(repost from 2010, but this is a good one!)
It’s April, the trees are blossoming, and this can lead to love and all sorts of complications. I think it’s time to revisit Sutra 1.33: the four brahmaviharas.
Although one’s yoga practice is a personal and individual matter, yoga is not a practice for only the ascetic removed from social connections. In fact, as you have surely experienced, it is through interaction with others that our serenity of mind is put to the test.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, before any mention of the eight limbs (which include breath control, yoga postures, etc), Patanjali, in Sutra 1.33 suggests four steps to create a path toward one pointed, untroubled clarity of mind.
- cultivate friendliness and goodwill towards happy, friendly people
- cultivate compassion towards unhappy people
- cultivate delight towards virtuous people
- have compassion toward those who are not virtuous and are causing suffering
These four attitudes are called the four Brahmaviharas.
The first starts with being friendly towards those who are already our friends. Easy enough. However, this also acknowledges that we sometimes feel jealous of those who are happy or receive success. Instead, we might cultivate admiration and joy at the success of others.
The second of these suggests we not only develop compassion for those people who are not happy, but refrain from judgment, or from feeling superior because they are less fortunate or successful than we are. For instance, the misfortune of another might just as easily be ours, so instead of feeling superior, or grateful that we have dodged the bullet, reflect upon how easily we could be the person who is unhappy and suffering.
The third brahmavihara is to delight in those who are virtuous. We can rejoice that such people exist and emulate them. Keeping company with people you admire and respect can elevate your own behavior and outlook.
Lastly, and possibly the most difficult, is to have compassion towards people who are not virtuous, including those who have hurt you. A common response to feeling wronged, hurt, or mistreated is to harbor ill will, attempt to lift ourselves up by broadcasting the story of our mistreatment, to dwell upon the shortcomings of the person who has done us wrong, and consider them our enemy, or at least a bad person.
Patanjali here suggests that while it may be a stretch to actually Love our enemies, we can develop tolerance towards them. As Marshall Govindam says, “ Do not judge others. Nor should we disregard those who are suffering, but love them as well. Judging others only reinforces in our own minds the qualities that we are condemning. We generally condemn in others what we harbor in ourselves. The world is within us. To change the world, we change our thoughts. Overlook the lapses of others; do not dwell on their weaknesses. By dwelling on their weaknesses we transmit thoughts to them, which only reinforce their weaknesses.”
Or, as Donna Farhi says in her book, Bringing Yoga to Life, The last brahmavihara, practicing impartiality or detachment toward those who have harmed us, is the black belt of all the brahmavihara. The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and to also love our enemies. GK Chesterson once famously added, “probably because they are generally the same people.” If we analyze the content of most of our meditative excursions, we may find them filled with dramatic reruns of arguments, standoffs, and criticisms of our perceived enemies. As the old saying goes, there is nothing more time consuming than having an enemy. We might notice a thorny resistance to changing our point of view because it is so satisfying to be right. Or we play the victim by showing our scars as proof of how badly we’ve been treated. Practicing the fourth bramavihara means we don’t have to hold on to the story and harbor ill-will toward another. By expounding upon the behavior of others, we fortify our ill will and encase ourselves in bitterness.
We can look at how we inflict suffering on ourselves and how we manufacture our own torment by failing to detach from things that we ultimately cannot change in another. Who is suffering when we hold on to these resentments and judgments? We are suffering ourselves. ….we all have it within us to behave in atrocious ways, given unfortunate circumstances. Without condoning the actions of others, by consciously recognizing the same potential in ourselves, and the same qualities, we can develop tolerance, and compassion towards even those who injure us.
Through practicing goodwill, equanimity, tolerance, and delight, we can break the habits of jealousy, judgment, resentment, and bitterness, which ultimately only sap our own energy, poison our happiness, and further disturb those around us.
By cultivating these four qualities, the mind becomes purified, and one-pointed serenity results.
Sutra 1.33 maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam
• maitri = friendliness, pleasantness, lovingness
• karuna = compassion, mercy
• mudita = gladness, goodwill
• upekshanam = acceptance, equanimity, indifference, disregard, neutrality
• sukha = happy, comfortable, joyous
• duhka = pain, misery, suffering, sorrow
• punya = virtuous, meritorious, benevolent
• apunya = non-virtuous, vice, bad, wicked, evil, bad, demerit, non-meritorious,
• vishayanam = regarding those subjects, in relation to those objects
• bhavanatah = by cultivating habits, by constant reflection, developing attitude,
cultivating, impressing on oneself
• chitta = mind field, consciousness
• prasadanam = purified, clear, serene, pleasant, pacified, undisturbed, peaceful,