Up-leveling our Relationships – The Viharas


Moon over Baja

“How, as practicing yogins in modern life, do we modulate and up-level our relationships and interactions with other persons in the sometimes choppy and turbulent waters of our lives?”

We might start with the four “Brahma-viharas” or “Divine abidings” of the Yoga Sutras and of Buddhist tradition as a blueprint. These are Maitrī – Karuṇā – Muditā – Upekṣa.

These are four principles and practices that create a framework or map for our relationships, to guide our interactions with other people in life, in ways most beneficial for all concerned. They are applicable to all persons, whether stranger or family, friend or foe. They were first articulated in early Buddhist teachings and became an integral part of their practices. This began in the 6th century BCE, the time of the Buddha’s life. Before then, in the ancient Vedic writings and early Upaniṣads, there was only reference to “ahimsa” which means “non-harming”. Ahimsa was fundamental to Buddhism, Jainism and Yogic philosophy as a moral abstention. The viharas takes this further into positive actions.

They are very clearly articulated in the Yoga Sutra’s of Patñjali, a foundational text of classical yoga. In Yoga Sutra I.33:

“Be friendly (maitrī) with those who are happy (sukha). 

Be compassionate (karunā) with those who are suffering (duḥkha).

Be joyous (muditā) for those who are virtuous or who enjoy success (puṇya). And bring equanimity and overlooking (upekṣha) for those who enact un-virtuous acts (apuṇya). 

By this means the mind becomes lucid (prasādanam).” *

A “lucid” mind is one that is clear and untroubled. At peace with oneself and able to see truth without effort. This is a great foundation both for living one’s best life.

These are beautiful guidelines for relations with all other persons. This is easy to see and appreciate, but difficult in real life to practice consistently. Certainly they will make for smoother sailing in life! The four viharas are worthy of contemplating and trying to enact in our relationships with others in both positive and negative circumstances.

Upekṣha, in particular, can be challenging. For it invites us to not react negatively when others are acting negatively towards us or others. Sometimes, of course, we must challenge and call out harmful behavior. This requires discrimination and good judgment (lucidity!) But in many, perhaps most, circumstances it is more effective to just “raise our vision”, to overlook erroneous behavior. To let it go and give others space to recognize and ultimately surpass their own smaller thoughts and actions. We overlook it, let it go, forgive and don’t become entangled by being reactive. It can also be called “detachment” (vairag), a careful non-reactive neutrality that yet stays present and caring if the relationship is to endure and grow. Upekṣha is a valuable emotional tool.

Muditā, is bringing our own joy in sharing and celebrating in others’ successes, accomplishments and right actions, also a very high and mature practice. It requires being secure in one’s own Self. It is the opposite of envy and jealousy. The opposite of what is called “shadenfreude” in German, which means literally “joy-harm”. That is taking secret pleasure, joy, or satisfaction in the troubles, failures, losses and humiliations of others. That is no doubt a natural emotion in a competitive and socially-stratified society. Even among animals and children it can be seen. But it stems from insecurity, competitiveness and low self-esteem. For those seeking the highest fulfillment in life, we know that our growth can never come at the expense of others. Life and the universe is supporting us all, providing everything we need in the “big picture”. So in that wholeness we can place our trust and know that we are not diminished by others’ success. Nor are we lifted up by their troubles, even for those who may have harmed us.

Now some further considerations. It appears to me that there are these three domains in each individual that governs or limits capacities for enacting our highest freedom and the ability to create and live our fullest life. This is in the three domains of knowledge, what we may know and realize (called jñana in Sanskrit), of actions and our choices of actions (kriya) and of our will or intentions (iccha). These are the primary three “potencies”, śhaktis or powers for the expression of our fundamental freedom (svatantrya).

Consider the following three axioms regarding limitations in these three domains:

1) It is our beliefs, what we take to be true, that limit our knowledge

What knowledge can we actually recognize, take-in and accept? If it is in conflict with our fundamental beliefs we will not accept nor even recognize it as knowledge. The larger and more aligned our beliefs are with highest truth, the more we can know reality.

2) It is our values that limit our choices and actions. 

