Cultivating Love: Brahmaviharas & The Four Faces of Love

as the Buddha said himself “the way is not in the sky, the way is in the heart”.
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The two basic human states of love and fear are two attitudes we alternate between daily. Chances are, if you’re feeling calm, relaxed and safe, many of your actions will be done from a place of love. If you’re having a stressful day or communicating with people you don’t necessarily trust, however, this is usually when fear rears its ugly head. These states of being aren’t a recent discovery – for thousands of years, wise sages and thinkers have spoken about the human habits of acting from love or fear.

Take a look at yogic and Buddhist philosophy and you’ll discover some of the key ways we can cultivate a more loving attitude in life. One of the ways is the method of the Brahma Viharas or the ‘four faces of love’, guiding us towards an ability to access our hearts and act from there – as the Buddha said himself “the way is not in the sky, the way is in the heart”.

The Brahma Viharas

The Brahma Viharas are a series of four Buddhist virtues and the practices used to cultivate them. Together, they’re known as ‘the four immeasurables’, ‘abodes of Brahma’, or the ‘four faces of love’. It is said that all of these attitudes are a derivative of the primary state of love.

In these teachings, Brahma refers to ‘the greatest’, ‘the first’, ‘the foremost’ or ‘best’. Vihara translates as ‘dwelling’, ‘abiding’ or ‘home’. World-renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg uses the term ‘your best home’, which we could think of as the place these virtues originate from, and the place we journey towards throughout the use of them. Through the practice of the Brahmaviharas it is said that consciousness begins to settle and that we indeed act from the very best part of ourselves.

The Four Brahmaviharas

Metta: Loving Kindness and benevolence

Karuna: Compassion

Mudita: Sympathetic and empathetic joy

Upeksha: Equanimity

These four attitudes can be practiced both in a formal meditation setting and in everyday life. They’re also found in the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in sutra 1:33:

maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam

“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.”

As we can see, these virtues are beneficial both to the outer environment of the world and the inner environment of the mind. By cultivating these attitudes within ourselves, we become a calmer presence in the world, and carry with us a more balanced state of being.

Metta: Friendliness Towards The Happy

At first glance this may seem like a naturally ingrained attitude, however if you observe your thoughts and emotions you may find this isn’t always the case. Another’s happiness can very often be a reminder of our own suffering – the promotion of a colleague sparking jealousy, a friend’s relationship a reminder of or own downfalls, or another’s happiness the frustrating trigger leading to our own sense of lack.

If these habitual responses are familiar to you, the Buddha recommends the practice of Metta Bhavna or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation. By repeating this meditation regularly, we habituate the mind to cultivate a loving attitude towards those we like, those we are indifferent about, those we do not like, and finally towards ourselves. Metta is the grounding of goodwill and kindness to others upon which the other Brahmaviharas are built, just as Ahimsais the Yama upon which all other Yamas are built.

Karuna: Compassion For The Unhappy

Whether you’re a parent, a reliable friend, or indeed a yoga teacher, many of us are often faced with feeling responsible for others’ happiness. Buddhist teachings advise that we find it in our hearts to remember our own suffering to feel compassion for those in a dark place and hope for the suffering of others to stop. Both the Buddhist and yogic teachings advise that we be a light in the world in order to add more positivity and less suffering. The teachings also advise, however, that we do this with a sense of non-attachment.

Mudita: Sympathetic Joy

Similarly to Metta, Mudita encourages us to find the good in others and celebrate it. Rather than seeing others as competition or allowing their successes to spark jealousy or frustration within ourselves, the teachings advise using the happiness and success of others as inspiration. The teachings of the Brahmaviharas encourage us to spend time with those who inspire us and to rejoice at the virtues of others.

Upeksha: Equanimity

Upeksha is the ability to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment and contentment. Much like Santosha (one of the five Niyamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), Upeksha is an attitude of stillness amongst the changing tides of the world. This attitude helps clear the mind so that we’re more able to see the reality of each situation, rather than becoming emotionally caught up and inevitably suffering. Upeksha encourages us to see objectively, meet everyone as an equal, engage in each conversation with equal interest, and treat each new moment with as much importance as the last.

Metta Meditation Practice

Want to practice acting from a place of love? Try this Metta Bhavna or ‘loving kindness’ meditation, bringing the mind and the heart together to send out love to the world around you, and yourself too:

Sit in a comfortable position and observe your breathing

Bring your attention to the space of your heart, breathing slowly and deeply and acknowledging feelings of love and caring emanating from this space

Repeat to yourself:

  • May I be well, healthy and strong.
  • May I be happy.
  • May I abide in peace.

Bring into your mind someone you like a lot and respect.

Send them these feelings of warmth and caring, as you wish them well:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May you abide in peace.

Bring to mind someone you barely know and feel neutral about. This may be someone you have seen in the street, who you see on the bus, or pass in the corridor at work.

Send them these feelings of warmth and caring, as you wish them well:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May you abide in peace.

Bring to mind someone you have recently been upset with or have argued with. Chose someone with whom you have been mildly irritated. It may have been a slow driver or someone at work, but not someone you feel has hurt you deeply.

Send them these feelings of warmth and caring, as you wish them well:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May you abide in peace.

 If you wish, do this with someone who has hurt you in the past. It is important to remember that you’re not condoning or approving of what they have done. You are simply allowing yourself to let go of any pain or anger you hold within yourself, allowing yourself freedom from those feelings.

Send them these feelings of warmth and caring, as you wish them well:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May you abide in peace.

Send the loving-kindness gradually outward to everyone in the surrounding area, your town, your country, the world.

  • May you all be well,
  • May you all be happy,
  • May you all abide in peace,

Finally, focus once again on yourself, so the feeling of loving-kindness fills your whole being; breathing in peacefully, breathing out peacefully; at peace with yourself and the world. Finish by becoming aware of your breathing and the room around you once again.

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