THE FOUR FLAVORS OF LOVE, PART I: FINDING BALANCE AND FRIENDSHIP WHEN THE WORLD LOOKS CROOKED
Just in time for the holidays, teacher Aaron Dias breaks down how the Yoga Sutras teaches us to deal with other people and shares a few tips on cultivating a balanced sense of caring and friendship. This long-form essay marks the beautiful beginning of a multi-part series on the four aspects of love, with the second installment to come in our next issue.
Most people’s earliest memories seem to be of traumatic or thrilling experiences. My first memories are of theories. I remember taking what I “knew” about the world and combining it with my own little-person logic to concoct living theories. As a 4-year-old, balance seemed like a given, a quality woven inherently into the fabric of the universe. And one of my earliest memories is of one theory that helped me cope with an imbalance that I perceived in my world: that some people were beautiful and some people were not.
My solution? I figured that everyone must take turns—each person gets to be beautiful either for childhood or adulthood. Little girls who were pretty lost their looks as they became young women. And little girls who were not lauded for their beauty would get a chance at being beautiful as adults. As a little girl who was often told that I was beautiful by my adult family members, I thought, I will be an un-beauttiful woman one day, and I accepted that completely. I was happy to have my turn as a kid. With no basis at all for any single point of my theory, it felt good to make sense of the world. To bring everything into balance, even if it was in my own mind.
This theory didn’t stand very tall for very long. Obviously. I mean, I won’t even begin to go into the problems with that one. But as much as we can all agree that the theory was a dud, it does point to some fundamental truth about human nature. Everyone (that I’ve met) has an innate sense that the world should be a place of balance, justice and fairness. As we get wiser our world view may become more comprehensive and defensible than my silly “beauty-for-all” solution, but our sense that things should be balanced by design doesn’t go away. If anyone claims to disagree, just get them to talk about something that drives them nuts and I guarantee that some equivalent of “It’s not right!” will emerge. Behind that is bound to be a theory of how the world “should” be and behind that a sense that it should be balanced and good.
Who doesn’t want to practice true love? But think about the reality of how we practice love. Often, our acts of kindness come with expectation of something in return.
Many of us are seeking a more comprehensive world view when we come across Yoga and say, “Yes.” We recognize that something here will help us understand how the universe does its balancing act and give us clues for moving with What Is, instead of against it. But the world doesn’t suddenly fall into balance the moment that we begin to embrace Yoga philosophy and practices. In fact, for most of us, it becomes more difficult to encounter imbalances. We develop a deep connection to our bodies, we know what it feels like to feel clean, clear, relaxed and energized, and so we become even more disturbed than we feel physically “off.” We know what it is like to have a mind that is balanced, calm, expansive, joyful and able to focus. But at times we still experience dullness, agitation sadness, anger and other negative mind-states. Where once we just accepted negative conditions, we think, “I’m a yogi now! I should always feel good!” Unfortunately that’s just not the case.
And we’ve become sensitive not only to the balance in our own mind and body. We begin to sense our connection to other beings in the world, our responsibility to live mindfully and treat others as we would like to be treated. Once that is established it is easy to become depressed, enraged or simply bewildered when we encounter other people not respecting that interconnectedness. Where once it only bothered me when I was treated unfairly or maybe if someone very close to me was suffering, now I see so many people suffering all around me. Signs of vicious, greedy, ignorant people disturbing the world through their unjust actions seem to jump out of every newspaper. How do those of us who got into Yoga to find balance in the first place move forward with our Yoga practice, and for that matter with our lives, in world that now can, at times, seem even more riddled with vice and suffering than it ever did before?
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the seminal guidebook for Yogis ancient and modern alike, addresses this question from many different angles. We’re going to zoom into a section in the middle of Book 1 that lists methods for removing the obstacles to meditation. This is where we find Yoga Sutra 1.33, a widely-taught, especially ingenious, and particularly apt sutra for the contemporary yogi who is likely to be a lay-person dealing with work, family and social life instead of a monk in a monastery or an ascetic out in the woods. This sutra tells us how to deal with different types of people that we find in the world and as it does so, reveals deep truths about how our inner world reflects our outer world and vice versa. Understanding this interrelation is our key to bringing both into balance.
