“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened” –The Buddha.
It was a rainy day in Hanoi when I learned the 4 depths of love. The smell of rain, and the peacefulness of the meditation class made this day a spiritual landmark in my yoga path for healing.
Our teacher told us that based on the Buddhist philosophy, humans are all born with four qualities. However, with time, environment and social conditioning, circumstances of an individual’s life, we can lose the intensity in which we feel them. These four qualities must be nourished and nurtured by our parents (guardians), then by us, in order to continue developing our selves into beings of love and for love. Our teacher told us he believed there was no such thing as an evil person. As I silently disagreed with this personal statement, I thought a rapist or a terrorist are, in my perspective: mean-hearted people. Other students in the class raised the topic of negative citizens in societies, and I felt relieved the conversation started; for I’ve felt confused about this complex, yet simple topic. My teacher explained that based on these four qualities and what he had studied (also his personal believes), we humans do not become bad, instead, we become confused and thus, the acts we now describe as evil.
I thought about the word confusion. I thought of children who have been abused, and how they continue this toxic karmic cycle in their life. I thought of people with good parenting and nourishing homes, and how they are kind, caring people. I thought of myself, coming from a broken home where love was hate, where there was constant chaos and bitterness, I indeed, was lost in confusion. So yes, perhaps with life we get confused, not evil. For most of my teenage years and as a young adult, I was confused, I was not happy. I had those qualities in between layers of anger, frustration, and solitude. Coming into the path of yoga and holistic approaches, my relationship with my husband, and my selfless mission of motherhood have helped me overcome these emotional challenges. Breaking the cycle of broken homes in my family tree became my target to break. A vicious cycle my daughters would not be part of.
As I drove back home through the alleys of Hanoi in my motorcycle, with the smooth drops of rain over my face, I knew I had to nourish my four qualities of love in order to achieve my spiritual goals. I started reading more and more with the aim to foster them in myself and my family. These are the 4 qualities of love, or as my teacher says, the 4 virtues we are born with:
1. Loving Kindness- Maitri
The word Maitri comes from the Sanskrit word for “friend”. This is where it all starts. A stranger becomes a friend for whom we will grow to love. Being kind to others is the seed of friendship, and the start of love. Being genuinely kind, and caring for all living things, especially those who need it most. This quality must start with self-love, self-worth. Loving who we truly are, is the first step to allowing love for others. In Buddhism love means wanting others to be happy. Being love unconditional, it requires much courage, acceptance and non-attachment (which often gets confused with love). This is quite different from the ordinary mundane term of love being conditional, based on attachment, which comes from being drawn to someone or something that meets our needs. There is a codependency that brings unstable emotions. When we love unconditionally we do not hold expectations. When we feel kindness for others, we start to awaken the feeling for compassion. When we have open hearts, we allow kindness to meet the happiness of others.
Some months ago, I watched a video of a teacher in a school in Israel who had a very challenging student. A child who was conditioned into believing he was not a good boy. Through her kindness she approached him with love as opposed to frustration which was the way he had been treated for years. She reminded him that he IS good. He CAN do good. She fostered one of the qualities of love, rather than continuing to plant negative thoughts in him. The little boy had an amazing year in her class. I felt very moved by this video. As a teacher I had similar situations teaching in the American public school system and in private schools in Vietnam. We can be unaware of what goes on at home, which directly affects the way a child responds to school. Sometimes a teacher is all they have to nurture their life.
2. Compassion- Karuna
Breaking the word compassion we have “com” meaning with and “passion” as an intense emotion. Yoga expert Nischala Joy Devi describes compassion as a “form of infinite love” in her book ‘The Secret Power of Yoga’. This form of infinite love cannot be affected or limited because we have the ability to connect to others and sense their despair. However, the author says that just like loving ourselves allows loving for others, we must start by having compassion for who we are and the mistakes we make, in order to have compassion for the mistakes and misfortunes of those around us.
While I was waiting for my daughter to finish her ballet class, one of the mothers approached me and asked me if she could hold Eelan. My first thought was “oh… are her hands clean, where is she taking her, is she going to kiss her…” and so on. In the blink of an eye, this woman read my body language and replied to my superficial judgment by saying “sorry, it’s ok”. I knew I’ve done wrong. In an instant I awoke from this confusion and told her excitedly she could certainly hold Eelan. Just like she had been given a crystal made of sand, she took my daughter in the most careful and loving way. In that short moment watching her glow as she cradled Eelan, I learned she could not have more children due to her poor health. What followed as I observed the nostalgic eyes of this pale woman shinning over my daughter was an enormous wave of loving compassion for her spirit.
