“Brahmavihara really indicates a way of life, that is the best way of life, the best attitude. The best attitude, that is, towards others - because in each of these practices, we are trying to become more aware of the way that we normally respond as regards other people. The four practices look at our emotional responses in respect of four typical situations.
The first meditation, the metta-bhavana, or the development of friendliness, engages with our response with relation to other people generally. Then the karuna-bhavana or meditation on compassion engages with our response with relation to people who are suffering. The mudita-bhavana, or meditation on sympathetic gladness, engages with our response with in relation to people who have good fortune; and the upekkha-bhavana, or meditation on equanimity, engages with our response with relation to the conditioned nature of all beings. Our response to the conditioned nature of other people may perhaps not be all that clear as yet, but in the case of the first three Brahmaviharas, we are ourselves very conditioned, usually at least, let's say, as to our response. In particular, our response to people who are suffering, and our response to people who experience happiness and good fortune, is often very much a habitual one.
What, then, is our relation, our personal relation, to other people who are suffering? And how do we, personally, relate to very fortunate, happy people? And what about people generally? Well, I think that on the whole we are not as positive as we could be, not as friendly as we could be. We don't always wish others happiness - or perhaps we do, but it's often rather superficial. We tend to be selfish, with a primary interest in ourselves and our own needs. When we meet somebody we are, perhaps, prepared to pass the time of day with them, and even smile at them. But anything more is another matter. New Zealand, like other so-called 'western' countries, is a lonely country, full of lonely people. I'm generalising, of course, so this won't apply to everyone, but it applies generally. We are good at saying 'Hi', good at welcoming people, we are good at trying to make sure people have their needs met - but that is usually as far as it goes. That's our duty done. After that, the wall goes up between us and the rest. We did our duty, we said 'hi', we made sure they were ok, and that was it. I am saying that we don't actually befriend people very often. Very often we don't make the time for that. We tend to be very concerned with our own lives, tend to be very concerned with getting away from people, with getting 'space to ourselves'. This is our relation to people generally. But of course, we don't have to be like that. We can transform ourselves, with the aid of meditation, and by practising spiritual friendship.
Then, what about our relation to people who suffer? By suffering I mean a person's experience of anything from a major disaster to a minor dissatisfaction. We all suffer, of course. We are all dissatisfied. We all appreciate that we suffer - that we suffer. We don't always appreciate that others suffer. But with a little thought, we know that they do. I think that if we used our imagination a little more in that sort of way we would start to change our appreciation and our basic friendliness towards others - all others. We would be more inclined to befriend them. Compassion is friendliness towards those who suffer. In the karuna-bhavana practice we don't try to develop compassion; we simply develop metta, friendliness. The difference is in the object of meditation - a suffering person.
But before we are able to do that, we need to get over our habitual reactions to others' suffering. We need to get over the feeling that we are helpless in the face of others suffering, that despondent, useless feeling. That kind of response to suffering very often causes us to avoid the person completely, and even be cruel to them. Now, that isn't being friendly. That tendency to avoid or ignore suffering can also lead to a kind of sentimental pity, in which we even feel a little bit superior. But it simply begins with our desire to avoid actually getting involved with someone. But we don't have to avoid people, even if their suffering makes us feel uncomfortable, even if their suffering embarrasses us, even if we want things to go better for them in order to save us the embarrassment of knowing them. We can break through all that. We can befriend those who suffer, we can develop compassion.
OK, what about our relation to very happy, very fortunate people? When we see someone we know whose life is going very well indeed, who often seems quite happy. Or someone, perhaps a friend or acquaintance, who is on a good run of happiness? Perhaps we are overjoyed, delighted at their good fortune. It gives us a boost just to see them around, a buzz just to remember them from time to time. I'd say that was the ideal response. That's what we call sympathetic gladness, when we are filled with joy at the joy of others. Unfortunately, our response isn't usually quite so positive. Sometimes we even feel resentful. Their happiness and good fortune just makes us feel inadequate. What right have they to be so bright and smiling? We might even say to ourselves that their happiness is only superficial, that soon they'll be smiling on the other side of their face. I think that this is sometimes a bit of a Buddhist vice, this - or a pseudo-spiritual one - we see that someone is happy because their job is going well, or something like that - they have a new boyfriend or girlfriend, let's say - and we smile wisely to ourselves and say 'its just superficial. It won't last. So why should I be pleased?' But this is a very ungenerous attitude, and is itself rather superficial. Certainly there are higher, more worthy forms of happiness, even kinds of happiness that aren't subject to decay, that do last - such as the joy of nirvana for example - but we are ourselves some way away from nirvana at the moment and it would do us more good, and those others too, if we could be more generous, more friendly towards them in their good fortune - as well as in their bad fortune.
This is the emotion that the mudita-bhavana practice develops, and it does so in the way that I've outlined - we develop friendliness and appreciation of the happiness and good fortune of others. As in the metta-bhavana, we think of our good friend, neutral person, enemy and so on, but in this meditation we particularly call to mind their good fortune. We then notice our response to that - our actual response that is, not what we would like to feel, or what we feel we ought to feel - and within that response we look for an increased appreciation, increased kindness and friendliness. If we are honest in the practice we will find some of the negative attitudes that I've been talking about. But we have an opportunity to work with them, to transform them.
Then, finally, there's upekkha. That's a Pali word meaning equanimity. Equanimity is a very special emotion, a very powerful emotion indeed. It is the most positive of all the positive emotions. Equanimity is a response to the whole person, not just to their happiness, not just to their suffering, but to both - and much more besides. For it is a response to their conditioning as human beings. With the upekkha-bhavana we recollect that people have a history, they have a whole life-story to tell. It is their actions in this life, and perhaps previous lives too, that have brought them to the position that they are in. Their suffering, and their happiness, have causes and conditions, just as have our own suffering and happiness.
When we reflect in this way, we feel as though we are addressing the whole person, as they really are. Like the meditation on impermanence that I mentioned a while ago, this is a kind of insight meditation. But unlike other kinds of insight meditation which require a strong basis of positive emotion before we can even start - otherwise we might become despondent or depressed - this meditation is a positive emotion in itself.
But what kind of an insight is it? This practice gives us something of a clue to the nature of insight. It is a response to the conditioned nature of all beings, at least insofar as we understand that. It is an emotional response of friendliness to their conditioned nature. It is a response that is not moved by aversion or disgust when faced by their suffering, nor by attraction or need in the face of their happiness and good fortune. It is a response of complete equanimity - a friendly, helpful response that does not have needs, that has no strings attached, to the other person, either to their joy or suffering. It is a total response - a response to the totality of that person. We see them as they really are. This is the nature of insight - insight is, in the end, a response to reality as it is, to things as they really are.
So these, very briefly, are the four Brahmaviharas. Or something about them at least. I'm sorry that there's no time to say more about these practices. But in any case it is clear now that Buddhism, and Buddhist meditation, is very much about other people, that its ultimate goal, even, is about other people.”
From: Meditation with Others: the Four Brahmaviharas
Maturing Dharma practice through Empathy and Compassion
Posted with the kind permission of Kamalashila
(Kamalashila replied to me saying he wishes people to know that he regards these talks as being pretty rough in places. He gives his kind permission to post with that caveat.)
(Also see Chapter 2: Meditation on Friendliness
in "Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight:
A Comprehensive Introduction to Buddhist Meditation"):
With metta / Antony.