that have the capacity to haunt us whenever we are confronted with someone who seems to be living that dream or still has what we have lost. Perhaps we weren’t able to have a child, or lost a child, and when we see someone with children or a pregnant woman, we may not feel sympathetic joy at all. The sight only stirs up our story, causing emotions and thoughts that unsettle us. If we weren’t caught up in the story, we could enjoy all the children we meet, delight in the sight of babies in strollers or trick-or-treaters in their costumes. But because they aren’t ours, because we can’t tuck them into bed at night, because they don’t call us mommy, we can’t appreciate them. Maybe we can see that it would make sense to reach out to other people’s children as teachers, care givers or aunts, but we just can’t do it. The story seems to be so tightly woven that it feels solid, impermeable, and we are caught in the middle of it, as if a spider had wrapped us up for dinner.

Most of us at some time have been in a position of hoping for a job, a promotion, a relationship, acceptance in a program or a competition of some kind. And most of us know what it is like to be denied the prize we sought. What happens then when we meet the person or persons who received whatever prize it was we wanted. How does that feel? Maybe we want to feel happy for them because we don’t want to be a sore loser. Maybe we feel embarrassed by the strength of our aspirations and the way we feel sucked out to sea by the undertow of that great wave of hope we had been surfing.

We have all experienced this to some degree at some time in our lives. We can all remember how it feels. Maybe we don’t even have to remember, maybe we have some experience of it in our current situation. Whatever it is, we need to be present with it, noticing the arising thoughts, emotions and sensations; noticing any harsh judgments that arise; holding ourselves with compassion, remembering that we are only human, vessels through which these kinds of emotions, thoughts and sensations flow.

Because it is so normal to feel envy, it comes as a surprise when mudita arises within us. What a delight is this unexpected gift of feeling joy at the sight of a child not our own! How sweet to truly feel happy for the person who receives recognition, knowing that that person too was hungry for acknowledgment, worked hard, suffered, feared failure – just as we did, and we are the same in that way. And many other ways as well. So the joy is simply joy, simply happiness, simply a celebration we can attend without feeling we weren’t invited.

If sympathetic joy seems unachievable it’s because it is. Totally unachievable! Like all the freedoms we’ve been discussing and the other three Brahmaviharas, this sympathetic joy for the happiness of others is a gift, not a goal. Mudita is not a practice so much as a fruit of metta and awareness practice. If we try to treat it as a goal or try to don it like a garment, draping ourselves in the pretend glow of happiness for others, we fail in our true practice: to be present for whatever arises.

Noting whatever feelings arise – envy, jealousy, anger, then noticing the disappointment we feel at discovering them in ourselves, then noticing any shame or sense of failure: That’s the practice. We begin to see the previously unconscious habitual patterns of thought and the reactive behavior they trigger. Making the patterns conscious starts to dissolve the tightly wrapped threads, so that there seems to be more time and space to see and make wise choices.

Instead of battling our thoughts and trying to change them, we just bring full awareness to them. We see them for what they are and begin to feel less threatened by them. We see that they are not us. We are not defined by them.

These thoughts and emotions are simply a part of the universal human condition, and conditioning. When we are able to be compassionate with our feelings we are less likely to feel the need to express these emotions through our words or actions. We might share our noticing of feelings arising, but we do so in a conscious way that doesn’t make the other person responsible for them.

As children our parents were made responsible for all these unacceptable situations and emotions. My mother saved a note I wrote when I was eleven in which I described everything that had gone wrong that day and how it was ‘ALL YOUR FAULT!’ Why did she save it? Years later I found myself saving a similar note from one of my own children. Strangely mothers often find these rants endearing.

But they are really only endearing in children, these tantrums. In adults not so much. Archie Bunker used to say, ‘Stifle!’ to his wife Edith whenever she was expressing her emotions. But that’s not what we are going for in our practice. Instead, when we discover these volatile emotions throwing a tantrum inside ourselves, we want to bring the compassionate bemusement of a mother whose child is ranting. The mother knows she is not really responsible for all the awful things that happened in her child’s school day, so there’s no reason to get caught up in defending herself. She can recognize the humanness, and the dearness of this loved one, struggling with her emotions.

So we don’t stifle our emotions. Instead we create a place for them to play within our spacious mind. We watch with loving curiosity, noticing, listening, even asking questions, but not scolding or trying to shut the process down. (When we notice we are scolding or trying to shut down the process, we simply note that as well.) We feel as much compassion and understanding as we are capable of feeling, but, just like my mother and mothers around the world when dealing with an exhausted child on a rant, we don’t succumb to the story that’s being told. We don’t need to react, or bring it out in the world, making others responsible for the internal chaos we are experiencing. We don’t have to be harsh or indulgent. We simply sit with the experience until the tantrum passes.

If we slip into unskillfulness and do act upon these feelings, we acknowledge them as soon as we recognize them, and apologize for our behavior to whomever we may have hurt in the process. We silently send metta to those we have harmed and to ourselves. Ultimately this metta practice has the capacity to bring the experience of sympathetic joy for all beings, as we become attuned to the bountiful nature of the universe and see that another person’s good fortune does not deplete our own.

On a very practical level, we can bring into question the very idea that what the prize-winner has is actually the source of happiness that we imagined it to be. Does any event, possession or relationship truly have the ability to make a person permanently happy? We know from our own lives that that is not the case. And knowing so, we can see if we are making the mistake of projecting happiness onto these ‘winners’ when, in fact, they are suffering in ways we might not have imagined. We dehumanize them by making assumptions that they should be happy because of what they have. They should be happy, damn it, because they are now holding the stuff of our dreams and they better appreciate it! If they were to complain about anything, we would get out our air violins and play a few notes for them, the universal sign of, “I am SO not sorry for you, you little whiner.” But with just a little sensing in to the nature of things, we can see that they are still beings deserving of our compassion. And seeing that the prize they have is not happiness incarnate helps to put our loss in perspective.

Feelings of envy or schadenfreude, the German word meaning enjoyment of the misfortune of others, sometimes especially those we may have envied, since now they have been brought low (where we apparently feel we are,) offer us the opportunity to explore strong emotions. We can ask questions of them as if they are messengers with important information to share. We can personify them if that makes it easier to do inner dialog work, giving them a recognizable personality and nickname so that we will easily recognize them in the future. With curiosity and compassion, we can ask, ‘What do you really want?’ ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ “What are you afraid of?” ‘What do I need to know?’ Taking a little quiet time for this kind of inner exploration helps to release the tight threads that are making us a spider’s dinner instead of aware beings.

We can also use the good fortune of others to clarify a path we ourselves would like to embark upon. Perhaps we are surprised to feel a spark of envy at someone’s receiving an award for something we had no idea we were interested in. Perhaps a path is illuminated by their experience, and we recognize that if it is possible for them, it is more likely to be possible for us as well. And if we feel otherwise, we can question in to see why we don’t believe this to be true. If we do want to pursue the path they are on, we can take the bold step of asking them how they did it, find others who also did it and learn from their inspiring stories as well. Throughout the process, we continue asking in to see if it is the direction itself that is of interest or craving similar acknowledgment in another area, perhaps one we can’t even bring ourselves to name, so unworthy do we feel to have these aspirations.

Whenever we are experiencing any distressing emotion, we can send ourselves metta, loving-kindness. And from this practice, when we least expect it, mudita surprises and delights us, as it did for me that beautiful autumn day, feeling the thrust and lean of those cyclists on a joyous downhill run.