Values being our priorities, what we would choose over any lesser value. Our values determine how our lives will look. How happy and fulfilled we will be.

Consider how one who values financial success, power over others or fame more than love, peace and contentment and spiritual fulfillment. WE all have very many values. It is in how we rank them that is the key. What will we prioritize?

3) It is our identities (Self-identifications) that limit our power of  will and intentions. This is  deeper and more subtle. “Identifications” refers to our sense of who and what is it that “I am”.

If we think we are our body, mind and emotions, rather than having a body, minda nd emotions, this will produce entirely different capacities and experiences in life vs. one who thinks of their truest Self as a unique expression of universal Consciousness. Identity as a mortal body vs. identity as transcendent and immortal consciousness. There are many other  relative identifications. All statements that begin with “I am” (this or that) are relative identifications. They are not “wrong” but are not ultimate. Many are useful but they are temporary enactments and the roles we fulfill. They are not ultimate identity: That which truly I AM.

The nice thing for me is the power that these recognitions provide. We can interrogate our own beliefs and values and modify them consciously to align with our highest realizations and principles. We can choose higher beliefs and values and let lesser ones go.

Here is an exercise to try:  

Write down your own values as a list, as many as you can think of. To name a few in no particular order: Love; Family; Relationship, Health; Service; Learning; Wealth, Security”; Admiration/approval of others; Reputation; Spiritual realization; Being: thin/fit/beautiful etc.; Legacy; Art; Success in business (or other); Money; Friends; Travel; Leisure; Peace; Saving the planet, and so forth.

Then, put them (or just the top 10) into an order from highest to lowest. How? Ask yourself “What value would I sacrifice to some degree in favor of another?” – That is your higher value of the two. For example, if you would say: “I would sacrifice my reputation to protect my family.” So then family is a higher value for you than reputation. continue this process comparing any pair on your list until they are all in the proper order of priority. It can be very empowering to make this explicit for yourself. It simplifies decision making to explicitly know your value priorities.

Identifications can also be explored and modified, giving up the lesser for the greater. That is our life practice (sadhana) and is a reflection of our progressive unfoldment. It is less overt than re-evaluating beliefs and values. For it requires the progressive realizations of higher states of consciousness and the perspectives these give. That grows from a life lived with an authentic and effective meditation practice and a commitment to our spiritual evolution.

We may also consider how others’ beliefs, values and identifications limit their access and capacities for knowledge, choice and actions, and intentional capacities respectively.

For example, consider the implications of living in an “Honor-based culture” vs. a “Dignity-based culture”.  An honor-based culture is one that places high value on the perception of the group. The group being a cohort of peers, a family, a gang or an entire culture. The group requires that any perceived insult or challenge must be met and revenged. If it is not, if an insult or challenge is unmet then “honor is lost” and the person may be ostracized and exiled. Better to die than to be dishonored.

A dignity-based culture (Dignitism) places the highest value on each individual. Here are the three tenets that characterize a dignity-culture:

1) “I am infinitely valuable.”

2) “All persons and beings are equally as valuable as myself.”

3) “Each individual is completely unique.”

Consider how if we choose to value these 3 principles or tenets of dignity, of each individual as a higher value-set than defending honor, how this makes for such an enormous difference in choices and actions. 

My dear wife this morning brought me a viewpoint that is also worth considering: In just what ways are the people we are interacting with limited? We might recognize and accept these limitations in our interactions with them and in the application of the 4 Viharas towards others. 
            “Remember that people are only able to:
            – Love to the level of their Self-love.
            – Communicate to the level of their Self-awareness
            – And behave to the level of their healed traumas.”

Recognition, acceptance and forgiveness of our own and of others’ limitations is part of upekṣā. It is the overlooking, raising our vision and accepting ourselves and others just as we are, with dignity and with compassion (karuṇā). Let us not forget to practice these towards ourselves as well as towards others! 

* Yoga Sutra I.33. “maitrī-karuṇā-mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam”

“By cultivating and attitude of friendship towards those who are happy, compassion towards those in distress, joy towards those who are virtuous, and equanimity towards those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.”