Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
By Sharon Salzberg
Publisher: Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 1995. ISBN: 978-1-57062-037-9
This book focuses on the Buddhist teachings on four primary states of consciousness that can be cultivated and practised: lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). These are called the brahma-viharas, meaning “heavenly abodes.” The Buddha developed systematic meditation practices to foster the development of these states of mind. Practitioners are able to free themselves from the binding grip of selfishness, cruelty, resentment, and craving, and to experience the freedom of love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Salzberg explains:
Spiritual practice, by uprooting our personal mythologies of isolation, uncovers the radiant, joyful heart within each of us and manifests this radiance to the world. We find, beneath the wounding concepts of separation, a connection both to ourselves and to all beings. We find a source of great happiness that is beyond concepts and beyond convention.
This book explains each of the brahma-viharas and sets forth practical exercises that help to cultivate them. To develop lovingkindness, or metta, one of the first practices is to repeat a sequence of four phrases: “May you be free from danger,” “May you have mental happiness,” “May you have physical happiness,” and “May you have ease of well-being.” These phrases are first practised with respect to ourselves, then later towards someone we are grateful to, then to a friend, then to a neutral person, and finally, when we are mature in our practice, to those we consider enemies. In doing this we realize our common humanity in that we all wish to be happy, comfortable, and free of fear. We also come to see that our intentions and actions affect all of life.
Compassion, or karuna, arises out of seeing the true nature of the suffering in the world. As Salzberg says, “Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear.” Ultimately, we begin to live “with sympathy for all living beings without exception.” The meditation on compassion uses one of two phrases: “May you be free of your pain and sorrow” or “May you find peace.” As for lovingkindness, or metta, the practice follows a progression: first one directs these phrases toward a person who is experiencing physical or mental suffering, next to one’s self, then onward to a benefactor, friend, neutral person, difficult person, and in the end all beings.
What we are doing in the compassion meditation is purifying and transforming our relationship to suffering, whether it is our own or that of others. Being able to acknowledge suffering, open to it, and respond to it with a tenderness of heart allows us to join with all beings, and to realize we are never alone.
Sympathetic joy, or mudita, is the state of mind in which one is truly happy when others are happy. The Buddha called mudita “the mind-deliverance of happiness.” Salzberg says that this type of happiness liberates us “from the constricting effect of our negativity toward each other. We limit ourselves, and we limit others. We judge each other, compare ourselves to each other, demean and envy each other, and we suffer the strangling effects of these limitations.” Sympathetic joy is considered the most difficult of the brahma-vihara practices because so many mind states block our ability to develop it. The practice begins by focusing on someone it is easy to rejoice for and care about. The phrase repeated is something like “May your good fortune continue.”
The practice of equanimity, or upekkha, helps one develop a spacious and still mind that can be present with all the ups and downs of life. Salzberg says that the practice of equanimity is “learning deeply what it means to let go.” It is a state of non-reactivity that can lead to freedom in every moment. It is the final practice of the brahma-viharas because it “balances those heartfelt wishes with the recognition that things are the way they are. However much we may wish for something, most results are beyond our control.” The words recited in the equanimity meditation are: “All beings are owners of their karmas. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not my wishes for them.” The words are first directed toward a neutral person – the easiest person for this practice. From there the sequence is: benefactor, friend, enemy, oneself, and all beings.
In the final chapter of the book, which discusses morality and karma, Salzberg points out that in the course of our many lives on this earth, we have all been and done everything. There is no point in judging anyone. The only thing that makes sense is compassion. She explains the importance of morality as both the “necessary foundation for liberation” and “one of the path’s great fruits and culminations.” It is important because we are all interconnected and what we do to others we also do to ourselves.
If we want to quiet our minds, to bring our lives into spiritual truth, to see into the life of things, we need to live in harmony. There is no way to disregard our behaviour and then sit down in a formal posture on a meditation cushion and experience freedom, because each part of our life is thoroughly intermeshed with every other part.
Striving for advanced meditational states without caring about how we relate to others day-to-day is meaningless. She likens it to someone getting in a rowboat: “They row and row and row with great earnestness and effort, but they neglect to untie the boat from the dock.”
The practice of the brahma-viharas is an essential part of “untying the boat.” This is because this practice develops a generous heart, a key factor in letting go.
The movement of the heart in generosity mirrors the movement of the heart in letting go on the inner journey. Letting go – abandoning, relinquishing – is actually the same mind state as generosity. So the practice of giving deeply influences the feeling tone of our meditation practice, and vice versa. In this way, generosity establishes the ground in which meditation practice can flourish.
Developing an inner attitude of generosity is essential, not only for learning to let go, but also for experiencing our connectedness with others. And it reminds us of our own innate goodness. “We all know what it feels like when we have done something we regret and feel we have to keep hidden…. We all know too, how it feels when we can stand by our actions with calm self-esteem.” Making right choices, grounded in an inner sense of generosity, gives us a great gift: a life of “dignity, integrity, wholeness, simplicity, lightness, clarity, gladness, peace, buoyancy.” Salzberg speaks of many ways to be generous and reminds us that generosity is a practice, because none of us does these things perfectly.
Her chapters on karma are clear and powerful. She explains that understanding karma enables us to take spiritual and moral responsibility for ourselves. “This is our only true property, the only thing we carry with us from life to life. The vibrational tone of any intention, the motivation behind our speech and action, reflects the kind of seed we are planting in any moment.” The attitude with which we respond – hopefully not just react – to each situation carries that “vibrational tone.”
Rather than feeling victimized by our circumstances and trying to escape them, we can work to change them by recognizing the cause of the painful condition, which is invariably hatred, clinging or ignorance. Salzberg gives us a sense of hope that the mind can be transformed, that living in balance can become more than a mere theoretical concept:.
Through meditation and the brahma-viharas [the Buddha] offers us the possibility to radically change our relationship to life. When we learn to move beyond mistaken concepts and see clearly, we no longer solidify reality. We see waves coming and going, arising and passing. We see that life, composed of this mind and body, is in a state of continual, constant transformation and flux. There is always the possibility of radical change. Every moment – not just poetically or figuratively, but literally –- every moment we are dying and being reborn, we and all of life.