Updated: Sep 19, 2020
“True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.” Pema Chödrön
The first meditation retreat I ever attended was on the Four Immeasurables. It eased me through a time of deep sorrow and left behind a velvety coating of serenity, and a wish to share these practices with others. The Four Immeasurables are the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity, which serve to soften our relationship to ourselves, and help to deepen our relationships with others.
These are aspirational practices, which means that we commit to cultivating them, but understand that it will take time, and that we may meet layers of resistance. They differ from affirmations, in that we do not need to hide how we actually feel about ourselves, we rather aspire to experiencing the truth of who we already are. Aspirations contain a willingness to open our hearts, but a simultaneous understanding that our hearts may well be guarded through conditioning and past experiences.
Pema Chödrön writes about a little trickling stream, that finds its way through a rock. With time and patience, the water erodes the rock face, the water flows more freely, and begins to gain momentum as it moves downhill. Once that little trickle reaches the ocean, it is immeasurable in its vastness. This is how to approach our practice, with a willingness to believe it is possible to cultivate these qualities, but without rushing to get there all at once.
The funny thing I find is that each time I set out to develop these qualities, and indeed to teach them to others, their near or far enemies appear as if to mock me; thumb on nose, tongue out with waggling fingers. And I say ‘funny’ because we have to offer ourselves a big dose of humour to get through our unskillfulness and mean-heartedness sometimes. I realize that this aspirational journey is not a short, straight road, but a long and rock-strewn adventure.
Recently I had dreams of jealousy and hatred, I felt rage boiling up over someone who was ‘wasting my time’, I experienced despondency and a heavy apathy when pondering an intransigent community, and I looked the other way when a car guard came to ask for R5. How easy it would be to fall into self-hatred, with an internal dialogue that ‘I am a horrible person, and a fraud’. Yet I am just human, and have also felt expansive heartfulness, am deeply touched by those who are suffering, and find moment after moment of delight and joy and ease. I seem to be singing a lot too, although my canine audience is not always appreciative!
We need to understand why the near and far enemies appear, in order to move away from blame and shame. Our understanding of neuroscience reveals that we have inherited a reptilian brain from our ancestors, and this brain is programmed for survival. Karen Armstrong calls them the Four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and… reproducing! When we feel under threat, we become myopically self-centred. We do whatever it takes to survive. When we are freed from daily struggles, we can start to cultivate more positive, pro-social emotions. We do this through a process called ‘reciprocal inhibition’, as the mind is unable to hold more than one thought or attitude at the same time, which means that during the process of cultivating love or friendliness, hatred and contempt cannot arise.
When these qualities arise naturally, the experience is ineffable. Words cannot do justice to the visceral expansiveness of the heart, the warm underbelly of tenderness, that sense of ease when we truly feel that all beings are equal, and we can soften back from that competitive struggle and striving. We need to practice in order to experience, before we believe that these qualities are actually part of us all, biding their time under the armour of self-protection, but waiting to be seen and felt and shared with others. We imagine expanding our sense of connection to others in ever-widening circles, beginning first with those we hold most dear, then including acquaintances or strangers, and finally those we consider unlovable, who may have hurt us. Reading about the Immeasurables is useful, to get an understanding of the spectrum of the emotional world we will explore, yet it is in the moments of opening up around old wounds, that we come to trust how these aspirational practices can deeply change our relationships, with ourselves and others.
For other explorations on the Immeasurables, you may like to read...
Compassion: The Warm Embrace of Compassion