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The Four Immeasurables: Heart Practices for Challenging Times

Many in the United States and around the world experienced the US Presidential election as a kind of political earthquake, the initial shock at its center disruptive to our sense of safety and mutual trust, and as it radiates outward, altering the larger political landscape. While the particulars are unknown, many of us find ourselves deeply concerned—even experiencing anxiety—about the implications of a Trump presidency for ourselves and for the people and causes to which we are devoted. We search for a way to hold this moment, one that validates our real concerns without getting overwhelmed by them. Quite rightly, in this moment of suffering, many of us turn towards the teachings of the Dharma for solace, insight and some indication of a way forward.

In my own practice, I began to reflect on the Dharma principle of equanimity, particularly in the context of the Brahma Viharas or “four immeasurables,” not only to provide guidance but also to energize and inspire my response to moments such as these.1

Heart Alchemy

The Brahma Viharas were offered by the Buddha as four virtues to which we might aspire and the corresponding heart practices that cultivate them. They consist of loving-kindness (metta or maitrī), compassion (karunā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā). In my explorations, I have come to think of these practices as working intentionally with the energetic physics of the heart.

Many of us are familiar with the most common Brahma Vihara practice of metta or unconditional friendliness. This fundamental kind regard arises naturally in each of our hearts, and in this practice, the Buddha invites us to explicitly invoke and develop it. In the process, the hard edges in our hearts naturally soften. This unshakable kindness, metta’s raw energy, changes form as it contacts experience. In the presence of sorrow, this energy is transformed into compassion or karunā. Encountering suffering, the kind heart resonates with it, allowing this pain to be recognized and experienced in a wider field with the desire to alleviate its causes. Similarly, in the presence of joy, the energy of metta is transformed through resonance into sympathetic joy or muditā. Upon contact, genuine happiness is recognized and experienced in a wider field with the desire to celebrate and encourage its causes. In traveling through and resonating with joy and sorrow, the energy of kindness is seasoned and matured. Equanimity or upekkhā is then the culmination of the connected heart’s journey as it unifies and balances these experiences. At this point it also integrates wisdom, understandings such as impermanence, inherent dissatisfaction, interdependence or emptiness.

The four practices inform, balance and indeed need one another. The risk in metta alone is that, in its beautiful universality, it remains diffuse and somewhat detached. Compassion and sympathetic joy therefore ground metta in experience. Likewise, the risk we face in authentically resonating with the experience of joy or sorrow is that we lose ourselves to that energy, falling into despair or manic euphoria. The twin forms of resonance therefore balance one another, reminding the suffering heart that joy still exists and reminding the joyous heart that it can still handle difficulty. Equanimity’s wisdom, its wider view, is already at work even in this balancing. And yet, equanimity has its own risk for without metta, compassion, and sympathetic joy, the wisdom of equanimity is uninformed, immature, abstract, and even aloof or indifferent. As a final stage of the four immeasurables, equanimity has matured the energy of metta, while contextualizing and balancing the empathetic responses to experience, karunā and muditā, with wisdom. In this heart-alchemy, a wise heart is forged over time through courage, attention and experience.

Especially Now

Facing immense challenges like those posed by a Trump presidency—when so much of what we care about is suddenly much more at risk—authentic equanimity enables a way to give ample, caring space to our confusion and concern without transcending or becoming lost in them. Instead of pointing to a way out, true equanimity provides a way through.

We frequently turn to the practice of metta in difficult times, which is wise. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it might be worth exploring all four of these heart practices as a way to thoroughly ground our intention for well-being in real-life experience, while integrating beneficial wisdom. While falling into judgement and blame may be especially tempting, we can purposely cultivate compassion for the pain that results from and underlies expressions of harm. Self-compassion exercises, such as those offered by Kristin Neff, may be especially important as we need to make room for whatever grief, anger, and fear are present in our own hearts. It can be powerful to experience at once the difficult emotion and simultaneously the loving presence that cares about suffering and holds a wider view. Intentional cultivation of joy, for instance with gratitude practices, can also be helpful to remind us that there is so much good in this world. Finally, while ensuring that we are connected to experience, we can step back from the particulars of joy and pain to invite authentic equanimity. From this place, we can be encouraged by struggles similar to ours from the past or by the role we have in shaping the future for those not yet born. We might be inspired by the fundamental mystery of this being and take instruction from the seed, starting in the depth of winter, that miraculously pushes through soil to emerge in the spring.

In these challenging times, all four Brahma Viharas, the “divine abodes,” are here for us to explore and understand how they inform, balance and enrich one another.

