For the next few weeks, our sangha will turn toward a practice of the four  “brahmavihāra,” or divine states or emotions in Buddhist practice. With the world in such turmoil, and fear and despair apparently on the ascendency, it is critical to remind oneself of the qualities of heart and mind that may burst through these difficult times and guide us in what is correct, what is curative. The brahmavihāra are positive practices aimed at developing internal, authentic states of mettā, or loving friendliness; karuna, or compassion; mudita, appreciative joy, and upekkha, equanimity. These are all types of deliberate and formal heart and mind trainings designed to instill skillful or wholesome affects, making them more accessible when we need them. Furthermore, these states are synonymous with insight practices and are considered to be paths to awakening in and of themselves (Peacock, 2009).

These brahmavihāra qualities are latent in all people but require practice to actualize. They are also referred to as the “four immeasurables” (aparimāna) or “illimitable” (appamāna), and boundless (appamañña) as they are to be cultivated to the furthest extent possible. According to Nyanaponika Thera, (1994) “They should be non-exclusive and impartial, not bound by selective preferences or prejudices. A mind that has attained to that boundlessness of the Brahma-viharas will not harbor any national, racial, religious or class hatred.” It’s a tall order indeed. It is easy to see why these teachings are felt by some (e.g., John Peacock, 2009) to be the most important teachings of early Buddhism.

The brahmavihāras are very much fundamental ways of seeing the world. Their importance is that they encourage thoughtfulness for the other, concern for the well being, success, happiness of the other and wishing them well even in the face of adversity. They are a wonderful antidote to self-absorption.

The term “brahmavihāras” has been translated, as the “abode or home of Brahma,” or “divine abode.” Those who have studied Indic religions may recognize “Brahma” as the Hindu god of creation. The term would have been understood, at the time of the Buddha, as referring to a belief in transcendence and merger with the supreme deity, residing with brahma, considered to be the supreme life force.

But the Buddha’s use of metaphor is evident here. He notoriously borrowed the religious language and belief of his time and twisted the original meaning so as to accentuate his intrapsychic message (see Gombrich, 2004). Here the Buddha reveals himself as somewhat of an iconoclast, taking the existing socio-religious language and structure of his time and turning it upside down. The Buddha was the proto-psychologist, advocating a deeply introspective path to freeing oneself from needless pain and suffering, rather than looking outside the self for salvation. The more one internally cultivates the divine states of loving-kindness and compassion, the more one allows joy for the other to emerge, and the more one becomes equanimous in the face of adversity, desire, and confusion, the closer to awakening one will be. This is the divine state, and it is not a transcendent religious experience.

We are thus encouraged to build an internal “home” (vihāra) where the mind is suffused and illuminated by love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It is a beautiful concept. These are the counterpoint and antidote to the three unwholesome states of greed, aversion, and confusion. Friendliness, joy, compassion all have qualities of adhesion, being with others in joy and pain. These practices are obviously of great use to us. They are all about healthy, ethical engagement with self and other.

Insight meditation and mindfulness is often reified as an objective, cool, detached way of seeing the world. So, when we are instructed to, “watch what comes up, let it go. See what comes up next, let it go, too,”  it is easy to see how the practice of vipassanā can lapse into a dour, overly serious, effortful affair. If all one does is cultivate a cool, distant observational relationship with one’s mental and emotional life, ultimately one becomes only a really good observer. But, transformation requires true engagement. Furthermore, it is easy to see how this process of observing, noting and moving on to what arises next can get derailed when difficult, previously disavowed and repressed material comes to the surface. But by sticking with the material that arises and changing one’s relationship with what goes on internally, transformation becomes possible. Cool distant abiding alone will not do this. Working with the four brahmavihāra is one way of making the difficult and disavowed easier to endure.

Thus, it is important to consider that the brahmavihāra are not just states we cultivate toward the other, they are states we can cultivate toward the self, and most importantly toward all that arises as we meditate. If we can approach our own psychological processes with compassion and kindness we can learn eventually to sit with them with equanimity and then see them for what they are: impersonal and impermanent. Such practices are great correctives for shame-based states. If we treat what arises in our consciousness with friendly acceptance and compassion we can more easily turn toward and remain focused on whatever comes into consciousness without being hijacked by an internal reactive need to repress or ruminate.

Cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity promote a sturdy internal psychological environment capable of remaining with experience. From this “staying with” quality enhanced by the practice of the brahmavihāras, arises equanimity. This “staying with” dissolves reactive tendencies to avert ones attention, and allows all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions to be met with calmness and clarity so they can be seen for what they are. To face what arises in meditation one must frequently bring gentleness and kindness to the picture or else the compulsive tendency to turn away or repress is engaged. Mettā and karuna, friendliness and compassion, have the qualities of sympathy and tenderness. Without this, you cannot stay in relationship with what arises. When you begin to pay attention in this way, with friendliness, with compassion, you de-condition yourself from the reactive modes of the past.

It takes courage and tenacity to stick with what arises, and this is what compassion and friendliness cultivate, paving the path to further awareness. It takes courage and effort to let go of what arises, and this is what equanimity allows.

Over the coming weeks we will practice with all four of these states, seeking to experientially and viscerally glean the benefit of their cultivation.

With mettā to all,

Delia Kostner, Ph.D. 2017

Additional Reading 

For those who may wish to read more on the four brahmavihāra I would recommend the following:

1) The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity by Nyanaponika Thera:

2) Christina Feldman (2017). Boundless heart.Shambala, Boulder.


Andrea Fella: Guided Meditation: Radiating Metta

Gil Fronsdal: Talks and Guided Meditations on Metta:

Introduction to the Four Brahmavihāras, the Devine States in Buddhism