The metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness, practice is one of a set of four related practices collectively known as the “Sublime Abodes” – because they are such fulfilling emotional states to experience and because they have such beneficial effects on our lives.
Each of these practices helps us to develop a different aspect or dimension of metta, and each of the other three practices deals with metta in contact with a different aspect of experience.
The first dimension of experience that we can contact with our metta is the happiness of others. When our metta meets an awareness of others’ happiness, then it subtly shifts its feeling tone. We call this mudita, or empathetic joy. When we are empathetically aware of another’s good fortune, then we experience a joy that aligns itself with that other joy. We feel happy because another person is happy.
This is not the same as a sense that we’re going to benefit because someone else has gained something that we want. For example, if a friend has inherited some money, you might think, “Oh goody, now I’m going to benefit because my friend has lots of wealth.” This isn’t mudita, but is just a selfish greed that attaches to someone else’s good fortune.
Genuine mudita is, like metta, unconditional. We’re not happy because we might benefit from someone else’s good fortune. We’re just happy because we like others to be happy.
The second dimension of experience that we can contact is that of suffering. When our metta meets an awareness of suffering, then it is subtly transformed into karuna, or compassion. Compassion is the meeting of metta and an awareness of suffering. Again it’s a sense of empathy. It’s not that we feel anxious or feel pity for the other person. When we feel pity we look down on them; feel superior to them. Compassion is simply a sense of love and cherishing for the well being of another when it meets the fact of that other’s suffering.
I think it’s very easy to see that lovingkindness, compassion, and empathetic joy are social emotions. They are emotions of relatedness, and are therefore very important guides to how we canact in our daily interactions with others.
The third dimension of experience that our metta can combine with is insight into the conditioned nature of both joy and suffering. When we empathetically sense the joys and suffering of others, and also see clearly how those joys and sufferings arise on the basis of those people’s actions, then there is a sense of upekkha.
Upekkha is usually translated as “equanimity” and that’s likely to be as close as we can get in the English language to describing what upekkha is. Upekkha certainly isn’t a sense of indifference, and it certainly isn’t a sense of “I told you so”. If you experience these kinds of attitudes then it means that your metta has slipped and been replaced by something more judgmental and much less positive. In fact upekkha is the opposite of those attitudes.
Equanimity, in this sense, means that your metta is quite unshakable despite an awareness of how all beings bring about, in large part, their own joys and sufferings. Equanimity is a calm, loving awareness of the way that both joy and suffering flow from our own actions. It’s a deep penetration into karma, or the way that we construct – for good or ill – our own experience through the actions we make.