The Four Immeasurable Minds

I have long had an interest to learn more about Buddhism. Actually I bought myself a book on Buddhism many years ago while I was visiting Thailand. This book did not really grasp my attention and I always wanted to explore this topic further.

So I recently obtained a collection of books on Buddhism. Unfortunately many of the books were a bit strange and difficult to follow. For instance, I read part of the book The Life of Shabkar and it struck me as a bit of an odd tale. I appreciated its authenticity and that the translation tried to capture the language used in the original text; but I just found it too difficult to follow; with too little true philosophical or spiritual discussions and too much self praise.

The book I found the most useful out of my initial collection turned out to be The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. The first thing I learned from this book is that Buddhists seem to have been early adopters of listicles. There is, of course, the noble eight-fold path but there are plenty of the ten of this, the four of that, or even the 65 of something else.

One of these collections particularly resonated with me: what is called by Thich Nhat Hanh (other authors use different names of this) the Four Immeasurable Minds (see Brahmavihara). The basic idea is that if we nourish these minds within us, we grow better and more wise. In the words used in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, if you practice the Four Immeasurable Minds “they will grow in you every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier, and everyone around you will become happier, also.”.

The four minds are the following.

Joy

Joy is the simple feeling of pleasure we may derive from many sources. Buddhists though do not approve of any form of joy. The joy should be wholesome and sustainable. For instance, it cannot be denied that those who drink plenty of alcohol in company usually are in for a good time; however, this feeling of joy is marked as being hollow since it is not in alignment with deeper values. Notwithstanding these limitations, there are plenty of other things one may derive joy from. May it be the beauty of nature or simply the company of others.

Compassion

We have a great natural capacity for compassion. Generally if we see others in pain or discomfort, their pain is mirrored within ourselves as an unpleasant feeling, which fuels our desire to help those in need. While researching about the Four Immeasurable minds, I read somewhere that some Buddhist practitioners are encouraged to imagine a woman without arms who cannot save a drowning infant as a way to connect with their capacity to feel compassion. To me, this does not seem particularly helpful. I think it is better to try to connect with our ability to feel compassion in every day life. People do not need to be in urgent need to be worthy to be the object of our compassion. Everyone deserves it, since no one can escape hardship and suffering entirely in their lives.

Love

Love is an easy word to say and and easy concept to understand; it is however, in my view, a word which is difficult to describe. Without defining exactly what we mean by love, it is easy for us to appreciate that love is a strong force which can guide us through our struggles of acting for the benefit of others and ourselves. Some Western Buddhists like to avoid the term love and opt for ‘loving-kindness’ instead. That is to emphasise that this love does not solely mean the kind of romantic love that usually comes to our mind when we hear the word love and start thinking of Valentine’s day. But I think, especially in a religious/philosophical context, we can easily grasp that love is a wider concept here; which may include the love for God, the love for the world, love for ourselves and love for all of those around us.

Equanimity

Buddhism is very concerned with relieving us of our suffering. A lot of our suffering is self inflicted by the constant turmoil of our emotions. Thus it makes sense to aim for a calm and collected mind. If we achieve equanimity within ourselves, we become stronger and more receptive of the good and wholesome emotions which live within us.

As I’ve said above, the idea behind the Four Immeasurable Minds is that we should embrace these minds and strengthen them. As mentioned above, when devising particular exercises for this, especially if they involve drowning infants, might not be the best course of action. I think it is best to try to weave these minds into our everyday actions and thinking; that is where their potential can truly be unleashed.

Ending with another quote from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

[A] group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

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