Introducing the Brahma Viharas
The Brahma Viharas refers to a type of mental development we can greatly benefit from practicing in recovery. It involves a number of skills we teach as part of the Hope Mindful Compassion program. The Brahma Viharas originate from Buddhism, but you don’t need to become a Buddhist in order to follow this path to serenity.
One way to describe mindfulness would be to say that it involves becoming more objective about what is happening in our minds. It requires curious investigation or our thoughts and emotions and the willingness to accept rather than resist what we find. Brahma Vihara practice differs from the other tools of mindfulness in that it involved deliberately cultivating certain positive mental states.
Brahma Viharas – The Four Immeasurables
The word ‘brahma’ can be translated into English as ‘divine’ and ‘vihara’ as ‘abode’. The Brahma Viharas are also sometimes referred to as the ‘four immeasurables’ or the ‘four divine emotions’. This set of desirable attitudes includes:
• Metta – Loving-Kindness
• Karuna – Compassion
• Mudita – Sympathetic Joy
• Upekkha – Equanimity
Loving-kindness is all about developing a nicer attitude towards ourselves and other people. It means we replace self-criticism with a more supportive approach, and we start to genuinely care about other people in a less conditional way (i.e. not “I’ll like you, if you do as I say”). We can develop loving-kindness through metta meditation.
Compassion is our ability to be with suffering. It is possible to be kind yet lacking in compassion (e.g. doing a ‘nice’ thing for someone without really considering what this person needs). Compassion is a capacity within us, and it can only be developed through bravely facing discomfort (e.g. negative emotions) as it arises in our own lives or the lives of other people. Metta meditation can allow us develop compassion but other practices such as tonglen are particularly good for this.
Sympathetic joy is a happiness we experience from hearing about good things happening to other people. It means that we can always have something to feel good about because something nice is always going to be happening to someone. The development of sympathetic joy is a sure sign that we are escaping self-obsession and therefore well on the way to emotional sobriety.
“We may need to remove people from our lives, but we never have to remove them from our hearts”
As we become kinder and more compassionate, we also develop a strong urge to be of service to other people. There is great joy to be found in this type of work, but there can be dangers if we lack equanimity. If we become convinced it is our job to fix everyone else, by getting them to follow our path, we will quickly become burned-out and we may even end up damaging those we are trying to help. Equanimity is the understanding that each human is on their own journey.
We benefit from our urge to help other people (it is our escape from self-obsession), but they are under no obligation to accept this help. We needn’t be angry or disappointed because these people are not doing the things we suggest and we certainly don’t need to close our hearts to them. Equanimity is the ability to keep loving other people even if we don’t feel able to help them. We develop this quality through mindfulness practice.
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