I do not want to mislead you here, so I will say at the outset that I do not think lasting peace and true happiness are achievable. Of course, we can gain peace of mind, but as we know from experience, it isn’t going to last forever – nothing is permanent and this includes peace. Happiness is a relative thing and so it is impossible to say what is true happiness and what is not. What makes me happy will probably not make you happy and so this is why I feel true happiness is misleading. Having said that, I do believe peace of mind and happiness are within our grasp, but they are just not permanent and so we have to continually work on them.
There are four qualities of mind that we are able to cultivate in order to reduce our suffering and become more connected with the world around us. The four states are commonly known as the four immeasurables and they are goodwill, compassion, appreciation and equanimity.
Traditionally they are taught in the order I mentioned above. However, I believe the fourth one should come first, because if we have equanimity for all beings, it follows that we will be able to cultivate goodwill, compassion and appreciation for them.
So let’s start by looking at equanimity. Our lives are full of ups and downs, and so are everyone else’s. If we can face the downs as well as the ups, we will be able to cultivate an open and calm mind. It is easy to face the ups, but not so easy to come to terms with the downs, but if we don’t, all we are doing is adding to our suffering.
When we look at the world we can clearly see how hard it is to obtain a balanced mind, as we are continuously in a flux of rises and falls. These lift us up one moment and fling us down the next. This is true for everyone, we are all the same. So if that is the case, why are we discriminating against others? We are all in the same boat, all riding the waves of life.
So equanimity is where we do not distinguish between our friends, the people we dislike or strangers, but regard everyone as equal.
This is not easy because when we are not being mindful we are constantly being tossed around by our prejudices and emotions. So we need to have a complete openness to our experiences, without being carried away with reactions, such as ‘I like this and dislike that’ or ‘I love you but detest you.’ A balanced mind will mean we are not going to get disturbed by the eight worldly conditions.
What we are trying to do here is remove the boundaries between ourselves and others, by discarding our discrimination’s. What we are not doing is becoming detached or feel indifferent to others. This is a common misunderstanding of what is meant by equanimity in the four immeasurables.
So we have to look upon others as our equals. See that they have their ups and downs just like us. If we can do this, equanimity will be able to grow.
What I want to do here is introduce a practice we can use while we go about our daily lives. When you feel your prejudices coming to the surface have a set phrase to mentally repeat to yourself, something like this, ‘They are no different to me. They, like me, are subject to the eight worldly conditions. We are all equal.’ It is better for you to have your own phrase, as it will resonate with you. By mentally repeating your set phrase you will stop your discrimination’s in their track. After time we will naturally see all as equal, but that is going to take time, so for now use your set phrase.
The second immeasurable is goodwill and this is the thought that we want the best for all beings, without discriminating between the people we like and those we dislike. Sometimes our goodwill only covers people who are useful, pleasing or amusing to us. This is not how we should divide groups of people, we have to see people through the eyes of equanimity. We must open our hearts to everyone and that includes the people who make us angry, politicians from a party we disagree with, religious leaders that have different beliefs to ours, people who act and dress differently to us and those who just have the knack of rubbing us up the wrong way. All of these people deserve our goodwill and so we have to train ourselves to think only good thoughts towards them . We have to include ourselves in this. Sometimes we are more harsh with ourselves than we are with others. If you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love others?
If we just watch our thoughts for a few hours it becomes quite apparent that this isn’t how we usually think. Not every though radiates goodwill to others, so how can we cultivate this goodwill? Here is a practice to use in your day-to-day life. I find the best antidote to judging someone, when we are not on our meditation cushion, is to have a set phrase that resonates with you, something like. ‘May my mind be at ease, may you be happy, may everyone be free from suffering.’ These phrase can be used when you spot ill-will arise in you.
I remember a few years ago, when I traveled to work by metro, I would see the same man everyday. I didn’t know anything about this man, but as soon as I saw him I would start thinking negative thoughts. It was totally irrational, and I knew that, but it just seemed to happen automatically. I spoke to my teacher at the time and he told me to try having a set phrase ready for when I encountered this man again. The next time I saw him I mentally recited my phrase and I started to see the man in a different light. After reciting my phrase for a few days I never had the negative feelings again.
The next time you start to judge someone, mentally recite your phase and the judgement will start to dissolve. Remember, we all share this planet and we all want to be happy, so the best way to end our judgmental thoughts is to wish goodwill to everyone.
