The four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are a progressive series of skillful qualities and the meditations in which we cultivate them.
So here’s my “yes, but” guide to how these four brahmavihāras of lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), joyful appreciation (muditā), and the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening (upekkhā) are related to each other.
So we start with the most fundamental brahmavihāra, which is lovingkindness. Lovingkindness grows from an awareness that our deepest desire is to be happy, and a humble recognition that happiness is often quite hard to find. So often we’re excited about something new in our lives — a new car, a new phone, a new relationship — and expect to be happy, and yet find that the course of our lives is bumpy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Happiness comes, happiness goes, and we often don’t seem to have much control of it.
Reflecting on this sense of inconstancy, fragility, and unpredictability can lead to a sense of feeling vulnerable. And although this feeling is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s very real and very healthy, because it’s recognizing our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining happiness that allows us to recognize that others, too, have the same desire and the same difficulty. Desiring happiness and finding happiness to be elusive are fundamental and universal human experiences. Seeing this in others allows us to resonate with them; more and more we naturally want to do nothing to obstruct their happiness, and do what we can to help them be happy.
So basically, in lovingkindness, we wish others well and wish that they be happy.
Yes, we wish that beings be happy, but still beings suffer. It’s when lovingkindness and an awareness of others’ suffering come together than compassion arises. That in fact is the very definition of compassion.
So we become aware of others’ suffering, and wish that they be free from that suffering. And as we train in compassion, increasingly we act in ways that help beings to avoid suffering.
We actually need a bit of upekkha — in the sense of closely watching (the root meaning of upekkhā) our feelings in a non-reactive way — as we cultivate both lovingkindness and compassion. We have to be prepared to accept things not being the way we ideally would want them to be, because we’re wanting beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, and yet so often they’re not happy and keep encountering suffering.
Yes, we wish beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, but they keep doing things that destroy their own happiness and cause them suffering. Well, don’t we all?
So we need to appreciate, rejoice in, and support the things beings do that actually do lead to peace and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s skillful actions, words, and thoughts that lead to true peace and joy. Skillfulness is that which genuinely leads to happiness and freedom from unnecessary suffering.
So we rejoice in and encourage the development of qualities like courage, patience, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and persistence. And we rejoice in the peace and joy that they bring.
We need even more upekkhā here, so that we don’t blame beings for not “obediently” being skillful! We want them to be happy and not to suffer, and yet they keep doing things that cause themselves and others to suffer. So this has to be handled with patience and forgiveness.
The Desire That Beings Experience the Peace of Awakening
Yes, we rejoice in the skillful, but it’s not possible for beings to become completely free from suffering by acting, thinking, and speaking skillfully. There are deep roots to our unskillful behavior. Unskillfulness is rooted in fundamental views we have about ourselves — false views — about our imagined separateness and permanence. And to uproot our unskillfulness (and the suffering it causes) we have to radically change the way we see ourselves and lose those false views.
In particular we have to cultivate a radical appreciation of impermanence (anicca) , so that we see that there is nothing for our “self” to cling to. In fact we come to see that there is no permanent or separate self to do any clinging in the first place. We can also appreciate that our experiences — even our actions — are not truly ours and are not us (anattā). We can’t hold onto them. We don’t really create them. This is hard to appreciate (your mind is probably rebelling at the concept) but I’ll explain this in a future post. We also develop a radical equanimity, which recognizes that it’s not our experiences that bring us happiness, but the way we relate to our experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha).
These kinds of reflections lead to a profound shift in our perspectives, which we call “insight.” And it’s this insight that leads to irrevocable peace.
So in upekkhā bhāvana meditation we’re wishing the peace of awakening for ourselves and others. We recognize that if — to go back to mettā and karunā (lovingkindness and compassion) — we wish beings to be happy and free from suffering, then we ultimately need to do what we can to get ourselves and others to the point of spiritual awakening.
Upekkhā is often described as the consummation or pinnacle of the earlier brahmavihāras, and as a loving state it’s in no way cold or detached. When we penetrate deeply into lovingkindness we find a passionate desire to bring beings (ourselves included) to full awakening, or bodhi.
Upekkhā is the fulfillment of the other brahmavihāras. It’s their perfection. It’s the deepest form of love. How much more love could we have for beings than to wish for them to be totally free from the three toxins or greed, hatred, and delusion, and the suffering that they cause.