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The Four Faces of Love: The Brahma Viharas

By Gil Fronsdal

The heart has four faces. Each sees the world in a different way and speaks with a different purpose. Yet, as each aspect belongs to the same heart, they are inseparable, like the four directions of a compass.

This image of a four-faced heart is borrowed from the Buddhist myth of the god Brahma, who had four faces, one for each of the four kinds of unselfish love championed in Buddhism. In the language of the Buddha, these are metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha. In English they are commonly known as loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Because the god Brahma is said to dwell (vihara) in these four forms of love, they are known as Brahmaviharas, translated in English as “divine abidings.”

We all have the potential to abide in loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. When we know how to do this, these capacities become an inner wealth, more valuable than any outer riches. To tap into this wealth, Buddhism teaches practices for developing each of the four Brahmaviharas. Love doesn’t have to be dependent on ideal circumstances; rather, we can learn to recognize, awaken, and develop it so it becomes the natural dwelling place of the heart.

In Buddhist mythology Brahma is a powerful god; in Buddhist practice the four Brahmaviharas are associated with strength. To develop them well we must become strong, even courageous. When developed, the Brahmaviharas become potent forces through which we protect ourselves and others. They are powerful aids for resolving conflict, promoting healing, and creating social harmony. As strengths they contribute to confidence in all areas of life.

In their simplest forms the Brahmaviharas are attitudes experienced in ordinary, everyday life. Seeing a small puppy can evoke loving-kindness: a feeling of appreciation, goodwill, and friendliness. If the puppy gets hurt we may feel compassion: a sense of kindness, caring, and a sincere wish for the puppy not to suffer. If the puppy is frolicking around, we may feel appreciative joy: delighting in the happiness the dog feels. And when the puppy is overeager to run after a squirrel and then deflated when it can’t catch it, we can feel the Brahmavihara of equanimity: we can clearly love the dog with a stability that keeps us from becoming elated or distressed by its ups and downs.

When the Brahmaviharas become strong, they are much more profound than our responses to a puppy. They enable us to keep love at the forefront in all our social encounters, with anyone we meet, no matter how challenging. With loving-kindness we learn how to maintain a healthy goodwill for those who are hostile, to have a balanced compassion for those encountering tragic suffering, to experience a stress-free joy when celebrating others, and to feel an equanimous love for those we cannot help.

All these capacities are said to be of the “heart” because they are dispositions deeper and more stable than thoughts about loving. They are deep when not entangled in the shallowness of selfishness, and they’re stable when not compromised by fear, aversion, and craving. They involve attitudes and intentions that arise out of the social instincts embedded in our physiology, neurology, and psychology. Because they appear easily when we are at ease, they can feel like the natural working of our inner life. When we’re free from stress, the presence of any of the Brahmaviharas is deeply satisfying and nurturing, supporting relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.

Each Brahmavihara is appropriate and right for a particular kind of circumstance. In uncomplicated social encounters we can offer the face of friendliness and kindness. When people are suffering we approach with compassion. When people are happy and successful, our appreciative joy shares in their good fortune. And when the other three faces of love are not appropriate or helpful, it is equanimous love that is present for the situation.

Part of the power of the Brahmaviharas comes from the intention to love, not just the feelings or emotions themselves. When we appreciate others, metta is a basic goodwill that wishes wellbeing for others. When their suffering moves us, karuna is the wish for that suffering to end. When their joy delights us, mudita is the wish for their joy to continue. And in the particular circumstances when we have no role in the welfare of others, upekkha is the wish that we ourselves not become agitated while keeping our hearts open and responsive, perhaps available for when we can help. Each time these intentions are evoked they become stronger and more readily available to motivate our actions in the world.

Meditating on the Brahmaviharas

While the Brahmaviharas are natural human capacities, they may be underdeveloped and unavailable when they are most needed. So that they can be available at all times, specific practices, especially meditation practices, are useful for developing each of them. One of the principles of doing Brahmavihara meditation is that it’s best to start by summoning each of the Brahmaviharas toward someone who easily evokes the associated attitude, intentions, and feelings. Rather than trying to artificially make ourselves feel love, we can begin these practices by recognizing how we already experience the different aspects of love. Even if it’s only toward an endearing puppy, once we recognize any of these four qualities of love within ourselves, the meditation practice is to then focus on staying present with this attitude so we can get to know it better, feel it in the body and mind, and allow it to grow. A big part of meditating on one of the Brahmaviharas is developing the ability to stay focused on it without being distracted by anything else. It is learning to dwell in love.

Once we’re able to have a stable, undistracted loving focus toward an easy person, the next step is to think about or imagine someone who is somewhat easy to love but not quite as easy as the first person. When we have developed a stable focus on this love, we again let it grow so it fills our body and mind. Then the next step in the practice is to progressively do the same for people who are decreasingly easy to love. Eventually, we practice cultivating love for those who are difficult—e.g., people with whom we have conflict or people who are hostile.

Because it can be challenging to cultivate love for those we have difficulty loving, the meditation practice can help us systematically and gradually discover and develop our capacity to love. This is not an easy task, but by undertaking it we can discover the healing and wisdom that makes universal love possible.

Through regular practice, it is possible to have unlimited love—that is, love which is not withheld from anyone. In deep meditation practice with the Brahmaviharas, the experience of metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha can become, as described by the Buddha, “extensive, expanded, limitless, free from hatred and ill-will.” When they radiate outward in all directions of the compass without limit, the four Brahmaviharas are called the “Four Immeasurables.” It is phenomenally transformative to be absorbed in the radiance of any of these four.

The Brahmaviharas in Daily Life

Outside of meditation, the Brahmaviharas also grow as we begin to recognize and cultivate them in our ordinary life. If one of them appears, it might be possible to stay aware of it rather than becoming preoccupied and forgetful of love’s presence. If we have a regular familiarity with what it’s like to love, we may be able to evoke any of the Brahmaviharas when it is appropriate. The Brahmaviharas can also become a guide for our actions as we seek to discover the wise and loving thing to do in every situation. Developing the Brahmaviharas in our social life provides a double benefit. We benefit from the inner goodness they bring us, and those who are the recipients of our love benefit as well.

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