I contemplate lovingkindness;
May all beings be treated with love.
I contemplate compassion;
May all beings be free of afflictions.
I contemplate joy;
May all beings be happy.
I contemplate equanimity;
May all beings, without distinction, be perfectly happy.
The gatha above is one I’ve used often in meditation to become more fully aware of four essential characteristics of the spiritual practitioner. It helps me to consider these qualities in and of themselves, and how they may play out in the lives of living beings. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, these characteristics were so called because it was thought that nurturing lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity would lead to the greatest possible happiness in humans and for other sentient beings. The Sanskrit words for each (for those who are interested in the linguistic origins of meditation practice) are maitri (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy), and upekksa (equanimity). The practice of nurturing them enables us to experience deep outward tranquility and inner peace.
I love the idea of wishing perfect happiness for all sentient beings without distinction. It’s a way of expanding your consciousness to envelop all human beings–and indeed, all creatures that share sensory awareness with us. When I ponder the rich emotional lives displayed by our two cats, I’m reminded that other species seek happiness and avoid pain just as we do.
Maitri, or lovingkindness, is an absolute requirement for human happiness. We all want to love and be loved: maitri shows us the way. This is the kind of love that seeks to bring joy to another; the mere intention to do so is not enough. We must have an understanding of what brings happiness to a particular person; without that understanding, our attempts to make them happy will fail and may even backfire.
Karuna, or compassion, is the ability to feel another’s pain. Sometimes just a few minutes of listening to someone’s problems can help them to solve them. If we approach a suffering person calmly, having meditated and centered ourselves, we can be a source of great comfort to them. Karuna relieves suffering; maitri brings happiness. They work beautifully in tandem.
Mudita means joy, and sympathetic joy in particular. This is the happiness we feel at the good fortune of another; it may take practice to develop. Some people are just naturally good-natured and find it easy to rejoice in other people’s success. Others are weighed down by a lifetime of knee-jerk reactions of envy when they hear someone’s good new. When they first come to meditation practice, they may have to jettison a great deal of habit energy in this regard. Envy makes us suffer; sympathetic joy brings us happiness. Daily practice is key.
Upekksa, or equanimity, is the ability to respond similarly to a wide variety of stimuli. The goal here is not to become robotic, denying our emotions as if we were machines. It’s the learned skill of tempering the extreme emotional reactions th at cause us to suffer. Practitioners of meditation arts do not deny their rich emotional lives; they simply navigate the ever-changing emotional landscape without letting it cause them undue upset. Extremes of love can be almost as damaging as extreme hatred. Blinded to reality by extreme devotion to a person or cause, we may act irrationally; causing great suffering for ourselves, our mates, and our families. The extremities of hate are clear: shootings, stabbings, bombings and political invective are all its results. The practice of equanimity protects us from going off the deep end in either direction. The practice of nurturing all four of these characteristics will bring us tranquility and will have a ripple effect on all we come in contact with.
Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro,
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