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Who doesn’t want happiness? And not happiness in the hereafter, but happiness in the here-and-now? We know that accumulating wealth doesn’t bring happiness and we hear that we should be helping others to experience self-satisfaction. We understand that self-acceptance and self-love will help us experience happiness, but how do we, practically and experientially, do this?

The Buddhist Brahma-Viharas are four limitless attitudes that are said to bring true and abiding happiness to the practitioner. Brahma-Viharas, literally “dwelling place of Brahma”, or God, are the four attitudes of unlimited love, unlimited compassion, unlimited empathetic joy, and unlimited equanimity.

All we need is love
Love, or metta, is the foundation – the underlying motivation of all actions. From love, compassion (karuna) arises. Compassion is the natural response to suffering – our own and others – when we are working from the foundation of love.

When metta (love) meets happiness, empathetic joy (mudita) results. Love becomes compassion in response to suffering, and joy in response to happiness.

Strength in equanimity
Equanimity (upekkha) acts to balance the three other attitudes of love, compassion and joy. Equanimity is essential to stop encounters with suffering from sliding into depression and encounters with joy from sliding into narcissism and indulgence.

Equanimity is not indifference; it simply makes the other three attitudes more effective.

The four limitless attitudes in practice
The skill in cultivating the Brahma-Viharas is in making these limitless. It’s easy to have positive attitudes towards loved ones and far harder to do so with those we dislike. Equanimity may be the hardest attitude to cultivate, especially towards our most dear loved ones when they endure horrendous circumstances.

The Buddha taught the Brahma-Viharas in the context of karma, or cause-and-effect, as well as the process of fabrication.

Karma follows that we need to cultivate ‘right intentions’ and learn to recognise ‘wrong intentions’ so that we can make conscious choices that lead to happiness – not only now, but into the future. Not only that, we need to encourage all people we encounter to make good decisions as well. When we are able to make compassion universal, we can always trust that our intentions will develop into right actions.

Further, when we have sufficiently developed our Brahma-Viharas, we mitigate the results of past bad actions as our mind is so expansive that repercussions are barely noticed.

Emotions and actions
The process of fabrication is our emotions becoming actions. If we can use knowledge to inform and influence our emotions, these will become useful to end suffering and cultivate the Brahma-Viharas.

Our emotions cause us to act, leading to the creation of either good or bad karma. When we become more consciously aware of our emotions, starting with breath awareness, we can positively transform these, cultivating the Brahma-Viharas while also mastering concentration, which leads to bliss.

The Brahma-Viharas teach us that neither our head nor or heart are superior; rather, these need to work mindfully and skilfully in concert. Our heart needs our head to cultivate skilful emotions, discern these, and act upon them. Our head needs our heart to remember the importance of putting an end to suffering – all beings’ suffering.

Nurturing happiness begins in our body-mind, with our breath. When we cultivate the four limitless attitudes, these result in loving-kindness. We are no longer victims of circumstance or complacent to our ‘natural’ emotions and perspectives but rather willing participants in the causes of happiness – our own, and each others’.

By Brook McCarthy, Yoga Reach.

Learn how to cultivate the four limitless attitudes and loving-kindness, starting with yourself, at Sally’s upcoming Bali retreat at the COMO Shambhala Estate in Ubud, Bali.

Article Written: July 2013