On this five-week online course we will explore the four qualities of the heart: metta (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy) and uppeka (balance / equanimity) through a balanced practice of Sati Yoga, allowing us to become more open and grounded, and learning to meet whatever life brings with clarity, compassion and creativity.
The four elements of Satiyoga: ethics, asana, breathwork and meditation provide both the foundation and structure for this journey together. Sessions will involve creative explorations of postural practice, integrative breath work and guided meditations, allowing for the theme of the retreat to be explored from all angles.
The course consist of five 90 minutes online sessions through Zoom, from 7.30 to 9.00 pm (GMT) starting on Wednesday 17th January 2024. Each session will be a balanced mix of asana, pranayama and meditation practice, as well as some presentation. You will be encouraged to practice between our weekly meetings, and there will be group discussion about these practices during the meetings.
We will start with a quote from the yoga sutras of Patanjali, 1-33
Undisturbed calmness and clarity of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward suffering, delight in the pure and equanimity toward the impure.
Here Patanjali lists the four qualities of the heart known in Buddhism as the Brahma-viharas, (often referred to as the four sublime abodes or the immeasurables): metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha.
Before we will look at each of them in turn, a bit of background in Buddhist psychology may be usefull
Central to Buddhist psychology is the concept of Vedanas
Vedanā ( Hedonic Tone )
The term vedanā does not translate easily into Western terminology. There's a temptation to translate it as "feeling" or "feeling tone." Perhaps a better option is to translate vedanā as "hedonic tone," meaning the tonality of our experience in terms of pleasure/pain and agreeable/disagreeable. But there isn't any one translation that does this term justice. If we are seeking to understand this aspect of establishing mindfulness, vedanā may be one of the terms which is simply better to naturalize into our language.
Vedanā is an essential concept in Buddhism. It made quite a number of prominent lists, including the Five Aggregates (khandhas) and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānas), and it would be difficult to overstate its importance for meditation practice.
Vedanā is the bridge between mind and body. It looks into our bodily experience, which all comes in the form of pleasant/unpleasant and it also looks to our mental experience which is also toned in terms of pleasant/unpleasant. There is also a tone which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant: a neutral tone. Some Buddhist traditions give a lot of attention to these hedonic tones as they arise and pass from experience
The concept of vedana is complex, but as we approach it first, it is also very simple and immediate: we are investigating our experience close-up, at the very point of contact with the world. We are immersed in a world which is constantly touching us and we are touching it through our six senses (remember that the Buddha identifies the mind as a sense organ). Every aspect of this touching, like a mutual friction, produces vedana: the experience of something pleasant, or unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (in other words, neutral).
This experience is pre-cognitive. It arises before we have time to think about it. Vedana are produced in the moment of this contact, our experiencing of them is immediate, direct. When I taste a sweet fruit, I don’t make a cognitive or linguistic judgement regarding sweetness. The registering of sweetness happens pre-cognitively. If the next bite I take of the fruit is sour, I immediately experience this change in vedana. I might even instinctively spit out that bite of fruit if it is extremely unpleasant. This reaction could take place without any formal thinking on my part at all.
According to tradition, there are three distinct phases that occur on sensory contact:
1. Our mind spontaneously evaluates features of our experience as pleasant or unpleasant.
2. We like what is pleasant and dislike what is unpleasant.
3. We want what we like, and don't want what we dislike.
If we are not mindful, we can launch into behaviours based solely on getting what we want and avoiding what we don't want. On the other hand, if we can be mindful of hedonic tone (vedanā) we can be aware of these break points. Then, just because we find something unpleasant does not necessarily mean we must become aversive and try to get rid of it. If we slow this process down, we discover that we have choices.
It is important to clarify: there is nothing I can do regarding the vedana themselves. If I quickly pull my hand back from the handle of a too hot pan on the stove, slightly burning myself, I am not able to change the fact of the hot pan creating an unpleasant vedana. It is what comes after that I can control, or shape, or learn to creatively engage with. When I begin to see what is at the root of my experience: a very unpleasant vedana, in slowing down the mental process, allowing there to be a space, a pause, I might be able to lessen, or even defuse the avoidance pattern of unpleasantness that often kicks in very quickly.
If we notice that a sensation is pleasant, be aware that you are often dwelling in that pleasantness. If the feeling tone is unpleasant, notice if the tendency is to move away or to become tense in some other part of the body.
The diagram below provides an excellent visual illustration of how the vedana work.
Mindfulness of vedana, the second foundation of mindfulness and familiarity with the concept of vendanas helps us to better understand how the three poisons of the mind (greed hatred and delusion) arise, and help us to se how these automatic reactions to pleasure and pain actually enslave us. Once we discern this, the place of the four Brahma-viharas as an integral part of the path to freedom becomes evident.
Metta (friendliness), opening the door of the heart
The first attitude to cultivate is an open heart that welcomes all that life brings its way with kindness. Standard translations of "metta" (or Maitrī in Sanskrit) include benevolence, loving-kindness and good will, as well as friendliness. Metta is also a verb, to befriend.
This quality of 'friendliness' is expressed as warmth that reaches out and embraces people and events of our lives with a positive, inclusive attitude.
