Heart Practices: Cultivating Positive Emotions
What are heart practice meditations?
Heart practices are divided into four sets. We incline the mind and heart towards qualities that act as appropriate responses to the various and nuanced conditions we face in our lives. Classically these four sets are defined as loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha).
The word metta is derived from the Pali word, mita. Mita, literally means friend. The most accurate translation of the term metta would be kind-friendliness. Metta has the mode of friendliness for its characteristic. Its natural function is to promote good intention. It is manifested as the disappearance of ill-will. Its footing is “to see” with kindness. When it succeeds, it eliminates ill-will. When it fails, it degenerates into greed, self-centered craving and attachment.
Kind-friendliness is the first foundation of metta practices. Metta is a beneficial attitude in every situation. It is always appropriate. It holds ease, peace, and contentment as a baseline attitude and promotes its increase. It seeks to further cooperation and understanding even in the presence of difficulty.
Compassion is the second aspect of heart practices and has the specific aim of being directed toward pain and suffering. It is often defined as a movement of the heart when we meet pain and anguish. Compassion is the ability to both feel and to respond in a way that reduces or holds the suffering of another. Within the context of empathy, compassion is our greatest skill. It is also a skill that we need to learn and maintain through practice. As a quality of mind, it is only appropriate and necessary during moments of distress, sadness, pain or suffering. It simply intends to help or hold that which hurts.
With compassion comes the inability to express hatred. Its expression is the manifestation of non-violence. It has the ability to uproot any intention to cause harm. It can be brought about by seeing and understanding the difficulties and pains of others while holding a sincere desire to alleviate that suffering. It succeeds when it causes violence and ill-will to descend. It fails when it produces depression, grief and sorrow. Compassion isn’t self-pity or pity for others, but when wrongly understood it may manifest in this way. It’s ultimately about feeling one’s own pain and recognizing the pain of others. When we can see, and experience the suffering of this world that we are all subject to, we may become kinder and more compassionate to one another.
There is no official Pali translation for the word forgiveness but the idea of forgiveness is expressed wholeheartedly throughout the teachings. Forgiveness practice plays a critical role in the development of compassion and empathy because if we can’t forgive, we limit our ability for true connection and empathy. Forgiveness is the antidote to resentment. It allows us to learn how to put aside and ultimately abandon our tendency toward blaming. There is no lasting sense of well-being or happiness associated with the common and often seemingly justified habit of finding fault in others.
At times it will be important for us to acknowledge the harm we have caused, and it is helpful to experience an appropriate amount of regret. Understanding that blaming is only a source of harm to others and ourselves, we set the intention to hold forgiveness as quality that we aim to embody.
The most common translation for mudita is sympathetic joy. This encourages us to be able to sympathize with or participate in the happiness of others. It is the antidote to jealously and envy.
Mudita has the ability and characteristic of gladdening. It helps us to overcome the common attitude of “how come them and not me.” We may find that we often become jealous or self-conscious when we are faced with the good fortune of others. This creates the experience of separation and we become disconnected and self-centered. We may consider how unfortunate it is to be unable to participate in the happiness and success of others, especially when the person is somebody we care about. Whether it is a good friend, colleague, or family member, wouldn’t we want to be able to appreciate his or her good fortune? We want to develop a specific practice to evoke and embody this quality of appreciation.
Such a practice gives us the ability to participate in all the happiness, joy, success, and pleasure of this world without the need for it to be our own. If we restrict our experience of gratitude to our own gains and successes, we severely limit our potential joy and happiness. We create a mind that compares and contrasts. We may become competitive, bitter, and even resentful. If we can bring awareness and appreciation to the good fortune of others, it allows us to keep from closing off from the world and revel in happiness and connection.
Equanimity is the practice that holds everything together. We simply acknowledge the truth that our happiness and our freedom is dependent on our actions, not on our wishes. Equanimity balances compassion with wisdom. It allows us to experience the full range of ethical mindfulness.