Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.
The four sublime states or emotions are qualities of mind that we cultivate in order to alleviate the suffering we experience in everyday life and to feel more connected to others—to the worries and fears we all share. In the language of the Buddha (Pali), they are called the brahma viharas, which means “the dwelling place of awakened beings.” The good news for us unawakened beings is that it’s easy to begin cultivating the brahma viharas. Indeed, they are an integral part of other religious, spiritual, and humanistic traditions. I present them here with a distinctly Buddhist “flavor.”
Metta. The traditional translation for metta is lovingkindness. Meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, uses the word “friendliness.” Some Buddhist scholars say that friendliness (specifically, “boundless friendliness”) is a more accurate translation of metta because metta derives from the Pali word mitta which means “friend.” Whether you prefer the word lovingkindness or friendliness, the Indian sage Neem Karoli Baba captured the essence of metta when he said: “Don’t throw anyone out of your heart.” That would, of course, include yourself. It would also include that relative who is a thorn in your side. And it would include that politician whose views you abhor.
I like to think of metta as the simple act of well-wishing. Pick some phrases that resonate with you: may I be peaceful; may you be free from suffering; may all beings be safe and happy. I’ve started practicing metta as an antidote to judging others. As soon as I catch myself judging another (“he shouldn’t eat so much,” “she shouldn’t watch so much TV”), I immediately begin to say my metta phrases, wishing that the person be happy and free from suffering. Although I think of myself as a non-judgmental person, I’m amazed at how often I find myself engaged in petty judgments. I love the effect that switching to metta has. The judgment dissolves and I feel such a human connection to others because I’m wishing for them what I wish for myself.
Sylvia once said that she practices metta by just looking at a person and silently saying, “I love you.” That’s her well-wishing phrase! When she told this story, I thought “I can’t do that.” But I’ve tried it and I can. I’ve done it in the car. I’ve done it in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. When I do, I feel genuine love for utter strangers. I see that we share this life with its joys and its sorrows, and we share this planet with its beauty and its troubles. The essence of metta practice is to engage all people regardless of whether we share the same world view. Of course, I have my “edges” (certain politicians), but that’s why we practice. Sylvia says the best way to cultivate metta for someone with whom we vehemently disagree is to recognize that all beings, including that person, want to be happy.
Karuna. Karuna means compassion. It’s often referred to as the quivering of the heart in response to suffering. As with metta, we cultivate it both for ourselves and for others. Responding with compassion to our own suffering gives rise to compassion for others because, as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron said, “Sorrow has the exact same taste for all of us.” And yet, many of us find it hard to cultivate compassion for ourselves. We’re our own harshest critics.
The Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, helped me learn to cultivate compassion for myself. In Commentaries on the Diamond Sutra, he describes how our body responds naturally—without thinking—to its own pain: “When our left hand is injured, our right hand takes care of it right away. It doesn’t stop to say, ‘I am taking care of you. You are benefitting from my compassion.’” I fell and broke my ankle a few years ago. Before any thoughts about what happened formed in my mind, just as Thich Nhat Hanh said, my hands had already reached out to care for the pain.
Inspired by his teaching, I consciously cultivate compassion for myself by picking a phrase that speaks directly to whatever the source of my suffering is at the moment: “It’s hard to be too sick to go out today,” “My sweet body, working so hard to support me.” Sometimes I stroke one arm with the hand of the other as I repeat my chosen phrase. And, just as Pema Chodron said, as I’ve learned to cultivate compassion for myself, my heart has opened to others who are suffering.
Mudita. There’s not a one-word translation in English that conveys the meaning of mudita. So, unlike compassion for example, we are not necessarily raised to value mudita. It means to feel joy in the joy of others. In other words, it’s the experience of empathetic joy. When we’re dwelling in the heavenly abode of mudita, we feel joy when another person is happy. We may not have a one-word translation in English for mudita, but I’m happy to report that neither do we have a one-word translation for the German word schadenfreude which means feeling joy in the misfortune of others. I wish I could say that I’ve never felt schadenfreude. I have. But since I began practicing mudita, I’ve noticed that the slightest movement of my mind in the direction of schadenfreude intensifies my own suffering. I no longer take joy in other people’s misfortune.
Just as metta is an antidote for our judgmental tendencies, mudita is the perfect antidote for envy. When I became chronically ill, I could be overcome with envy just hearing about people going about their mundane daily activities! It can be a challenge to cultivate mudita. Invariably, when my husband leaves on the six hour drive to visit our ten year-old granddaughter in Southern California, envy still arises, despite 20 years of Buddhist practice. But as soon as I recognize it, I reflect on how unhappy it makes me and how it doesn’t get me any closer to L.A. Then I begin to practice mudita, reflecting on the wonderful time they’ll be having together. It helps me to be very specific in this reflection—to visualize them talking and laughing together at places I know they love to go. After a while, that envy vanishes and I feel happy for them…and that makes me feel joyful.
Upekkha. Upekkha means equanimity. It refers to a mind that is calm and steady in the face of life’s ups and downs. This is a tall order because it means opening our hearts and minds not just to pleasant experiences but to unpleasant ones too. Resisting the latter just adds our own stress to what is already difficult. Lama Yeshe beautifully expresses the essence of equanimity: “If you expect your life to be up and down, your mind will be much more peaceful.”
Most Buddhist teachers present the four sublime states in the order I’ve written about them: metta(lovingkindness/friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity). But in her book, It’s Easier Than You Think, Sylvia, with her usual common sense and clarity, starts with equanimity. She says that an equanimous mind holds all things in “an ease-filled balance.”
Then, she says, from this place of equanimity, when we see people going about their everyday lives, friendliness (metta) is our natural response. When we see someone suffering, compassion (karuna) is our natural response. When we see someone who’s happy, empathetic joy (mudita) is our natural response. This is such an insightful approach to the sublime states. It’s not surprising that it comes from Sylvia, because being in her presence (whether in-person or through her books) is like being sprinkled with angel dust—”heavenly abode” angel dust! My wish for you is that you begin, even modestly, to cultivate the four sublime states.
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in on all three of my books but especially in Chapters 13-19 of How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.