Metta is not about how we feel, but about how we relate to these feelings. It invites us to drop our habitual patterns of reactivity and to free ourselves from emotional habits which serve neither ourselves nor the world around us. It is the foundation upon which the other qualities of the heart can be built.
The cultivation of metta is powerful practice to uproot the deeply embedded psychological and emotional patterns of ill will and aversion. Ill will can take many forms, and can be directed inwardly as well as outwardly. Metta frees our heart and mind from the clutches of all forms of fear and hatred, regardless of what is happening in the world around us.
Metta can be cultivated through the well known Buddhist practice of Metta Bhavana.
May I / you / they be safe
May I / you / they be healthy
May I / you / they be happy
May I / you / they be at ease
May I / you / they be filled with loving-kindness
May I / you / they be peaceful
Write your own version of the Metta phrases, one that speaks to your heart.
Mudita (joy), the antidote to greed
When an open heart meets pleasant experiences, it doesn't cling to them, Rather, recognising that grasping would only gives rise to greed and attachment, and ultimately to suffering, the enlightened heart, living fully in the present, meets beauty and pleasure with joy and delight (Mudita).
With Mudita,we learn not to cling to pleasant vedanas. This frees us to truly enjoy the gift that life offers us, rather than trying to hoard them.
Mudita refers especially to sympathetic joy: the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being.
- Think of some examples from your own life when you reacted to a pleasant experience by being fully present to it, enjoying completely without any thoughts of clinging to it in any way. How did this feel?
Compare this feeling with that of a pleasant experience which you couldn't let go off (or wanted to bring back).
Which was ultimately more satisfying?
- What brings you joy? Make a list in your practice diary.
Karuna (compassion), the antidote to hatred
When an open heart meets difficult, painful experiences (which it inevitably will, that the first of the four noble truth) it does not try to push them way.
Rather, recognising that contracting around the pain and reacting with aversion and hatred only creates more suffering, it remains open and holds the pain, whether its own or that of others, with compassion (karuna).
Karuna teaches us how to deal with unpleasant vedanas. It encourages us to engage with them and explore them.
Compassion is a uniquely human quality. When we become aware of someone else's suffering and feel their pain as if it were our own, striving to eliminate or lessen their pain, then this is compassion.
- We are faced with much suffering in our lives, especially through media reporting. Notice your natural reaction to reports of war, genocide, murder, rape, etc. Is your heart inclined toward compassion? or may be you habitually react with indifference or with aversion?
- Think of a situation where, faced with the suffering of someone else, you reacted with compassion. How did it feel?
Upekkha (equanimity), living creatively
Ultimately, the three previous qualities come together in the development of a balanced mind that can be touched by the most abject suffering as well as the most sublime joy without being moved by either. Upekkha (Upekṣā in Sanskrit) is the culmination of the Brahma-viharas. It is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in wisdom.
In Buddhism, Upekkha, as well a being the last of the four Brama Vihara, is the last in the list of ten paramis (perfections), the last of the seven factors of awakening and the last of the Jhanas factors. This ultimate position in so many important lists clearly indicates that Upekha is considered a most mature and refined quality of the citta (heart/mind).
Equanimity is sometimes mistaken for indifference, its near enemy, and some translations of the yoga sutra wrongly use "indifference" for Upekṣā. However, since Upekkha is one of the Brama Viharas alongside such loving qualities as metta and karuna, it clearly is a loving quality as well, and therefore cannot be indifference.
While indifference doesn't care, Upekkha doesn't cling. Rather, it allows whatever arises to be fully felt, and then to pass. It is the response of a heart that can be fully intimate with all things but has enough inner strength not to be pulled out of balance by any of the situations it meets. Upekkha regards all vedanas as neutral.
To better understand Upekkha, it is worth looking at it as a Jhana factor.
The Jhanas are naturally occuring altered states of consciousness (referred to in yoga as Samadhi), which are brought about by extreme concentration. The first three Jhanas all have Sukha (contentment/bliss), but not Upekkha, as one of their jhana factor. Sukha is essentially pleasant, and the first three Jhanas are pleasant states of inner joy or bliss. Then, "With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, the practitioner enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity." (M.i,182; Vbh.245)". Hence, to enter the fourth Jhana, Sukha is abandoned as one sees that it is inherently a gross factor which, being pleasant, provides fuel for clinging, while Upekkha is more subtle, peaceful, and secure. The mind in the fourth Jhana is far clearer and more peaceful than in any of the first three.
Equanimity is sometimes compared to grandmotherly love. The grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren but, thanks to her experience with her own children, does not easily get caught up in the petty dramas of their lives.
Equanimity is important both in formal practice (as shown by its position in the list of Jhana factors) and in everyday life. When our heart lacks this ability to stay balanced and peaceful, we easily get carried away by pleasant experiences and cling to them, or get worked up into various aversive states (such as agitation, impatience, anger, fear, anxiety, etc.) when confronted with unpleasant experiences.
Rather than pursuing the ideal of peace, balance and non-reactivity directly, practice with equanimity by studying the various ways that you get caught. Make a list of situations that have recently pulled you out of balance and reflect on what prevented you being equanimous in these situations.
Each of the brahma-viharas has what is called a near enemy, a state of mind that is close to the brahma-vihara and is sometimes mistaken for it but comes from a close mind rather than from the open heart that caracteries all the brahma-viharas and therefre is not the correct mental state.