In Buddhism, there are four states of mind called the “Brahma-vihara” or “four divine states of dwelling.” Buddha taught these values to monks. The four divine states are also known as the “Four Immeasurables” or the “Four Perfect Virtues.” In many Buddhist traditions the four states are cultivated through meditation. They are also interrelated and support one another.

The four states are:
  • metta (loving kindness)
  • karuna (compassion)
  • mudita (sympathetic joy or empathy)
  • and upekkha (equanimity).

It’s important to understand that these mental states are not emotions. It takes practice and dedication to establish these states of mind, and even then it’s a constant journey. One cannot simply make up in your mind that you will be loving, compassionate, empathetic and balanced at the flick of a switch. These four states requires intentional dwelling and altering how you experience and perceive yourself and others. Becoming aware of and loosening the bonds of the ego are especially important in this practice.

#1 Metta (Loving Kindness)

Metta is the practice of cultivating universal love, friendliness, or lovingkindness. Metta is benevolence toward all beings, without discrimination or selfish attachment. Metta can be compared to the unconditional love that a mother would have for her children. This love does not discriminate between benevolent people and malicious people. It is a love in which”I” and “you” disappear, and where there is no possessor and nothing to possess. By practicing Metta, one can overcome anger, ill will, hatred and aversion.

The practice progresses in five stages. As we use Metta during meditation, we cultivate Metta for:

  • Ourselves
  • A good friend
  • A “neutral” person — someone we don’t have any strong feelings for
  • A “difficult” person — someone we have conflicts with or feelings of ill will towards
  • All sentient beings

In your practice, you can access Metta through meditation and identifying someone at each of the stages. Learning to accept all for how they are will give you the freedom to love and forgive.

#2 Karuna (Compassion)

Karuna is active sympathy extended to all sentient beings. Karuna is combined with prajna (wisdom), which in Mahayana Buddhism means the realization that all sentient beings exist in each other and take identity from each other (see shunyata). The terms “we are all one” is reflective in the practice of Karuna.

Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera said, “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.”

#3 Mudita (Sympathetic Joy)

Mudita is taking sympathetic or altruistic joy in observance of the happiness of others. Mudita is the ability to take active delight in others’ good fortune or good deeds as a way to develop and maintain calmness of mind. People also identify mudita with empathy. Some teachers believe the cultivation of mudita is a prerequisite for developing metta and karuna. The antithesis of mudita is jealousy and envy.

By being happy when good things happen to others, your opportunities for delight are greatly increased. Practice Mudita when you observe the success and happiness in others.

#4 Upekkha/Upeksha (Equanimity)

Upekkha is a mind in balance, free of discrimination yet rooted in insight. In Upekkha non-attachment, non-discrimination, even-mindedness or letting go is practiced, however it does not mean that the mind is indifferent. Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure. The mind remains undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

In yoga we cultivate Upekkha through the acceptance of what is and to let what is be. When we dwell on what should be or what shouldn’t be, we lose this mind balance and composure. It becomes polluted with expectations and emotions.

[Photo by Roberto Trombetta | CC BY]
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