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The Psychology of the Four Immeasurables

"By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress; joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are unvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind."  Yoga Sutra 1.33

This critical verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras reveals one of the most powerful mind-trainings common to the Indian traditions of Buddhism and Yoga known as the four immeasurables (catur apramanah) or far-reaching attitudes (brahmavihara).

The four attitudes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity are prosocial in nature and designed to help us use our daily interaction with others as a means of spiritual development. They are called immeasurable or far-reaching because over the course of time we train to extend them to as many living beings as far as the mind can conceive. We imagining expanding our sense of connection to others in concentric circles in all directions, beginning first with those we hold most dear, then including those unknown ones, and finally those we consider unlovable.

Psychologically speaking, the mechanism involved in this training is known as reciprocal inhibition.  In Sanskrit this concept is called pratipaksha bhavanam, which means cultivation of an opposing thought. The mind can only hold one thought or attitude at a time, so when one is generating love or friendliness jealousy cannot arise. Each of the immeasurable thoughts counteract other more harmful or disturbing ones.  The four attitudes are antidotes for their opposites and near opposites referred to as “near enemies”.  When the afflictions (kleshas) that disturb the natural clarity mind are removed “then pure awareness can abide in its own nature” (YS 1.3).

Karmically speaking, the four attitudes are seeds of intention planted in the stream of consciousness that reinforce tendencies and ripen as future perceptions of experience.  Through the four prosocial attitudes, we consciously cultivate new mental habits in order to clearly perceive a world of abundant happiness, unlimited care, infinite success and universal kinship. 

Verse 1.33 identifies four objects of meditation and their associated prosocial attitudes.  The first two objects are the experiences of others, either happiness or suffering, towards which we apply friendliness or compassion respectively.  The next pair of objects concerns the actions of others, either virtuous or nonvirtuous, towards which we generate vicarious joy or equanimity respectively. 

1.  Maitri – Friendliness, Love, Loving-kindness

Definition: the wish that others be happy

A “near enemy” is a quality that appears deceivingly similar to the attitude of cultivation, but is actually closer to its opposite.  The near enemy of love is conditional love or self-interested love; love that has some attachment or expectation of self-gain.

Antidote for: the wish that others be unhappy; contempt, anger.

While training in friendliness avoid becoming: attached, clingy, dependent.

“Practice friendliness towards those that are happy”. Our habitual reaction towards those who are happy is to feel contempt as if they have somehow taken something away from us.  Friendliness involves a sense of feeling close to those in a positive state of mind, so that we may share in their happiness and feel uplifted by their optimism.  The karmic result of the practice of friendliness is to experience a world in which there is an abundance of happiness to tap into and feel buoyed by.

2.  Karuna – Compassion

Definition:  the wish that others be free from suffering

Near enemy:  pity, sympathy, which keeps people at a distance or degrades them to an inferior position.

Antidote for: the wish that others suffer; hatred, cruelty.

Avoid becoming: sentimental, overly emotional to a point that prevents benevolent activity.

“Practice compassion towards those in distress”.  Our habitual reaction to strangers who are suffering may be disinterest or numbness, while we may feel great sadness and sympathy for those we love.  Disinterest keeps the heart closed and prevents us from experiencing our fundamental connection with others, while sympathy and sadness may render us useless to help those in need. Compassion involves an intuitive understanding that others are in pain, enough emotional detachment that protects us from being overwhelmed, and a strong desire to help alleviate that condition.  The karmic result of the practice of compassion is to experience a world of unlimited care and support by and for all beings.

3.  Mudita - Vicarious Joy

Definition: taking enjoyment in the virtues and successes of others.  The wish and determination to help others experience the great bliss of awakening and freedom.

Near Enemy: hypocrisy, frivolity.

Antidote for: jealousy, envy, self-involved depression.  

Avoid becoming: insular or disconnected within a joyful state.

“Practice joy towards those that are virtuous”.  Our habitual reaction to those that are virtuous and successful may be one of envy and shame.  We may feel they somehow don’t deserve their success, or we may feel inferior or inadequate in comparison. Both envy and shame arise out of a spirit of competitiveness based on a view of scarcity.  The karmic result of the practice of vicarious joy is to experience an interconnected world where we can share in the infinite successes of other beings.

4.  Upeksha - Equanimity

Definition:  seeing all beings as kin.  Not holding some dear and others distant.  Understanding that preferences are arbitrary constructs of the mind. 

Near Enemy: indifference, apathy.

Antidote for: discrimination, favoritism, prejudice up to repulsion.

Avoid becoming: uncaring or emotionally detached.

“Practice equanimity towards those that are unvirtuous”.  Our habitual reaction to those that act unfavorably is to criticize and condemn them.  The moment we define others by their actions, we label them narrowly and cut ourselves off from their changing nature.  Now we give them little chance to become a neutral one or even a loved one in our eyes. Cultivating a judgmental attitude also fosters a preoccupation with the flaws and limits of others, experiences and ourselves.  Rather than condemn the person, we condemn the afflictions that overcome all of our mind's, and we try our best to stay connected and help them transform. The karmic result of the practice of equanimity is a sense of universal kinship with all beings out of which collective responsibility and bodhicitta naturally arise.

Click here for my guided meditation on the Four Immeasurables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Immeasuable Prayer

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were to abide in equanimity, 
free of hatred and attachment! 
May they abide in equanimity! 
I myself will cause them to abide in equanimity! 
Please, Guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and the cause of happiness! 
May they have happiness and its cause! 
I shall cause them to have these! 
Please, Guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were free of suffering and its cause! 
May they be free of suffering and its cause! 
I myself will free them from suffering and its cause! 
Please, Guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were never separated from the happiness of liberation! 
May they never separated from the happiness of liberation!
 I myself will cause them never to be separated from this! 
Please, Guru-Buddha, grant me blessings to be able to do this.

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