The Four Immeasurables
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Yoga Sutra 1.33: maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam
The Yoga Sutras offer so much wisdom that has stood the test of time for thousands of years. One of the Yoga Sutras that I've taken particular interest in recently is about attitudes that we can cultivate which offer a path to inner peace, joy, clarity, and happiness. These attitudes overlap with some Buddhist philosophy and are referred to as the Four Immeasurables, the Four Divine Abodes, or the Brahmaviharas.
B.K.S. Iyengar summarizes the 'Four Immeasurables' in the following statement; Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.
In this post, I'll explain each of the Brahmaviharas in more detail.
Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. It is the first of ‘the four immeasurables’ known as the Brahmaviharas in the Yoga Sutras, which include loving-kindness (Maitri), compassion (Karuna), empathetic joy (Mudita), and equanimity (Upeksa).
Loving-kindness meditations often include affirmations such as "may I be happy,” “may I be healthy” or “may I be at ease." These affirmations can be directed inwardly toward ones Self, as well as outwardly toward people or even animals in your life, including loved ones who are close to you, as well as those in your life who you may be having a difficult time with.
We can often be our own toughest critics. The practice of Maitri teaches us to treat ourselves in the same loving and compassionate way that we treat our best friends. By cultivating an attitude of loving kindness toward everyone, including ones Self, this first stage of the Brahmaviharas begins to dissolve any sense of a separate self, as a means of connecting to the divine within.
Compassion is a feeling that focuses on the needs of one who suffers. It involves allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering and experience the motivation to help alleviate it - even if it is our self that is the one suffering.
Karuna is the second Brahmavihara. The first half of the word 'kara', is translated as “to do”. Acts of compassion often begin with questions like how can I help? or how can I support you? - questions that typically lead to some kind of action, even if it's just the act of showing up.
It's sometimes easier to think about acts of compassion for others than it is for one's self. Acts of compassion toward ourselves can be as simple as acknowledging that it's OK to be going through a tough time and giving ourselves a bit of grace (wouldn't that be advice you might give someone else?). Other acts of compassion toward one's self might be allowing emotions to flow, it might be reaching out for support, it might be doing something that brings you joy or meets a need that isn't being met, even if just a little. An 'act' is really just about choosing to point ourselves in a particular direction and taking a step, no matter how small.
There's a subtle difference between compassion and empathy. Compassion means "feeling for another" whereas empathy is the "feeling as another". If we step back from ourselves and feel for ourselves as we might for another, we might be able to act toward ourselves as we would show up for another.
Sr Swami Satchidananda says "We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing."
Mudita is a pure joy unadulterated by self-interest. It is the sense of feeling appreciation and joy for the success or good fortune that others have, regardless of what one's personal situation might be. One of the classic examples of this vicarious joy is that of a parent who feels the sense of joy watching their child succeed accomplish something in the child's life; not be confused with the pride a parent might feel seeing a child succeed, but rather the pure joy that comes without any self-interest.
When we can be happy of the joys other beings feel, it is called mudita. It is about looking at the success of others as a source of joy and inspiration, rather than as competition or something we use to measure our own success or happiness by. Another example of this might be watching someone who wins the lottery, and instead of asking the question "why not me?", the emotion is of joy for the good fortune of that person. It is about observing any tendencies to have a reaction of envy, or jealousy, and shifting that attitude to gratitude for what we do have, and gratitude for the good fortune of others. This attitude leads to a wider, and more open heart.
Equanimity describes a state of complete objectivity and openness to experience. It is a practice of viewing the world and the situations we encounter with a loving, compassionate, and friendly, yet neutral perspective. It is a recognition that the Ego is a lens that colors or distorts the world that we perceive, which can shape our reactions or tendencies to label things as good or bad based on how those things may affect us on a personal level.
Upekṣā is the fourth of the 'four immeasurables' (the Brahmaviharas) in the Yoga Sutras. The first half of the word Upa means 'over,' and iksh means 'to look.' It has been described like being able to climb a mountain in order to see all sides of the mountain, and all that is below from the summit. Another definition of the word is “to stand in the middle”, or in other words, to remain centered without getting pulled in one direction or another.
“There are no problems, only situations. It is all in how you approach them.” – Sadhguru
Equanimity describes this state of balance, even when things turn out in ways that we didn’t want them to. It’s an objective perspective that life can present experiences of pleasure and pain, work and rest, justice and injustice, love and hate, birth and death, and countless other dualities. Equanimity is the acceptance that life is made up of all aspects of the spectra of dualities. Life includes all of it. Rather than trying to avoid, control, manipulate and contain every experience, equanimity takes on the quality of being one with what is offered in life, exactly the way it is. The tendency to react, judge, and label experiences comes from an identification with ‘self’ as being separate from the whole.
Alan Watts wrote, “When we are no longer identified with the idea of ourselves, the entire relationship between subject and object, knower and known, undergoes a sudden and revolutionary change. The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience. To put it in another way, it becomes vividly clear that in concrete fact I have no other self than the totality of things of which I am aware. The sense of subjective isolation is also based on a failure to see the relativity of voluntary and involuntary events.”
This goes for situations we’re exposed to as well as the people in our lives. Without equanimity, love becomes about attachment and possessiveness. Thich Nhat Hanh says Buddhist equanimity includes the ability to see everyone as equal. "We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others," he writes. "In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides."
When we have to be present with things that are not the way we think they should be, we have a chance to develop equanimity rather than blame a person, blame a system, blame an organization, blame a government, or blame society.
Equanimity is obviously not always easy, especially when you’re the one affected when events in your life unfold in ways that you didn’t want them to! The good news is that equanimity is something that can be practised, and can be developed through meditation and mindfulness. Shaila Catherine describes how “mindfulness practice naturally develops equanimity because when we're mindful, we're experiencing things without judgment or distortion. Concentration practice also develops equanimity because when our minds are concentrated, we develop a calm presence with things as they change. In a concentrated mind, thoughts, feelings, and experiences may arise, but they just roll off. We don’t become engaged in a movement of desire or aversion, for and against, favoring and opposing.”
The 'Four Immeasurables' or Brahmaviharas teach us that our attitude is something that we can choose. They nurture an environment that opens our hearts and our minds which creates a friendlier world, both externally and internally. Through this environment, we have fertile soil for clarity and inner peace within ourselves that supports a deeper Yoga practice, and healthy mind and body.
Edwin F. Bryant says; "By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind."
About the Author:
Jason has been teaching Yoga in Wollongong since 2019 and began teaching Yoga after his teacher training at Yoga Six in San Diego California in 2017. He has since completed a Diploma of Remedial Massage Therapy and is passionate about creating and facilitating space for growth, transformation, and overall wellbeing. He primarily teaches Vinyasa Yoga, and offers Massage treatments designed for Yogis to embody their breath, improve posture, and soothe the nervous system.