The most popular contemplation is to develop attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings, without limit. These attitudes—called “brahmaviharas”, or sublime attitudes—are so useful that many people make a standard practice of developing them for a few minutes at the beginning of every meditation session regardless of whether there’s a conscious need for them.
This helps to clear up any buried resentments from your daily interactions with other people and reminds you of why you’re meditating: You want to find a happiness that’s secure—which means that it has to be harmless. (Further reading: Warnings about Meditation (Precautions and Negative Side Effects)
Meditation is one of the few ways of finding happiness that harms no one at all. At the same time, you’re creating a new narrative for your life: Instead of being a person weighed down by resentments, you show yourself that you can rise above difficult situations and develop a magnanimous heart.
The four sublime attitudes are actually contained in two: goodwill and equanimity.
Goodwill is a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for all others. Compassion is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people suffering or acting in ways that will lead to suffering. You want them to stop suffering. Empathetic joy is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people happy or acting in ways that will lead to happiness. You want them to continue being happy.
Equanimity is the attitude you have to develop when you realize that certain things are beyond your control. If you let yourself get worked up over them, you waste the energy you could have applied to areas where you can have an effect. So you try to put your mind on an even keel toward the things you can’t control, beyond the sway of your likes and dislikes.
Here’s an exercise for developing goodwill and equanimity:
Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true happiness—and that, in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You’re also establishing the intention to further true happiness in any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not everyone will act in line with your wish, which is why it’s important also to develop thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people refuse to act in the interests of true happiness. That way you won’t suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can stay focused on the cases where you can be of help.
For goodwill, begin by stating in your mind a traditional expression of goodwill for yourself: “May I be happy. May I be free from stress and pain. May I be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May I look after myself with ease.”
Then spread similar thoughts to others, in ever-widening circles: people close to your heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, people you don’t like, people you don’t even know—and not just people: all living beings in all directions. In each case, say to yourself, “May you be happy. May you be free from stress and pain. May you be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May you look after yourself with ease.”
Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.
To make this a heart-changing practice, ask yourself—when you’re secure in your goodwill for yourself—if there’s anyone for whom you can’t sincerely spread thoughts of goodwill. If a particular person comes to mind, ask yourself: “What would be gained by this person’s suffering?” Most of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are suffering and fearful. Only rarely do people who’ve been acting unskillfully react skillfully to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they do just the opposite: They hunger to make others suffer even more.
So the world would be a better place if we could all simply follow the path to true happiness by being generous and virtuous, and by training the mind.
With these thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for this sort of person: “May you learn the error of your ways, learn the way to true happiness, and look after yourself with ease.”
In expressing this thought, you’re not necessarily wishing to love or have continued relations with this person. You’re simply making the determination not to seek revenge against those who have acted harmfully or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift both to yourself and to those around you.
Conclude the session by developing an attitude of equanimity. Remind yourself that all beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. In many cases, their actions lie beyond your control, and your own past actions can’t be erased. In cases where these actions place obstacles in the way of the happiness you wish for all beings, you simply have to accept the fact with equanimity. That way you can focus on areas where you can make a difference through your present actions.
This is why the traditional formula for equanimity focuses on the issue of action:
“All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, are related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.”
Thinking in this way helps you not to get worked up about what you can’t change so that you can devote the energy of your goodwill to what you can.
If there are people for whom goodwill is simply too difficult for you to manage right now, you might try developing thoughts of compassion instead. Think of the ways that they may be suffering, to see if that softens your attitude toward them, or helps you understand why they act the way they do. If this is too difficult, you can go straight to thoughts of equanimity about them.
In other words, you can remind yourself that you don’t have to settle accounts. You’re better off freeing yourself from the circle of revenge. The principle of action and its results will take care of the situation. Just that thought can give the mind some space to settle down and develop some concentration.
By spreading thoughts of goodwill and equanimity to all beings, you take your mind out of its everyday narratives and create a broader perspective for your meditation. It’s easiest to settle the mind into the present moment, right here and now when you’ve let it think for a few moments about the universe as a whole.
When you remember that all beings are looking for happiness—sometimes skillfully, more often not—it puts your own quest for happiness in perspective. You want to do it right.
♦Further reading: How Meditation Unlock Valuable Benefits in Mind
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Source: Book:” With Each & Every Breath”-Thanissaro Bhikkhu