When we allow compassion to bloom in the garden of our souls, we are able to feel what others feel, especially in times of struggle. There is a desire to relieve the suffering of others. Recently my daughter told me she was sad that her friend had broken her leg. She is four and she is able to connect to another being’s situations, emotions. The notion of having compassion is based on the relation of suffering we make through our own experiences. We know and CAN understand the pain, the struggle, because we have felt something similar. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “suffering is the universal affliction”, whether we have suffered equally or different, it’s the denominator of a feeling of despair that we experience. This quality is the same as the virtue of empathy. The ability we have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and for just that moment, “feel their pain”, and listen. Dr Brené Brown, researcher professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has a great video on RSA Shorts about what Empathy is, for we tend to confuse it with Sympathy, a feeling that vaguely shows compassion for others. And as Alice Walker, novelist and political activist says, “Because it is only by empathy aroused that we change”.
3. Joy- Mudita
When I think of this quality I think of gratefulness. Being content with the present situation. Feeling joy and being joy is the act of happiness in any given situation. There are two types of happiness: mental and outer. The later comes from meeting with an external object, thus making it transitory, and sometimes disappointing, causing suffering. Then we have the mental happiness which comes from meditating and nurturing positive thoughts. It is stable and causes no suffering. It is based on inner peace. Hence, we cannot be happy if we have no mental peace, no happiness within us. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that we tend to confuse excitement for happiness. We can believe we are happy because we are excited about something or someone, when in reality excitement comes with other emotions like expectations, stress. When we are excited we are not at peace. “True happiness is based on peace” (from his book ‘The Art of Power’).
We cannot be happy no matter how much the external sources are. The Dalai Lama says that we are only able to utilize all these sources of happiness like family, friends, work, health, etc. if our state of mind is in peace and individually fulfilled. We can destroy any of these external factors if we foster anger within us. Therefore, our state of mind is crucial when determining if we gain joy and happiness in our own life. Fostering our mind comes with the practice of meditations, cultivating inner peace and quiet, and by harboring gratitude we find happiness. Sometime ago, I read that happiness is not the destination, it is the journey.
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions”.
4. Equanimity- Upeksha
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this word as “the evenness of mind especially under stress”. Nowadays this one is probably the toughest quality to bloom in us, because of the overload of stress as a byproduct of our high-tech era. We are already “uneven” to confront an unexpected situation, let alone moments of parenthood which push the limits for most of us. Having a tranquil mind comes from having time to have a quiet mind. When we are at ease in any given situation we are not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation, no matter whom or what. In Buddhism we do not distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. When we are anxious we worry about good and bad, we start to implicitly, but obviously categorizing what is good from bad, thus making judgments. These culminate in paranoia, which is by far the opposite of having equanimity.
Nischala Joy Devi (from the same book quoted above) writes about the Divine being present in everyone, even in those who do atrocities. It is almost impossible to locate the goodness in this people. But like my teacher said, their minds are so disturbed and confused, that it is difficult to perceive the good in them. In order to forgive we need an open heart and a calm mind, because forgiveness is the stepping-stone to compassion.
“Realize that you should not have prejudice, hatred, or desire towards enemies, friends, or neutral persons, thus lay a very firm foundation of equanimity.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from ‘Path to Bliss: A Practical Guide to Stages of Meditation‘
The Buddha taught the following to his son Rahula (from ‘Old path white clouds’ by Thich Nhat Hahn):
“Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.
Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.
Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success.
Practice non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is because that is. Myself and others are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase after another.
I call these the four immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others.”
These 4 qualities are endlessly connected. If we are kind, we will develop compassion, which will allow selfless joy while we have equanimity.
Continuing to read about these four qualities, meditating and learning to foster them, has helped me overcome emotional challenges from my childhood, and present frustrations as a mother. Not forgetting to remember that I am capable of so much love has improved my relationships and my view on the life I have, as I continue to cultivate these important values in my children.
‘The Secret Power of Yoga’ by Nischala Joy Devi