Beyond Holding

Yet even authentic equanimity, if it remains exclusively a personal experience, runs the risk of compliance with harmful systems. For those of us who are part of the systems that cause harm, bearing witness to our own and others’ suffering is certainly necessary. By itself, however, connected equanimity is insufficient as a response to the pervasive systems of racial, gender, and ecological violence.

There are two forms of abuse of power: the overuse of power and its underuse. Many, if not most of us, have much more power than we are aware of or put to use. Whether by our resources, race, health, education, relative security, or some combination of these, those of us with sufficient privilege are usually averse to putting our comforts and conveniences on the negotiating table. Yet since the election, hate crimes against our Muslim, immigrant, African-American and LGBTQ siblings have increased dramatically. With renowned climate deniers and minimizers poised to further exploit and endanger the Earth, the risks to our shared home have never been greater. So while we must give ourselves time to integrate our political reality, we must also come to terms with the spiritual reality that most of us are in many ways complicit in the objectification of people and planet. For most of us, there is no neutral.

Here we can take inspiration and instruction from the Mahayana view on the notion of the Bodhisattva. We can align ourselves with larger ideas well beyond our individual well-being and take on the dignified treatment of all beings as our goal. The Bodhisattva path is decidedly active and perhaps even messy; it doesn’t wait for immediate clarity and certainly not for enlightenment.

Upon the basis of authentic, connected equanimity, we might discover that the Bodhisattva’s dedication to engage, to risk, and to change—in ways that seem quite radical to us now—might emerge quite naturally. Alternatively, we might find that we have to explicitly invite discomfort and risk. The willingness to undertake the experiment and watch with interest to see what unfolds is a great first step.

Renowned Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche developed the Shambhala teachings “based on the figure of the sacred warrior,” someone who cultivated “freedom and power—not through violence or aggression, but through gentleness, courage, and self-knowledge.” Building on this work, Akuppa John Wigham offers a mind-training practice aimed at forging in each of us such a spiritual warrior, so needed in these challenging times:

The Shambhala Warrior Mind-Training2

  • Firmly establish your intention to live your life for the healing of the world. Be conscious of it, honor it, nurture it every day.
  • Be fully present in our time. Find the courage to breathe in the suffering of the world. Allow peace and healing to breathe out through you in return.
  • Do not meet power on its own terms. See through to its real nature – mind and heart made. Lead your response from that level.
  • Simplify. Clear away the dead wood in your life. Look for the heartwood and give it the first call on your time, the best of your energy.
  • Put down the leaden burden of saving the world alone. Join with others of like mind. Align yourself with the forces of resolution.
  • Hold in a single vision, in the same thought, the transformation of yourself and the transformation of the world. Live your life around that edge, always keeping it in sight.
  • As a bird flies on two wings, balance outer activity with inner sustenance.
  • Following your heart, realize your gifts. Cultivate them with diligence to offer knowledge and skill to the world.
  • Train in non-violence of body, speech and mind. With great patience to yourself, learn to make beautiful each action, word and thought.
  • In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day into your own heart the treasury of compassion, wisdom and courage for which the world longs.
  • Sit with hatred until you feel the fear beneath it.
  • Sit with fear until you feel the compassion beneath that.
  • Do not set your heart on particular results.
  • Enjoy positive action for its own sake and rest confident that it will bear fruit.
  • When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth.
  • Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritor of the strengths of thousands of generations of life.
  • Staying open, staying grounded, recall that the thankful prayers of future generations are silently with you.
  • Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause.
  • Staying open, staying grounded, know that the deep forces of Nature will emerge to the aid of those who defend the Earth.
  • Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the higher forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of the world.
  • When you see weapons of hate, disarm them with love.
  • When you see armies of greed, meet them in the spirit of sharing.
  • When you see fortresses of narrow-mindedness, breach them with truth.
  • When you find yourself enshrouded in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with fearlessness.
  • When forces of power seek to isolate us from each other, reach out with joy.
  • In it all and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life. Dance!

Kristin Barker is the director and co-founder of One Earth Sangha. A GreenFaith fellow, she is on the board of Insight Meditation Community of Washington (DC), and is currently being trained as a Community Dharma Leader through Spirit Rock. Kristin is a native of New Mexico and currently lives in Washington, DC.

This essay is a revised and updated version of a blog originally posted on the One Earth Sangha website on November 15, 2016. Many thanks to Kristin for her willingness to publish this edited and expanded version in The Arrow.

  1. For more on equanimity and social justice, see this article by Guhyapati on One Earth Sangha and his podcast series with Alex Swain from the ecodharma centre in Spain.
  2. Editor’s note: This citation is not affiliated with Shambhala or Shambhala Training, created by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Although the citation resembles teachings and borrows terminology from Chögyam Trungpa, the author, John Wigham, does not cite its sources.

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