The Four Brahmavihāras (Devine Abodes)
The four brahmavihāras are known in English as the four divine abodes and the four immeasurables. There is benevolence or loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), altruistic or sympathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā). In meditation, these four social emotions are evoked and imagined to radiate into all directions, so that the meditator’s mind becomes a vast and boundless field of the given emotion. The vastness and boundlessness seems likely to be the origin of the name “brahmavihāra” which literally translates to “abode of brahma”. In ancient Indian belief, the Brahmā gods dwell in their heavenly abodes and pervade their respective worlds to varying degrees, just like the meditator is supposed to dwell pervading the world with virtuous social emotions.
Benevolence, compassion and altruistic joy are inherently pleasurable and, unlike many other forms of pleasure, they do not come with a catch. They are universally wholesome and by their very nature cannot turn into suffering. The only non-pleasurable brahmavihāra is equanimity, but, as elaborated below, equanimity keeps suffering in check and allows for the other three brahmavihāras to grow unhindered in the presence of all kinds of pain.
Meditating on benevolence, also known as loving kindness, is the base of the following two brahmavihāras. It is an experience of pure, unconditional friendliness. It is the opposite of hatred. Because benevolence forms the basis for compassion and altruistic joy, it seems plausible that many items on the above list would also apply to the practice of these other two brahmavihāras. The devas and Brahma worlds are part of ancient Indian folk belief and cosmology, and can safely be ignored by the rational reader.
This is a special case of benevolence that has at its core the wish for suffering to cease. Where mettā addresses all beings, both suffering and at ease, karuṇā specifically focuses on those who are suffering. It is the opposite of cruelty. Compassion is altruistic. When a friend of yours is hurting or sick and you wish for him get better for his sake, that is compassion, if on the other hand you are wishing for him to get better because you want to go camping with him this weekend, that is selfish desire, not compassion.
Compassion is positive. Seeing people suffer on the news and feeling bad for them is not compassion, but pity. The two are not to be confused. Wishing for suffering beings to be at ease is compassion, suffering yourself by way of empathy is not. You could say that, in the presence of suffering, karuṇā focuses on the absence of suffering rather than on the suffering itself. Here is a more subtle example: If a friend of yours were sick and you were wishing for her to be strong and fight off the disease, that would be compassion for your friend, but at the same time it contains a wish for fighting. Fighting means aversion and struggle. That is not positive, and it is not really what you want for your friend, either. What if she did not even need to fight but would still get well just the same? Would that not be preferable? You want her to be well and at ease – and that’s all there is to karuṇā.
Altruistic Joy (Muditā)
Altruistic joy means to take part in the joy of others, it is the opposite of envy. Just as karuṇā is about beings who are suffering, muditā is about those who are well. It means to be happy when the people around you are happy, regardless of your own desires. When your neighbors win the lottery, muditā allows you to be happy for them, rather than envying their fortune. When your romantic partner wants to go to dinner with an old flame, muditā feels happy for their reunion and counters the emotion of jealousy. In competitive situations, muditā is happy for the win of another, even if that comes at the cost of one’s own loss.
Equanimity is the stillness in your actions, the quietude in your talking, the peace when you are arguing. It is the mind’s emotional airbag and the world’s way of giving you a break. When there is upekkhā, the mind does not indulge in pleasure or pain. If you are being praised, upekkhā prevents you from falling victim to pride, if you are being censured, upekkhā prevents you from giving in to anger or sadness. When you act out of compassion, but your help is not wanted, when you are being attacked, made fun of or provoked, upekkhā allows you to keep your peace. It is an unshakable calmness and steadfastness.
Equanimity is not to be confused with indifference or ignorance. Ignorance would be not knowing what is going on, but equanimity can exist just fine in the presence of discernment and awareness. Indifference would mean that one knows, but simply does not care. When accompanied by benevolence, compassion and altruistic joy, however, it would seem impossible not to care.
Equanimity is a wise response in cases where the range of possible responses is limited to negative states of mind. For example, if we are being harassed, we could get angry, fearful or sad, but we may find it impossible to be glad to be harassed. In these situations, equanimity is the response of choice as it cushions the blow like an airbag and paves the way for the other three brahmavihāras. Note that an equanimous mind does not entail passiveness. One may be equanimous about being harassed and still take appropriate action to change the situation.