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Four ways the Brahma Viharas can keep you clear

B.K.S. Iyengar on his 90th birthday – a clarity we might all wish for in our old age.

B.K.S. Iyengar on his 90th birthday – a clarity we might all wish for in our old age. Leslie Hogya photo.

I want to have a lucid old age, but the odds aren’t looking good.

Start with a family strain of dementia, add growing up in the toxic-chemicals-friendly 1950s, then stir in a rear-end collision that smacked my forehead into the windshield when I was 10, and really, all bets are off.
I’d like to believe that doing a yoga practice every day, and most particularly, doing shoulder stand, will keep me both healthy and clear well into my dotage. But I don’t know that.

As important as the physical practice is, I look elsewhere in yoga for what seems to me the most protective work: the practice of cultivating friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

In Sanskrit, these are called the Brahma Viharas, or sublime attitudes, literally the “abodes of Brahma.” I believe they are more helpful for anyone looking to become and stay clear than a 10-minute headstand or a  flawless backbend – not that it wouldn’t be better to do both.
The Brahma Viharas are one of the many ideas that yoga philosophy shares with Buddhism, which also knows them as The Four Divine Emotions, The Four Immeasurables, and The Four Divine Abodes.

They appear in the Yoga Sutras at I.33, the first in a long line of practices Patanjali gives for making the mind quiet. Here are a few translations:

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind. The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali, Edwin F. Bryant

Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar

Tranquility of thought comes through the cultivation of friendship, compassion, joy and impartiality, in spheres of pleasure or pain, virtue or vice. Yoga, Discipline of Freedom, The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Pantanjali, by Barbara Stoler Miller

So how do the Brahma Viharas help keep us lucid? Let’s keep the counting of the ways to four, in honor of the four Divine Emotions, and the Buddha’s list love (click here to find a free download of The Complete Book of Buddha’s Lists – Explained, by David N. Snyder, Ph.D)

1. They tell us that our attitude is a matter of choice. Living in a constant attitude of friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity is a tall order, and no one can manage it all of the time. But taking it on as a practice means we stay conscious of choosing to feel the way we do, and conscious that we can make a different choice. This in itself is a stunning piece of clarity.

2. They create a friendlier world, internally and externally. Friendliness directed to others most often brings friendliness in return. Better still, you can’t begin to practice being friendly and compassionate to others without turning the same attitudes inward. There is a real sense in which “love your neighbor as yourself” is more of a description of how humanity operates than a prescription of how to act. We can’t really summon more love or compassion for our neighbors than we are capable of showing ourselves.

3. They quiet our minds. Friendly, happy exchanges with other people do not need to be parsed over later, looking for the cutting remark you wish you’d said. When we’re at peace with the outside world, the inner turmoil that keeps our chattering minds busy is remarkably reduced.

4. A quiet mind is not only able to see more clearly, it is also physically healthier.
Stress, the opposite of the serenity cultivated by the Brahma Viharas, is now believed to physically damage the brain. Studies have shown that people who report feeling stressed are at greater risk for dementia.
Recently, scientists at UC Irvine published a study showing that that young mice injected with stress hormones for just seven days showed a 60-per cent increase in protein beta-amyloid, the main constituent of the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

That last fact alone is enough to nudge me into a more systematic practice, looking at what comes less readily, trying to improve those of the Divine Emotions that I struggle to feel.

I was delighted to see that Faye Berton, who often teaches at Yoga on 7th in the summer, is offering a workshop, Happiness through the Brahma Viharas, on Friday, July 1, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
The catch? It’s at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 1895 Laurel Avenue, St. Paul, so if you don’t live in the Twin Cities, it’s a bit of a commute.
If you do, download the registration form here.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Hogya

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Can Yoga Prevent Dementia?
Can We Control How We Age?
Meet Your I-Maker and Feel Less Alone

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Judy May 7, 2011, 3:32 pm

    Dear Eve, Thank you again for writing so beautifully about something so wonderful. You have reminded us that we cannot separate our emotional body from our physical body. Judy

  • Terri May 5, 2011, 7:23 pm

    So, Eve, are you going to enlist Faye to do her workshop at your studio?

    • Eve May 6, 2011, 8:48 am

      First I have to find out if she’s making her annual trip to Vancouver. But yes, if she plans to come, I’ll be agitating for that workshop, and attending.

  • Jenn Forgie May 5, 2011, 3:20 pm

    This is beautiful Eve. I think so many times we forget about engaging our own selves in a kinder, more compassionate manner – first toward ourselves and then toward others. I know in my own life this is a discipline from old habits that I am always working with.
    In the backs of our minds (and hearts) we are, I think, always collecting the little ways we can bring more kindness and compassion into our lives; the reminders, the how-to’s and such. This piece is a delicious addition to my collection, thank you.

    • Eve May 6, 2011, 8:48 am

      Thanks for your kind words. Lovely to know that you found it helpful.
      One of the great rewards of thinking about the Brahma Viharas, and then writing about them, was getting to focus my mind intensely on such a useful train of thought.