The Four Brahmavihara - Loving Kindness
The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward the suffering, happiness toward the pure, and impartiality toward the impure.
Yoga Sutra I,33 Translated by Alistair Shearer
The first practical instruction that Patanjali gives to a yoga aspirant comes in chapter one, verse 33 of the Sutras and it is to do with our social relationships. It is obvious really, that our spiritual fitness should be tested first in the fire of our relationships with others, since it is in our interactions with others that we demonstrate our personality, our capacity for kindness and love and our propensity towards judgement and condemnation of other people's behaviour.
Ram Dass writes that if you want to test how well you are doing on your spiritual path, you should go and visit your family. It is they who will press all of your buttons, reignite all of your childhood petulance and stir up long-cherished grievances. He recounts how his father always wondered aloud when he was going to get a proper job (he was by this time a world famous spiritual teacher and author of many books), but his father was an East Coast lawyer and having a hippy for a son wasn't ever going to cut it.
In Sanskrit, this sutra reads as follows:
maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visyanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam
Maitri means friendliness, kindness, love. It is one of the highest virtues in yoga and is a quality inherent in all enlightened beings and bodhisattvas. Later in the sutras, Patanjali advises maitriyadisu balani (YS III,24): that by practising friendliness and other such virtues towards all others, not only does our capacity for friendliness and love grow, but our moral and emotional strength is increased.
Karuna is compassion. The giving of our time and our empathy to another human being, animal, or living thing that needs it. It is taking time to understand another person's pain, suffering, or point of view and relinquishing the idea of personal ownership of misery. It's holding someone's hand while they work through their stuff and just being there for them. We all know what we need from other people when we are at a low ebb: we don't need anyone to take the suffering away from us; we don't need to be told what to do to make it better; we don't need it pointed out to us how foolish we are to have gotten into this situation; or how we've had it easy, because they've had it so much worse; and we certainly don't need that kind of sympathy that leaves us feeling patronised. Compassion is that brand of kindness that gives you a hug, talks and is silent, listens and seeks to understand and which is entirely accepting and loving of you in your hour of need.
Mudita is gladness, a positive state of mind to be consciously radiated. How nice it is to be with someone who radiates gladness: someone who can make you smile while you're waiting in the rain for a late bus; someone who can see and point out the beauty in a somewhat desolate city landscape; someone who helps you to remember the simple joys of life (a nice sit down and a cup of tea); or who shares with you the things that make them happy and wants to know all about yours. Learning to be this person; becoming this person, is part of yoga practice. It's connected to the practice of gratitude: we've all been in the presence of those who drain the life-blood from us with their complaints about the things they never had; the things they'll never get and the way life has been so hard. It's easy to be down on the world; the hard work is to remember to look for the beauty and to keep on being glad for it and to carry on sharing that gladness with everyone that you meet and know. Happy people aren't luckier than anyone else (all humans suffer), they just work harder at being cheerful.
Upeksha is equanimity. I think this might be the hardest of the lot. To regard with equanimity those people who constantly make mistakes; who repeatedly make damaging life-choices; or live in ways that differ from the path we have made for ourselves. Upeksha is about remaining open-minded and balanced in the face of other people's faults and imperfections, rather than rushing to judge and condemn them for their weaknesses. The flipside of upeksha is realising that we all have our shortcomings; we all say and do things (known or unknown to us) that annoy or challenge others. Our way of living is not perfect; it's just our way. Other people have their ways of doing things based on their best efforts and it is not for us to judge or condemn, nor to congratulate and encourage. According to Patanjali, it is our job only to remain peaceful and calm in the face of this and to attempt to see through people's foibles to the beauty that we know to be present in everyone.
It's worth noting here, that I do not believe that maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha mean that yogis should be passive in the face of injustice. Anyone who thinks this is the case should look to the life of Mohandas Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Aung San Suu Kyi - these are peaceful, non-judgmental people with the fortitude to take on repressive regimes and to continue to fight for what they believe in the face of extreme repression and hardship. However, these concepts do feed into protest, as Ram Dass wrote: "You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself." Protest and movement for change comes not because we hate the person against whom we are fighting, but because we hate what they do and believe wholeheartedly in a different way.
The projection or conscious radiation of friendliness and compassion is taught in the Yoga Sutras as a method of pacifying the mind. Pacifying the mind is the true purpose of all yoga practice. Thus yoga is love and love is yoga. The practice of kindness and compassion is your yoga practice. It is a tangible, constant testing of your progress in yoga. In time, kindness and compassion become less something you practise and more something that you are. And it can only run in circles... you must allow this love and kindness into your heart and soul as well as projecting it outwards, or else you will be forever limited in the amount of kindness, even-handedness, love and acceptance you can give. Be generous enough to give it to yourself and to receive it from others; for some of us, that's the hardest part of all.
"A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave."