Learning & Practice

Living with Heart: Class 1

“Love, compassion, joy and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Please Note: This talk is was transcribed from the class recording using speech-to-text software. It was slightly edited to improve readability. In light of this, it may not flow as smoothly as the written word. For the privacy and safety of our community, the dialogue portion was not included

Dharma Talk:

The Brahmaviharas, sometimes translated as the four immeasurables, the four divine abodes, or the four heavenly ways of being, all sound very spiritual. There's an interesting thing that was said by the Buddha in a couple of Sutras. He talked about those who have these qualities of the Brahmaviharas - loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity - fully established in them, having the mind of the Buddha, which means awakened. So, in essence, what's being said is that when these four qualities are established in us as fully matured and developed qualities of heart and mind, it is awakening.

It leads to awakening. That's an awakened mind. As I mentioned, the four Brahmaviharas are practices that engender safety in ourselves and in the world. We're often internally conflicted. Part of the nature of who we are, our more reactive sense of self, our less awakened sense of self, gets caught in patterns of fear.

We get caught in patterns of reactivity, in unwholesome mental states that often manifest as shame, comparison, fear of not having what we want, or fear of what we have that we don't want, and all of the stuff in between. These four Brahmaviharas are actually tools to create a sense of safety in our heart and mind when these things are active in us. Because if we have the quality of loving-kindness, it's difficult to harbor ill will. If we have the quality of compassion, it's difficult to cause harm. If we have the capacity for appreciative joy for others, it's difficult to have conceit, envy, clinging to self, and all of that. To have equanimity that's present, it's difficult to have judgment.

And clinging to that judgment of other people and ourselves and the reactivity of what's stirred within us in relation to others and in relation to what's going on outside of us and inside of us.

When we're protected from that, when we protect others from that as it might emanate from us, the Brahmaviharas are actually said to be some of the primary supports for our insight meditation practice and our mindfulness practice. Because if we engage in our mindfulness practice with a sense of clinging, with a sense of hyper-protectionism around those fears and those desires and those wants and all of that stuff, it's actually really difficult to see clearly. It's difficult to concentrate because our minds get wrapped up in all of that stuff. Have you noticed that happens?

So imagine, in meditation and in daily living, if we were just practicing mindfulness, just raw mindfulness as this kind of intention to gain insight into the world, but we were caught in reactivity with everything that we saw. It's difficult. So loving-kindness practice, or loving-kindness itself, can help.

The first of the Brahmaviharas, metta, is a quality and state of heart and mind that truly cares. It's a friendly quality. This one is actually the closest to our direct translation of love. It's goodwill, care, and warmth. Along with mindfulness, it is one of the most primary practices that we can cultivate.

It's surprising to look and see how much ill will is within us at any given moment. I'm not just talking about plotting to blow up the moon or something like that. Rather, it's the subtle movements that cascade and compile into more serious mind states.

Metta is this unconditional friendliness and the desire for all beings to be safe and well.

Has anyone ever done something, just out of a sense of responsibility, because it needed to be done and it happened to benefit and support other people, but you were doing it without the quality of loving-kindness? And then maybe you realized there was dukkha in that, and you had insight into it and did it altruistically instead? You refocused the attention, and the difference was like night and day, right?

So loving-kindness practice, or loving-kindness, is encouraged every time we have mindful awareness in our experience. The intention is to make loving-kindness present at each point of contact, wherever our attention goes. If there's mindfulness, there's loving-kindness. If there's loving-kindness, there's mindfulness. These two qualities create a very powerful combination, allowing us to see and care. We can see something, and after that, unwholesome and unbeneficial mind states can arise. But if we're seeing it and trying to protect that point of contact, ourselves, our own minds, and others, the combination of awareness and loving-kindness makes a huge difference. It affects not only the felt sense of the experience but also our openness and ability to grow and cultivate our own hearts and minds.

Compassion is sometimes referred to as the whole practice itself. You'll hear things like "Buddhism is the tradition of compassion and wisdom." Compassion is one of the highest ideals in our practice. Ultimately, we want to live with great wisdom and great compassion.

It is said that to practice the Dharma is a profound act of compassion. Why not loving-kindness? Loving-kindness and compassion are the same thing. It's like looking at the same sun at different times of the day: the morning sun would be loving-kindness, and the evening sun would be compassion. They are the same thing, but they manifest in different ways. This is true for all of the Brahmaviharas – they are all the light of the sun, just in different manifestations. So compassion arises when our loving-kindness is established.

This is a precursor, a proximal cause, a contributing factor, a supportive factor, and a mutually engendering factor for compassion. When kindness is present and that kindness is in contact with dukkha within oneself or in what one sees through their mindfulness and kindness practice, loving-kindness manifests as compassion. It is the desire not only to want things to be well but also to help bring them back into wellness, help establish wellness, and correct the factors that contribute to ill-being and dukkha.

This might sound familiar, as it is something we hear constantly at Rooted In Mindfulness. But we want to hear it fresh every moment. This should never be old news; it is new each time in our practice.