Compassion, the third quality, is an understanding that the world is full of suffering and a heartfelt wish that this suffering will come to an end or at least reduce – for ourselves and others.
Some people are so wrapped up in their own world of suffering, they forget to have empathy with other people’s suffering. We seem to live in a selfish world and people close their eyes and ears to the constant stream of tears. We seem to be able to watch the news or read the newspapers in a dispassionate way. The horrendous suffering that is going on throughout the world doesn’t touch us. We have our own problems to deal with. This is not a kind or helpful way of thinking. If we do not have compassion for others, why should they have compassion for us? This is not the type of world we should wish to live in or leave for our children.
Through compassion the fact that everyone is suffering remains vivid in our minds. Sometimes we may feel that we are not suffering, but that should not stop us having compassion for those who are. Compassion should be ever-present. Not just for family and friends, but for everyone, even people who are acting in an unhelpful way. Once we start to discriminate who should have your compassion and who doesn’t deserve it, true compassion is lost. Everyone is suffering, so everyone deserves it.
So again, have a set phrase ready to mentally recite once you feel you are not caring for another person’s suffering. Something like this; ‘may I be released from my suffering, may they be released from their suffering, may all beings be released from suffering, may compassion arise in my heart.’ But, as before, it is important you decide on your own wording, so it resonates with you, this is just a suggestion.
Sometimes when we are being harassed by a homeless person annoyance arises in us and not compassion, so next time that happens, mentally recite your set phrase. It doesn’t mean you are going to give them all your money out of compassion, but it does mean you will feel empathy towards them. You should try to recite your phrase every time you feel that you are not being compassionate. What these phrases do is connect us to others. We appreciate that they are suffering just like us, so once we have this connection, it is easier to radiate compassion towards other beings.
I think we should see compassion as a verb and not a noun. It should be something we do and not just talk about or pray for. After spending many years going to Buddhist teachings I grew very tired of being preached to about compassion. Yet when I observed the teacher, I didn’t see much evidence of it being put into action. It is beneficial to contemplate compassion, there is no doubt about that, but it is far more beneficial, for all concerned, for it to come off the cushion and out into the community.
We have to be intelligent with our compassion. It is of no benefit to give money to a drunken homeless person. They are just going to spend it on more drink, compounding their problems. It is far better to give them food or give your money to a homeless shelter that helps these people. So compassion isn’t just about giving, it’s about giving sensible, and that could include money, clothing, food, your time and so on.
So in a nut shell, compassion is the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something to alleviate it.
The fourth quality is appreciation. What we are appreciating is the happiness someone else is experiencing. With this quality we feel real joy at their happiness. The operative word here is real. It shouldn’t be forced or faked, but real heartfelt joy. This is the perfect antidote for envy, which is a feeling of grudging admiration and desire to have something that is possessed by another. Sometimes we begrudge people their happiness and feel resentment at seeing their success. This feeling of appreciation deals a killer blow to envy.
Happiness is fleeting and so to begrudge what little joy people can find in their lives, is a very selfish and unhelpful quality. What we need to do is rejoice in what happiness comes another’s way.
When I was at school I never did very well in exams, so when my friends passed their exams with flying colours, I used to feel real resentment. But who was I harming? The answer to that is myself. These negative feelings are only going to pollute one’s own mind, and as we have seen throughout this book, if your mind is polluted your actions will follow in the same vein.
Later in life when I was still rubbish at passing exams, I used to think how happy my friends would feel by passing, how their parents are going to be proud and what a good future my friends were going to have. These thoughts of appreciation are far more constructive and this is what we are looking for here.
So in this quality, instead of having a set phrase ready, you should think of the joy and happiness the other person is feeling and rejoice in it. I have to say that by thinking this way a warm feeling grows in your own heart and it leaves no room for envy.
Sometimes we take joy in another’s misfortune. If we radiate appreciation towards others, we will not have these awful thoughts.
Once we have a steadiness of mind, we will have thoughts of goodwill, gain compassion and appreciate the happiness others are experiencing. These are the four immeasurables. They are called immeasurable because by cultivating them we are helping to reduce the suffering of an uncountable number of people. We have to persevere with them, so they become a natural way for us to think and not just a passing mood.