Theme of the Month: The Four Brahmaviharas

Last night I was teaching class, and I was speaking about being kind with ourselves as the students held a long pigeon pose. I was saying this, based on experience of how when we are still we more readily hear the chatter of our minds, and so often those thoughts can be negative or self-defeating. It made me think about one of my favorite yoga teachings, and my favorite yoga sutra…

Maitri karuna mudito upekksanam sukha dukha punya apunya vissayanam bhavanatas chitta prasadanam
Yoga Sutra 1.33

“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”

This Yoga Sutra offers us four attitudes to cultivate as we navigate our lives, friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In Buddhist teachings these are called the Brahmaviharas, or the noble virtues. These virtues, are also referred to as the “divine abodes” because they are the mindstates in which all the enlightened ones reside. In this sutra, Patanjali not only offers positive attitudes for us to practice, but also presents obstacles to our practice. These virtues and challenges are often metaphorically compared to “keys” and “locks.” We simply need to know which key to use, for each particular lock and we can maintain peace of mind in any situation.

Patanjali teaches the correct key through the order of the words in the sutra. The first “key” is friendliness. We are encouraged to cultivate friendliness for the sukha. Sukha means sweet, so essentially those who are sweet or happy. The next “key” is compassion and the lock to use it on is dukha. Dukha was used in India to describe a bad axle on a wheel, causing a bumpy ride, which is the opposite of sweet. Dukha means sour or those who are suffering, in other words on a bumpy ride. The next virtue is joy, which we extend to those who are punya, or saintly. People who are dedicating their lives to the service of others are to be joyfully appreciated, and admired. Lastly, and perhaps the trickiest attitude to master is upekshanam (also upekka), equanimity, toward the apunya – the opposite of saintly. When people are acting irreverently, behaving poorly, and allowing greed and ego to drive their actions, upekshanam is the key to access our inner sanctuary and maintain equanimity. My teacher described upekshanam, as non-entanglement, because quite often it is these types of people who rile us up and ensnare us in their wicked web of activity, and we may find ourselves acting similarly to them through hatred, fear, and disgust. Our best course of action is to be present, monitor our thoughts so that we can respond versus react. In doing so we can be even-minded, perhaps even open-hearted and maintain our peace within. We can keep our mind and emotions clear and calm when we apply these virtues in our lives.

Finally, and here is perhaps my favorite twist on this teaching… we may understand the Four Brahmaviharas in their context to others as the “locks”, however we must also apply these attitudes toward ourselves, and our own varied emotional states. There are times in our lives when we are the happy, and there are times when we are the crabby ones, times when we are virtuous, and times when we forget our light and get entangled in negativity. Friendliness, compassion, admiration, and equanimity can again be practiced as we ebb and flow with the human experience.

The teachings of this sutra are practical and empowering. We always have a choice in response to our own and others behaviors. There is never a good reason for us to give away our inner peace. Additionally, Patanjali is not suggesting that we passively drift through life. We can still display our passion for the things we feel strongly about. A yogis weapon for action is the sword of discernment, yielded through the practice of skillful inquiry within to maintain steadiness of mind. A clear presence as we navigate turbulent times is just as valuable as unending support, which will help us act without reacting. This same presence of mind is just as valuable when we are happy or joyful, as we can truly appreciate the moment and all of its glory. Take these four “keys” with you everywhere you go, and remember to use them to unlock perpetual tranquility in any situation.