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Four Ways to Work the Four Immeasurables into Your Daily Life


Ironically, what fuels all of our misery-inducing behaviors is an underlying desire for happiness. All of us wish to be safe, to be happy, to be healthy, and to have an easeful life experience. Even those people that seem bent on making themselves and others miserable through harmful choices and actions are doing so because they think what they’re doing just might bring about some happiness. 


No matter how many times our usual methods fail to make us happy, we keep on trying over and over again, hoping for a different result, hoping that maybe this time it will work. Incidentally, this is the very definition of insanity. Talk about samsara!


What fuels our behaviors are underlying thoughts like these: Maybe this new pair of shoes will make me happy...maybe this next drag on my cigarette will do the trick...maybe if I yell at her/him loud enough this time I’ll feel better...maybe this next beer will give me some piece of mind...maybe if I get laid tonight I won’t feel so lonely...maybe one more joint will calm me down...maybe a new boyfriend or girlfriend will make me feel loved and secure...or maybe this new spiritual teacher will help me be enlightened and therefore HAPPY.


At some point (hopefully) we get fed up and realize it’s time for a new approach to this happiness thing.


The Buddha taught his followers to rouse within themselves four “perfect virtues” or “immeasurables” that can help cultivate internal qualities that can lead to happiness (for real this time). It’s helpful to approach these qualities as something already inherent within you rather than something “out there” you need to cram into your heart. Think of these virtues as hidden talents that just need some consistent practice so they can flow more naturally and spontaneously. You might be a natural piano player but you can’t headline a concert until you practice stroking the ivories a little bit each day. 


The Four Immeasurables are Loving-kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.


Here are four ways you can cultivate these qualities in your daily life:


1. LOVING-KINDNESS is a sincere desire for everyone, without exception, to be happy.  At different points during the day, keep it simple and silently say “May you be happy” to random people you see on the street, at work, on the subway. If you can’t muster up an intention for happiness towards people you don’t know, try it with first with yourself (“May I be happy”) or just repeatedly send a wish for happiness towards someone in your life you find it easy to do this for.


2. COMPASSION is a wish that other people be free from suffering. Some times this one requires an ability and willingness to read between the lines a bit. Often it is easy to notice who is in some kind of pain but usually we overlook those people who might be suffering just as much--like an irate boss or coworker or the person in the subway who's being so bloody aggressive. So throughout the day, instead of trying to judge and fix and fight back, recognize that most people are experiencing some degree of pain or discomfort in their lives, just as you are. Focus on one or more people each day that you come across and offer them an intention like “May you be free from suffering and whatever is causing it.”


3. SYMPATHETIC JOY refers to the ability to have a genuine sense of appreciation for someone else’s happiness or good fortune. It's helpful to consider that there isn’t a finite amount of happiness in this world that some people hoard and other people miss out on. Happiness is something attainable by all of us. So practice cultivating a sense of sympathetic joy when you see someone who you normally might inspire a feeling of envy. You won’t necessarily make the envy disappear completely or all that quickly, but you can transform it into an understanding that someone else’s experience of great fortune or contentment demonstrates that you can experience those positive things as well. Don’t get caught up in the circumstances and stuff around that person’s happiness (like their money or a job or status) but instead focus on the happiness itself. It isn't stuff that we want, it's the good feeling that the stuff brings about within us.


4. EQUANIMITY is an ability to recognize and experience all things and all beings as equal. Throughout the day consider people with whom you have strong disagreements with and think of how they might have been at the moment of their birth and how they might be at the moment when they will die one day. The time in between goes by in a flash. Birth and death are the great equalizers that we are all subject to. Also, observe each emotion you experience throughout the day and practice with noticing it’s qualities in a neutral kind of way rather than judging it as good or bad. Don’t get caught up in trying to attain more pleasure or in pushing away more pain, just let the day unfold as it does and notice how things are always changing, changing, changing. The sky doesn’t bitch and moan with every passing cloud or storm--it simply hangs out and takes pleasure in being the sky. 


Be like the sky.



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Also cross posted at Open Sky Zen blog.


-Lawrence Grecco

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