Four Sublime States of Mind

Photo by local photographer and sangha friend Bill McDavid

Photo by local photographer and sangha friend Bill McDavid –

In the book I’m currently reading entitled Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun the author speaks about the Four Sublime States of Mind.  “The Buddha often spoke about four states of mind as the four “Brahma-viharas”: the divine or god-like dwellings, the lofty and excellent abodes in which the mind reaches outwards towards the immeasurable world of living beings, embracing them all in these boundless emotions.” (from  The states of mind are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. 

“These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings. They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.” (from

I understand loving kindness as a want for others to be happy and safe, compassion as a deep level of understanding for the suffering of others, sympathetic joy as the ability to rejoice in the happiness and success of others, and equanimity as maintaining a balanced and steady mental/emotional state in the midst of suffering and confusion.

We start by practicing these states of mind with ourselves and then gradually we can extend them outwards towards others.  There is a common metta (loving kindness) meditation that is offered: May I be free from suffering; which then extends to: May all beings be free from suffering.  To me these statements are not only too vague and generalized but also virtually impossible.  Suffering is part of life.  To wish that we, or anyone, be free from suffering seems akin to wishing that we could develop super powers such as invisibility or the ability to fly.  I prefer to have a more practical direction in which to travel.  If I were to develop a metta practice it would go something like this:

May I practice to understand and care for myself.

May I practice to understand and care for others.

May I practice to cultivate joy and happiness, dwelling in the present moment.

May my practice of joy and happiness nourish and support others to do the same.

Something that I practice, which is relatable to all four states of mind, is not using the words I’m sorry when confronted with someone’s current difficulty or loss.  It’s such a common thing to say and hear when someone explains a sickness, injury, loss of a loved one, unexpected challenge, or other emotional upset.  While it is our intention to offer sympathy and show our concern and care when offering the words I’m sorry it can often feed an unskillful state of mind in the other person (and in ourselves).  The subtext to our apology is that what the other person is going through is not supposed to happen and is somehow not part of life but something separate – something bad and unfair.

I remember a wonderful teaching moment during a time when I said the words I’m sorry after hearing about the decline in health of a visiting dharma teacher’s mother.  She replied very steadily, “There’s nothing to be sorry about.  It’s all a part of life.”  Indeed there is nothing that is not a part of life – from sickness to injury to a simple change in plans to tragedy to difficult encounters and emotions.  If it’s happening it’s part of life.

It’s a matter of energetic exchange.  I’m sorry feeds a victimized state of being and waters the seeds of self-pity and disempowerment.  What I’ve come up with instead is to say: My heart goes out to you or My thoughts are with you.  Depending on the situation I might also add something like: Please let me know if I can be of any support or If you need anything please let me know.  

To allow ourselves and others to experience whatever it is we’re going through without trying to fix it or diminish it or cover it up or feel sorry about it is a valuable practice.  It can be a difficult practice indeed.  And the more we practice the more we keep practicing, the more skillful we become, and the easier it gets.



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