Four virtues of the Heart

Essential attitudes for a stable mind

Loving Kindness - Compassion - Joyfulness - Equanimity

At times, we just can't stop worrying, fretting, mulling things over, which is particularly the case with regards to relationships. In order to achieve a clear, quiet, i.e. stable mind, the Yoga Sūtra outlines four deceptively simple yet essential attitudes towards others that we all need to cultivate. Without these attitudes, we are doomed to incessant, repetitive, negative chatter in our heads, poisoning our entire system: our emotions, our decision-making faculties and our bodies. It is important to realise that these attitudes are to be cultivated for ourselves primarily, not for the sake of others, though others are likely to benefit if we act from a place of integrity rather than react from a place of ignorance, judgement etc.

maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam

Sage Patañjali. 

~ In daily life, we see people around us who are happier than we are and people who are less happy. Some may be doing things worthy of praise and others may cause problems. Whatever be our usual attitudes towards such people and their actions, if we can be happy for others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate towards those who are unhappy, pleased with those whose activities are praiseworthy and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil. (Translation by T.K.V. Desikachar)

Thoughts such as "how could she...", "I can't believe that..." or "why doesn't he just..." can really take over, be repeated over and over in our heads and result in overpowering emotions. 

Positive thoughts or feelings such as "I am happy for him", or "I do not judge her" have a much more settling effect. It can in fact be argued that these four attitudes are really what is left when the "rubbish" falls away, that these are more like the qualities of something pure, essential within us...

1. Towards those who are happy or joyful (i.e. feeling good), there might be the tendency to feel resistance/distance:

If you are not having a particularly good day, it can be easy to resist being around other people who are feeling happy or joyful. It is very easy to unintentionally have a negative attitude towards them at such a time, even if they are your friends or family members. This is not to say that your mind is being 100% negative, but it is the tendency, however small, that we want to be mindful of.

The attitude to cultivate is loving kindness/friendliness: If you are mindful about this normal tendency of the mind, then you can consciously cultivate an attitude of friendliness and kindness when you are around these happy people, or when you think about them. This conscious act of being mindful of the negative tendency of mind, and actively promoting the positive and useful has a stabilising effect and brings inner peace and calm. It is being mindful that the mind often holds both sides of the attraction and aversion, positive and negative. Here, we want to be aware of both, but cultivate the positive and useful.

2. Towards those who are in pain or suffering (i.e. feeling bad), we might feel imposition/frustration:

You might normally think of yourself as being a loving, caring, compassionate person. Yet, notice how easy it is to feel the opposite when someone around you is sick. You have other plans and suddenly some family member gets sick, or there is an extended illness in the family. Surely you care for them, but it is also a habit of the mind to feel somewhat imposed upon. Again, we are not talking about some 100% negativity or psychopathology. These are normal actions of mind that we are systematically trying to balance and make serene.

The attitude to cultivate is compassion/support: It is good to observe that inclination of the mind, however small. It just means to be mindful of it, while at the same time consciously cultivating compassion and support for others who are suffering. It does not mean acting, or suppressing the contrary thoughts and emotions. It does mean being aware, and lovingly choosing to act out of love. Again, we want to be mindful of the habits of mind. Unawareness leaves disturbances in the unconscious that will stop us from being still. Awareness allows freedom and peace of mind.

3. Towards those who are virtuous or benevolent, (i.e. doing good things), we might feel inadequate/jealous:

We all want to be useful, to be of service to our families, friends, and other people, whether in our local community or across the world. Often we privately may feel there is more we could do, but that we are just not doing it. Jealousy and other negative emotions can easily creep in when somebody else is sincerely acting in virtuous or benevolent ways. We can unconsciously push against such people, whether we know them, or they are publicly known people.

The attitude to cultivate is joyfulness/goodwill: It is not always easy to cultivate such positive attitudes when, inside, we are feeling negative. But something very interesting happens as we become a neutral, non-attached witness to our inner process. That is, humour comes; the mind is seen to be a really funny instrument to watch, in all of its many antics. Then the happiness and goodwill seems to come naturally.

4. Towards those who we see as bad or wicked, (i.e. doing bad things), we might feel anger/aversion/judgement:

Most of us have some limits of what we find as acceptable behaviour. We might sincerely hold the belief that all people are pure at their deepest level. Yet, are there not some individuals you think to be dishonest, cruel, mean, or even wicked, or evil? Are there not some behaviours that you consider so outside of acceptable conduct that it strongly causes you to feel anger and frustration? How can you not judge a murderer, child molester, war criminal etc.?

The attitude to cultivate is equanimity/neutrality: To counterbalance the negative feelings toward someone you feel is bad, wicked, or lacking in virtue, the antidote is to cultivate an attitude of neutrality, indifference, acceptance, or equanimity. It can be very difficult to cultivate this attitude, since it might make us think we are approving of their bad behaviour. But judging someone, or being outraged doesn't change what that person did. We seek the neutrality of inner balance and equanimity, which does not mean approving of the person's actions. 

The term "cultivation" implies that this process can take time, it will not always be possible to fully embody the positive attitude in the moment, but awareness of the situation is key. What is most important is not to strive to always be "perfect", but to move in the opposite direction, away from the negative or unhelpful tendencies.

This list is helpful to remember if you find yourself in conflict with someone else. Sure, the other person might have said, felt or done this or that, and it may be right for you to address this by speaking your truth. But can you look in the mirror and state that you were impeccable in your responses yourself? Cultivating these attitudes is our own responsibility first of all. Inner and outer conflict is greatly reduced when they are firmly established.

This article is in part adapted from: