Friday, November 19, 2010

The Four Antidotes

In a previous post (August) I wrote quite darkly of "The Five Poisons"--greed, ignorance, hatred, denial, and despair--that have come to dominate our public life, and certainly our public discourse, in this country. Here I would like to draw, once again, on Buddhist wisdom to offer four antidotes to these poisons--four ways to practice being what Thich Nhat Hanh once called "a lotus in a sea of fire" during his years in war-torn Vietnam. In Buddhist theory, these antidotes are called the four "Brahma-Viharas"--that is, dwelling places of the Divine, immeasurable states of mind or (more colloquially), useful attitudes to develop toward everyone until they become habitual. These are as follows:

  1. Maitri (or in Pali, Metta)--the mind of love
  2. Karuna--the mind of compassion
  3. Mudita--the mind of empathetic joy
  4. Upeksha (or in Pali, Upekkha)--the mind of equanimity.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) quotes Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher:

"Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extinguishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity ex­tinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings."

Let's look at these four useful mind states in a bit more detail, trying to see beyond the connotative static that often accompanies words such as "love" and see, instead, how we can make them real in our everyday lives.

1. Maitri (Metta), often translated as "love" or "loving kindness" can be understood more colloquially, with less connotative baggage, as friendliness. An easy way to practice cultivating this state of habitual friendliness is to soften, deliberately, the muscles around your eyes, which often tighten up out of stress or defensiveness, and allow your mouth to relax into a gentle smile. Remarkably, when you deliberately take such simple physical actions, they have an immediate effect on your mental disposition toward the people you encounter. You feel friendlier toward them, and remarkably enough, they often smile back. It is important to practice this friendliness without any attachment whatsoever, without an agenda. It is easy, particularly for men, to smile at beautiful women, for example, but there is always, even unconsciously, an agenda attached: "Maybe she will take an interest in me!" Therefore try the same easy, relaxed smile when you see other men, homely old women, young children, or anyone else. Try it even with people you are inclined not to like, and you will find that your hostility toward them begins to dissolve--that you become more generally accepting of other people.

2. Karuna--"Compassion," the usual translation, literally means "suffering with" someone. But as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, Karuna involves, "the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sor­rows." Once you have developed a firm foundation--a good mental habit--of Maitri or genuine, unaffected friendliness toward others, it is quite easy, and very healing, to become aware of others' suffering, and to be ready, whenever possible, to be there for them in their need, whether literally, through donations, or in spirit.

The challenge here is to cultivate such awareness without giving rise to a corresponding resentment of those who cause the suffering, for such resentment leads all too quickly to the poison of hatred. This is why the Tibetans, for example, encourage us to cultivate compassion for both the perpetrators and the victims of the ongoing Chinese oppression of Tibet. The powerful Tibetan practice of Tonglen--breathing in your own and others' pain and suffering, and breathing out love and healing--can be a powerful way of developing compassion for victims and perpetrators alike, and thereby decoupling compassion for victims from resentment of perpetrators.

But it takes lots of practice, and I can't pretend that I am there yet. When I see pictures of oil-soaked sea birds, victims of our Iraq or Afghanistan invasions, sick people without health insurance, or displaced homeowners who have been evicted through foreclosure, it is still very difficult for me to resist the co-arising of compassion for these victims with bitter resentment for BP, the Bush regime, the insurance industry, or the financial services industry...I need to remember, in such instances, the wisdom of Alice Walker's mother when she asked her how she managed not to hate the KKK and other racists who afflicted her. Her response was classic: "If they knew better, they'd do better." So when we encounter greedy or hateful people or their victims, the practice, taking a cue from Alice's mother, is to practice Karuna for the ignorance that gives rise to the perpetrators' greed and hatred, as well as Karuna for those who suffer its consequences. Not an easy task, but I'm working on it.

3. Mudita refers to joy, not just for ourselves, but for others as well. It is a natural outgrowth of Maitri or a friendly disposition, and it arises naturally as well from learning to abide in the present moment. A good translation might be "the ability to enjoy"--that is, the ability to feel a shared sense of gratitude and well-being, an awareness of beauty, in whatever we perceive. I find that a good place to practice Mudita is at the periodic TCC graduation ceremonies that we attend each semester. Despite the tedium of the ceremony--all the citations and pontificating--I love to sit on the side of the arena where I can see the radiant faces of all the students who have just received their diplomas, and share their joy. It is a good, healthy thing to do.

4. Upeksha, or equanimity, comes from the roots upa meaning "over" (cognate, through Indo-European, with the Greek prefix hyper- and the Latin prefix super-) and iksh which means "to look." So the etymology points to the core meaning: the ability to overlook--to let go, particularly, of perceived insults or slights. Thay likens it to climbing a mountain and "looking over"all sides. It involves nondiscrimination and nonattachment--the ability to empathize with, and understand, both sides of any given dispute or conflict. And like Karuna, it is difficult to cultivate toward those people or ideas that you don't like. As with all these other healthy habits of mind, it is best cultivated through the "essential discipline," in all circumstances, of breathing, observing, and letting go.

Finally, these four healthy attitudes all reinforce and give rise to one another. Maitri and Mudita are easy to cultivate, because they bring immediate rewards, both to ourselves and to others. Karuna and Upeksha are more of a challenge, because they both involve overcoming our own habitual resentments and attachments. But both are easier to cultivate if we establish a firm foundation of Maitri--an open, gracious, friendly attitude toward all whom we encounter, and Mudita--the ability to enjoy, selflessly, the beauty of the present moment. In time, all four "abodes" become available for us for meeting any person or situation we encounter: Maitri as a baseline attitude toward everyone we encounter; Karuna whenever we encounter or hear of people who are hurting or suffering, Mudita whenever beauty manifests, and Upeksha whenever people get ugly.