Empathetic joy, or mudita in Pali, is joy in the context of the Brahmaviharas, especially when applied externally to others. We primarily lean into this appreciative joy for the wellbeing and happiness of others. It is also the appreciative joy that arises when we see that things are going well, like when we have an intention for kindness, goodwill, safety, and support for ourselves and others. When we see that these qualities are present, appreciative joy arises. 

As an extension of that, and because the Brahmaviharas practices serve as an antidote to clinging to a small sense of self, the primary focus is on allowing ourselves to appreciate the joy of other people's wellbeing and happiness. This makes sense since it's an antidote to our own comparing mind, jealousy, and fear of missing out. Practicing appreciative joy for others helps us get out of our own small sense of self.

Appreciative joy, or empathetic joy, is a window into our wakefulness and our liberated heart and mind. When we're able to see the world with appreciative joy, along with other matured mental factors, we're seeing with an awake mind. We see the goodness, integrity, meaning, and purpose rather than seeing through deficiency or excess of clinging. To be able to rejoice in the happiness of other people feels good and is a sign of an awakened mind.

For example, if someone enjoys watching a singing competition and feels joy for the contestants who perform well and are happy, this is an instance of appreciative joy. If, instead, they focus on comparing themselves to the contestants and wish they could do the same, it is difficult to experience that appreciative joy.

When we're caught in a comparing mindset, it is a glimpse into the joy that arises with an awakened mind. The world is so different when we can appreciate it rather than be in conflict with it or be dissatisfied. If we cannot tune into what integrity is and have an empathetic relationship with the goodness in things, it is difficult to truly experience goodwill. We can have the intention of goodwill, but if we have never seen it manifest within ourselves because we're too busy comparing, that goodwill is hollow. It becomes just an idea or a concept, and we can dress it up with words and understanding, but that's not the real thing. The empathetic relationship needs to be there for it to be genuine.

Equanimity practice is also important in this context. Equanimity practice, one of the Brahmaviharas like appreciative joy, can be seen in two different manifestations. 

One manifestation that informs all of our practice is the ability to be present with what is already there. That's the tough one – to be able to be present with what is without getting caught in conflictive mind states or unwholesome, unbeneficial mind states, or reactivity. Without equanimity, our whole practice becomes really difficult because we might be practicing insight and aiming to get to the root cause of all our suffering in a particular moment. 

We may sit down, determined to be serious about our practice, and manage to get a few breaths in with a certain amount of consistency. Our mindfulness is present, and we're starting to see the workings of our heart and mind as they relate to that moment. But then we see something we don't like. We might think that maybe this isn't the right time for practice or that it's too hard. We cared enough to show up, but when we saw what was there to be seen, we didn't like it, and our equanimity wasn't able to support our learning and practice. This distance from our goal is created when we cling to something, become reactive, and lack equanimity.

The other side of equanimity, especially as it relates to the Brahmaviharas, is not judging others according to our preferences or biases. It's about allowing others the freedom to be who they are without necessarily wanting them to be what we want them to be for us or what we think they should be for their life. 

Has anyone ever received well-intentioned, caring advice that somehow missed what your intentions for living were, but someone else told you how you should be? It may not have felt quite right. Have you ever done that to somebody? These are moments where equanimity is lacking.

So, these four Brahmaviharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity – are essential in our practice for cultivating a balanced and open heart and mind.

These four Brahmaviharas are considered beautiful mind states. If they were fully established in us, along with mindfulness and all those other aspects, we would be able to witness a heart and mind that is free from dukkha. Not only that, but these qualities of heart and mind, along with our actions, would serve as antidotes to dukkha. It's important to recognize that they need to be continuously cultivated. 

In the context of the Four Noble Truths, these Brahmaviharas play an essential role.

The First Noble Truth is the existence of dukkha, or the potential for ill-being, which arises particularly from the manifestation of unwholesome mental states. When there's delusion, lack of kindness and compassion, and other unwholesome qualities, these are considered to be dukkha.

The Second Noble Truth is the cause of this dukkha – the manifestation of unwholesome mental states. This involves clinging to those unwholesome mental states, our preferences, lack of equanimity, reactivity, and views.

The Third Noble Truth is the realization that we can have a mind that has a very mature and consistent establishment of wholesome mental states, including the Brahmaviharas. To see these Four Brahmaviharas as fully established in ourselves is to have a mind that is free of suffering, along with other mental states. This freedom is available to us when we let go of our clinging to unwholesome mental states.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the cultivation of wholesome mental states. It's the practice, the effort, the mindfulness, the concentration, the right view, the right intention, and the right way of living that make up the Eightfold Path, which is imbued and integrated with the Brahmaviharas. They are one practice, and they mutually support and nurture each other.

RIM is a small and dedicated community that continues the tradition of offering authentic teachings and practices freely — to all who may benefit. In turn, contributions from people like you support these offerings, our teachers, and a community of people who aspire to co-create a wise, compassionate, and healthy world.

♥ Donate to RIM — Your generosity is appreciated and makes a real impact.

RIM is a 501(c3) non-profit organization.