maitrī-karuṇā-muditā-upekṣhāṇāṁ sukha-duḥka-puṇya-apuṇya-viṣhayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ chitta-prasādanam.*
Sometimes, seeing someone suffering, we might feel like running away or might think badly of that person. Perhaps this is a misguided way to protect ourselves from their suffering. However, when we do this, we create disturbance in our own mind. So, the second aspect of this sūtra’s mental purification prescription is to cultivate karunā, compassion, toward those who are in pain and misery. Compassion is the wish to remove others’ pain, as if it were our own, with a constant thought to reduce or remove their suffering. Karunā, however, doesn’t mean that we take on their pain, but rather that we do what we can to help others remove their own pain. In other words, if we find someone stuck in quicksand, we don’t jump into the quicksand with them, but, rather, throw them a rope.
As we practice karunā, we strengthen compassion within our personality and protect our mind from disturbing thoughts that we might otherwise have. It is said in the Tradition that this sentiment of karunā prevents the desire to hurt others from arising in our mind, along with the pride that might develop at seeing oneself comfortable while others are in suffering. When fully developed, karunā can ward off hatred as well.
The third aspect of sūtra 1.33’s prescription is muditā, joyfulness toward those who are acting with virtue. When seeing someone doing good work or being successful, there might be a tendency to criticize the person or belittle their virtue due to jealousy. But these jealous feelings and critical thoughts create disturbance in our mind. We know that it’s a good thing to act virtuously, and so why criticize others for doing so? Instead, this sūtra guides us to cultivate feelings of appreciation toward those doing good acts whether or not they are one’s equals in virtue.
I used to know a woman who, when anyone seemed to be getting ahead, she would say something to diminish that person. Perhaps she did this because she felt that she should be doing the virtuous act herself. Whatever the reason for the jealousy, her actions disturbed those she criticized and, no doubt, agitated her own mind too.
Imagine how much greater our peace and inner joy would be if we whole heartedly celebrated others’ accomplishments.
The final part of the prescription of sūtra 1.33 is upekṣha, which means not reacting emotionally, when we observe others doing what we consider to be bad acts. I’ve noticed a tendency in myself, when I see a person acting in a way I judge to be un-virtuous, of judging that person negatively. Yesterday, while driving, a car came from the cross-street and ran the red-light right in front of me. Fortunately, I saw him coming and didn’t enter the intersection. But, immediately, I had a negative judgment of that man, and thought something like “what a fool!”
Did judging him help me? No. My negative judgement made me feel separate from him, and that gave rise to anger, which agitated my emotions even more than they were already agitated by nearly being in a collision.
The essence of upekṣha is in not judging the person. We can judge their actions, but when we judge them, as people, we destroy our tranquility.
It is important to note that upekṣha doesn’t mean we should stand by and do nothing when we see others being harmed. One can energetically protect victims of evil actions while remaining inwardly tranquil. Mahatma Gandhi provided an example of this. When he encountered discrimination by the white-skinned majority against Indians living in South Africa, and, later, by the colonial British rulers in India, Gandhi energetically opposed the discriminative acts while, at the same time, remaining kind, respectful and loving toward all. We don’t have to hate a person for their actions but nevertheless can labor to stop those actions.
One might wonder how to cultivate these sentiments of amity, compassion, joyfulness, and tranquility. It’s easier than you might think. Experience tells me that all of the sentiments prescribed by this sūtra are natural for us, but, due to the influence of ego and habit, other emotions may have become our dominant reaction. We have to re-discover and practice these pure sentiments within ourselves.
Feeling friendly toward others who are happy is natural for us. In their innocence, very young children love to be around others who are happy. They don’t question others’ happiness but just feel friendly in response. But as we grow older, and our ego extends its fears and competitiveness, we may come to feel unfriendly toward others who are comfortable and happy.
To cultivate maitrī, we have to rediscover our natural, childlike friendliness toward the happy, focus on it, practice it, and by so doing, develop it.
Similarly, feeling compassion toward those who are suffering is also natural. But this beautiful, natural sentiment may have been obscured by painful, ego-born aversions. When we pay attention, we can choose to focus on the compassionate sentiment rather than any negative emotional reactions in that situation.
Seeing someone act virtuously naturally gives rise to feelings of joy from the core of our being, but our ego may have filled us with confused emotions that obscure this natural joy. To cultivate muditā, we can pay attention to our feelings, find the natural joyfulness, and focus on it. Whatever we focus our attention on grows in strength within our mind.
We all have the ability to remain tranquil and not judge others, even when we see someone behave in ways we don’t like. In such situations, through awareness, we’ll be able to distinguish between ego-created judgments and the tranquility of our essence, and we can choose to focus on the tranquility.
When we focus our attention on feeling friendly toward the happy and comfortable, compassionate toward those suffering, joyful at the virtue and success of others, and unreactive toward those acting wickedly, these positive, calming sentiments grow within us. At first it might feel that we are faking it. But with continued practice over time, a new habit will form, these feelings will arise more frequently, unbidden, and our mind will become more tranquil, pleasant, and fit for meditation.
* The author has followed the style of Swami Veda Bharati in adding an “h” after both “ṣ” and “c” to indicate that the letter is pronounced as an English speaker would pronounce “sh” and “ch.”