Dwelling Places of Our Mind

The four divine abodes or dwelling places of our mind are loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekha).  Thich Nhat Hanh says the divine abodes are a “practice” that must begin with ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves unconditionally to love others in a way that is not contingent on others being lovable.

According to Nyanaponika Thera, “These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.”

They are called abodes because they can become the mind’s constant dwelling-places where we feel “at home”; instead of places we rarely visit. Our minds can become thoroughly saturated by them allowing us to be mindful of them in all our common activities.

A consistent meditation practice will help the divine abodes sink deep into our heart so that they become spontaneous attitudes not easily overthrown.  Let’s look at each of the divine abodes and their near enemies.

Love (Metta)

Love is the will to give.  The far enemy of love is obviously hatred.

The near enemy of love is:

  • Clinging which means that we’re not standing on our own two feet and giving love; we’re holding on to someone. It often happens that the person we cling to doesn’t find it especially pleasant. “Craving” in Pali islobha, which sounds rather like the English word for love; and because the entire world revolves around wanting-to-have, we also interpret love this way. But that’s not love, because love is the will to give.

There is value in sending loving kindness to each of the different groups (yourself, a person you love, a neutral person, a difficult person, and all living beings). I found great value in sending metta to difficult people, over time they did not seem so difficult. It took a while for me to offer loving kindness to myself, when I did, I found it was very healing.  I must admit that I skip over neutral people and the whole-world – but some day that will get added to my practice.

Compassion (Karuna)

When love meets pain and stays loving it turns into compassion.  We may be tempted to see compassion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally experience when we are touched by an encounter with acute pain.  Compassion is a way of engaging with the fragile and unpredictable world.  We need to look deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience, and wisdom that enable us to care. However, when we are in the grip of “there is not enough time” we don’t stop to care.

Near enemies of Compassion are:

  • Idiot compassion – enabling behaviors
  • Pity – care is torqued as someone is perceived as lower
  • Distancing – “I am the helper”

Two Steps to Cultivate Compassion

  1. Be willing to turn toward suffering and be touched by it
  2. Respond with care – from prayer to active service

Our compassion simply grows out of our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it.  I will talk more about my story of fleeing from pain in next month’s post.

Sympathetic Joy (Mudita)

The third is sympathetic joy, the ability to take active delight in others’ good fortune or good deeds.  The Dalai Lama speaks of mudita as a kind of “enlightened self-interest.” As he puts it, there are so many people in this world that it’s simply reasonable to make their happiness as important as your own; if you can be happy when good things happen to others, your opportunities for delight are increased six billion to one!  Its far enemy is envy, consisting of greed and hatred.

The near enemies are:

  • Hypocrisy pretending to oneself and others, which we believe is sometimes necessary.
  • Excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity is smoother, and open rather than contracted. … Joy arises from being attentive and curious. … Excitement, on the other hand, requires something to happen to us or requires us to procure something that we want—we must do something to get what we want.

In Teachings on Love, Thay writes: “A deeper definition of the word mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?” Feeling joy for ourselves, however, is not always easy to do.

The biggest obstacles to feeling joy are the negativity we hold toward ourselves and others. When you judge yourself, compare yourself to others, and envy others, you perpetuate a sense of aloneness and deficiency. Joy, whether for yourself or for someone else, can be difficult to truly open to and accept because it is so tied to issues of self-worth.

At my last Mindfulness Meditation Teacher training, we did an exercise answering the question what makes you happy for two minutes. And it made me really sad.  The person I was paired with said things like freedom and peace.  So. I judged myself negatively because my answers were Walt, my grandkids, my kids, their spouses, my mom, my sisters and my brother.  I was thinking I had a deficiency because what made me happy was not as deep as hers was. But, mudita is nonjudgmental and allows that others can find happiness in things that you might not.

Equanimity (Upekkha)

The Buddha called the fourth and last of these emotions the greatest jewel of all: equanimity. The Equanimity is the ability to be spacious and peaceful as things arise and pass, a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight.  It’s the seventh factor of enlightenment, and its far enemy is excitement.

The near enemies are:

  • Indifference is based on intentional unconcern or fear and is displayed as a lack of caring
  • Withdrawal is turning away from pain and conflict into a protective shell

In an article in Lions Roar Ayya Khema said, “Equanimity means that we already have enough insight so that nothing seems worth getting worked up over anymore…  It is based on the realization that everything that takes place also passes away again. So, what do I lose? The worst that can happen is the loss of my life. But I’ll lose that in any event—so what’s all the excitement about? In general, the people who cause problems for us don’t exactly want to kill us. They just want to confirm their ego. But that’s not our business; it’s wholly and entirely theirs.”

In a heart that has cultivated equanimity, the seeds of discord don’t germinate.  Equanimity creates a non-reactive space that allows us to recognize what is going on and break the cycle.

Our habit is to steamroll over our moments of equanimity, we want to savor, not grasp or resist (gardening, hug).  So, one practice is to become aware of moments of equanimity, or non-toothache moments as Thich Nhat Hanh would say.

Equanimity is the crown and culmination of the four sublime states.  For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy.

If you prefer to listen to the dharma talk, it is titled Divine Abodes.