In Western Buddhism, there is often a lot of attention paid to the first two brahmaviharas ("divine abodes"): metta (goodwill, friendliness, or loving-kindness), and karuna (compassion). Not as much emphasis is put on the latter two qualities: mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekka (equanimity).
For the longest time in my own practice, I focused primarily on loving-kindness and compassion, neglecting sympathetic joy and equanimity. I did this for several reasons. The first is that they simply get talked about more in Buddhist circles. There are more books written on loving-kindness and compassion than on sympathetic joy and equanimity. The second reason was that, as a longtime sufferer of depression and often crippling anxiety, I thought that kindness and compassion were what I needed. Metta is traditionally presented as an antidote for fear. In fact, in the Mettanisamsa Sutta
, that seems to be what the Buddha is promising (""One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one, etc.") And compassion (particularly self-compassion) has been the subject of particular interest in the psychological community.
Books such as Paul Gilbert's The Compassionate Mind
, Christopher Germer's The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
, and Kristin Neff's Self-Compassion
all seemed to substantiate the idea that loving-kindness and compassion were what I needed to focus my practice on. I thought sympathetic joy wasn't relevant to me at this particular point in my life, so dominated by feelings of self-condemnation, guilt, and shame. I thought equanimity was too remote, and something I could do later on down the line. This was a huge mistake!
The reason being that loving-kindness and compassion both sensitize you -- to both your own suffering and that of others. Without those last two brahmaviharas, metta and karuna can actually be quite dangerous. It sounds sensationalistic and dramatic to say that such seemingly benevolent sentiments as love and compassion could be dangerous. But that is what I found. Without the balancing power of those last two qualities, loving-kindness can develop into attachment or co-dependency, and compassion can soon spiral into feelings of overwhelm and perpetuate painful patterns of mind and behavior. In my case, this manifest itself in an even deeper depression and even more poignant anxiety than before.
Without sympathetic joy, one can quickly become caught up in jealousy and what the Buddha called "conceit." Conceit in Buddhism encapulates, not only feelings of superiority to another, but all types of comparison: feelings of inferiority and even feelings of being equal. This attitude of judging the "worth" of beings is seen as wrong-view in Buddhism -- a fruitless, deluded mental habit. Sympathetic joy (the traditional phrase is "May your happiness and good fortune continue. May you continue to develop in your virtue.") frees one from the pull of comparison, making true loving-kindness possible and preventing compassion from devolving into pity (both self-pity and other-pity).
Equanimity is especially vital, I've found. The best explication of equanimity in the Pali canon is the Lokavipatta Sutta
("The Eight Worldly Conditions" -- often translated as the Eight Worldly Winds or Eight Worldly Dharmas). This has quickly become my single favorite sutta in the entire canon because it so direct and vivid:
"Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions.
"For an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person there arise gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. For a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones there also arise gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person?"
"Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, 'Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.' He discerns it as it actually is.
"Loss arises... Status arises... Disgrace arises... Censure arises... Praise arises... Pleasure arises...
"Pain arises. He reflects, 'Pain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.' He discerns it as it actually is.
"His mind does not remain consumed with the gain. His mind does not remain consumed with the loss... with the status... the disgrace... the censure... the praise... the pleasure. His mind does not remain consumed with the pain.
What I like about this sutta is that the Buddha doesn't deny that loss/gain, disgrace/status, praise/blame, etc. exist. He doesn't deny that they exist both in subjective terms, nor does he deny they exist in eorldly life. There ARE going to be times when you ARE going to be looked down on, rejected, disgraced, in pain. In fact, he says even the follower of the Buddha's teaching experiences these things. One of the fears that keeps many people from cultivating equanimity is that they will become robots -- automatons without any feelings about anything. In light of this sutta, that fear can be put to rest. Equanimity, instead, gives one a stability of heart, not to become knocked about by the pushes and pulls of life. What resulted when I neglected equanimity is that I became extremely emotionally brittle: the slightest pangs of anxiety or shame would send me for a loop.
The insight I received one morning after waking with pangs of intense anxiety and guilt was that, sometimes, the best way to deal with suffering tied with worldly existence... is to do nothing at all about it. And funny thing is, when I did that, the feelings went away on their own (they were inconstant, just as the Buddha has predicted) and I was freed to do other things, rather than spend yet another day obsessed with my guilt and fear and trying desperately to make it go away. This is an important focus of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a modality developed for preventing relapse of depression. In this video
, you can see Mark Williams, one of the creators of MBCT talk about this particular insight: that the best way to deal with familiar feelings of suffering is not to do anything. In other words, to pause; to break the habitual habits of reacting, freeing one up to respond in a different way.
In the Theravada tradition in which I studied, the brahamaviharas are often developed in sequence: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekka in that order. However, although this is the other that the Buddha often would list them in the Pali suttas, he never implies that they should be developed in isolation from one another. And so, I've had to reform my practice to develop these qualities of heart simultaneously -- never neglecting to see the joy inherent in life and never forgetting that unpleasant and pleasant experiences are ephemeral -- that it is pointless to cling to pleasant experience, and that I don't have to fear that unpleasant experiences will hang around forever.