Cultivating Compassion: The Four BrahmaViharas

Last week, we took a look at some yoga philosophy in the form of the Kleshas. This week, we’ll take a look at the prescription to fight against those Kleshas: the BrahmaViharas.

The First BrahmaVihara: Loving-Kindness

Patanjali begins with a simple practice to begin cultivating compassion. The first BrahmaVihara is loving-kindness. Here, we are asked to open our hearts and extend our good will towards those who have good will towards us.

This seems relatively easy to do. After all, humans are social creatures and we want to have positive relationships. We’re probably not as successful at loving-kindness as we’d like to think, though.

For instance, I know my husband has nothing but good will towards me. He is continually looking out for my well-being, helping me with projects, and doing whatever he can to make me smile. He also leaves every single cabinet door open, every light-switch on, and every dirty sock on the floor. We work opposite shifts, and there are times when I come home to find everything in disarray. In those times, my instinct is to get angry with him for these faults. See what I mean? We’re not always great at giving the benefit of the doubt to those we love best.

How, then, do we put this BramaVihara into action? For me, it’s as simple as remembering that my husband really does want the best for me. Yes, the cabinet doors are all hanging open, but it’s because he put the clean dishes away so I wouldn’t have to do it. True, his socks are in the middle of the living room floor, but he’ll give me a back-rub anytime I ask. It takes a conscious effort on our part, but extending our loving-kindness towards others is the first step in breaking free of our own self-destructive patterns.

The Second BramaVihara: Compassion

Once we get the hang of extending our loving-kindness to those we love, we can begin cultivating compassion for others. This is the second BrahmaVihara: compassion. We are asked here to identify with the suffering of others whom we may not know.

Extending our empathy to a stranger might sound odd at first. When you really examine it, though, it’s probably something you do everyday without thinking. For instance, you read a story online about a person whose home burned down in a fire. It probably doesn’t take you long to begin to feel sympathy for that person. You might even begin to imagine how you might feel if you lost your home and your possessions. Perhaps you say a little prayer for this stranger or send out some good thoughts. Maybe you even scan the story to see if donations are being accepted by the family. You are now practicing the second BrahmaVihara of compassion, without much effort at all.

The Third BrahmaVihara: Sympathetic Joy

As we journey more deeply into making ourselves more compassionate, we reach the third BrahmaVihara: sympathetic joy. This BhramaVihara is about celebrating and delighting in the successes of others, even if we have no personal share in those successes.

Sometimes, this comes naturally. We’re easily excited when we hear that someone we love is getting married, or having a baby. For my part, I don’t struggle much to take joy when a classmate in my yoga classes succeeds at a pose. Even if it is a pose that is personally difficult for me, or one that I myself I’m struggling to achieve, I’m overjoyed when someone else succeeds at it. It’s a good quality, I suppose, for someone who aspires to teach yoga!

Other times, we aren’t so successful with this BrahmaVihara. My husband and I are at a transitional point in our lives. I’m in yoga teacher training and working full-time as a legal assistant. He’s in school full-time and working part-time at a local restaurant. We’re in our mid-thirties, so our friends are in a different place. Unlike a lot of our peers, we don’t own a home, or have new cars, or go on vacation every year.

It can be difficult to take joy in someone else going to the beach for the third time this summer when we haven’t seen sand in years. However, I try to remind myself that it only causes me pain when I allow jealousy to overtake my heart. Being happy for someone else’s success, conversely, spreads the happiness around and magnifies it. That’s a much more worthwhile endeavor.

The Fourth BrahmaVihara: Equanimity

The final BrahmaVihara is equanimity. This is a bit of a strange word, but it isn’t a strange concept. Equanimity is about finding a stable, even state of mind. It is about grounding our emotional and mental state, even against those with whom we do not get along.

This is very hard for me. So often, I am wrapped up in my own life and my own problems. It’s hard sometimes to be extra kind to that cashier who was rude and short with me. After all, I’ve had a long day at work and I’m just trying to get that onion I forgot the other day so I can cook my dinner.

The concept of equanimity asks me to pause in this situation and consider the cashier. Maybe she has also had a long day. Perhaps her car broke down on her way to work. Maybe she’s sick, but can’t afford to call off. Perhaps some other customer called her manager because she wouldn’t take an expired coupon. No matter the reason, this BrahmaVihara asks me to stay calm and not react. It doesn’t necessarily call us to love those who are mean to us or hurt us. What it asks is for us to let go of our anger and our perceived hurts and move on.

The BrahmaViharas and the Kleshas

So what exactly do the BrahmaViharas have to do with the Kleshas? The Kleshas, if you remember, are all ways that we cause ourselves undue suffering. Much of that suffering comes from our own ego and attachments. The BrahmaViharas help us break out of those patterns.

Each of the BrahmaViharas builds off of the one before. Through the first three, we are able to let go more and more of the ego. We are able to see things from the perspective of others. We begin to empathize with our fellow man, finding ways to sympathize with their misfortunes and celebrate in their successes. As we begin to acknowledge how much we have in common with the rest of humanity, we can begin to break down our walls. We see how everything and everyone is connected.

This realization can lead to the final BrahmaVihara of equanmity. When someone wrongs us, we are able to let go of that hurt rather than letting it fester inside. We can see how others are just as fragile and human as we are ourselves. We become less attached to defining ourselves by the bad experiences of the past. As we do so, we stop beating ourselves and others up over these past wrongs and allow more room for happiness and joy.

Make no mistake, none of this is exactly easy. Some of it might come more naturally, and some of it might take work. It takes a conscious and concentrated effort to employ the BrahmaViharas consistently in our daily lives, but isn’t a more joyful life worth it?