Let’s look at the first line by itself. On its own, it has much to offer and is the most famous part of the sutra. It corresponds exactly with a set of four virtues that the Buddha extolls in the Metta Sutta and calls the Brahma Viharas, which literally translates to the “divine abodes.” They are also known in the Buddhism as “The Four Immeasurables” and they are considered the four different flavors of true love—love which is pure in that it asks for nothing in return and love that is vast in that it is extended out equally to all beings everywhere. When put into practice, they are considered keys to open the doorways to deep wisdom about how all beings are interrelated, and when perfected, they open the doorway to the experience of heaven on earth. Here is the list in Sanskrit. (Note that 2 of them are slightly different in the Buddha’s language, Pali, closely related to Sanskrit. The other two are the same in both languages.)
- maitri (metta in Pali) — harboring a sense of deep friendship or camaraderie; wishing a sense of well-being for someone else
- karuna — compassion, recognition of the pain of another; wishing for another’s pain to diminish
- mudita — joy, particularly the joy experienced when someone else succeeds; wishing success and virtue onto someone else
- upeksa (upekkha in Pali) — equanimity, non-attachment, letting all be as it is
That sounds great. Who doesn’t want to practice true love? But think about the reality of how we practice love. Often, our acts of kindness come with expectation of something in return. We hold the door open for someone with a smile but when the person doesn’t acknowledge our gesture, we roll our eyes and think, “Jerk!” We help a sick friend with hopes that she will broadcast our benevolence to the world. We compliment a co-worker on their good work in front of the whole staff, expecting everyone to be impressed with our bigness and hoping that we get a compliment back. We say, “No worries!” to that person who is late to the meeting but we then use it as an excuse to be late for the next several meetings we have with them. Whether it’s recognition, kudos, flattery, a career boost, special treatment or some kind of physical reward that we expect, when we function this way we are never offering a gift of kindness at all. It’s more like a make-believe business contract, that only exists in our own mind. And we get frustrated that no one else is holding up the other end!
Each face of love should be developed in response to the negative emotions that plague our lives and interrupt our well-being.
Alternatively, there are conditions around our acts of kindness: I’m generous, but only when I am getting what I want, or I am generous but only with people who meet my requirements. So, for instance, the handsome hipster on his single speed bike can be going the wrong way down the bike lane and I just smile and hope that I looked good in my helmet, but I give the confused tourist in my way a nasty look and tell her to get out of the bike lane. I’ll be your biggest cheerleader when I feel superior to you but when you get the job I want, I stop being so kind. I am all for the happiness of all beings everywhere—except Republicans! We base our love for others on our mostly-unconscious judgements about how everyone else should be and how they should relate to us. And sometimes we’re just so swung around by our own inner circumstances that we seem to have no love to give. This sutra, when its prescription is put into practice, trains our capacity for true and unconditional love, without unspoken demands or conditions. So what does it prescribe? A sadhana, or a practice.
In the third line Patanjali indicates that our task is to practice developing these attitudes. He says bhavantah, which means we should cultivate these attitudes by constantly reflecting on them. And he’s already told us, several sutras prior, that for any practice to achieves results it “must be pursued incessantly, with reverence, for a long time.” (Y.S 1.14). So we are meant to, not just understand this sutra intellectually, but to reflect on it constantly, and to LIVE it! Patanjali tells us what we will gain by developing these four flavors of true love: we will purify the mind, remove the obstacles to meditation and be able to return the mind to its undisturbed sense of balance. But he does one more thing that the Buddhists before him did not; he pairs these attitudes with four situations that we find in the world, giving us clues about when we should choose one flavor of love over another. Let’s take a look at the whole sutra now and the translation:
- maitri karuna mudita upeksanam = loving-kindness - compassion - joy - equanimity
- sukha dukha punya apunya = happiness - suffering - virtue - vice
- visayanam bhavantah citta prasadanam = of the objects - by cultivating attitudes/constant reflection - mind/thoughts - purification/undisturbed calmness
Translated, this is:
“Cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the suffering, joy for the virtuous and equanimity toward vice and thoughts become purified and the mind retains its natural calmness.” -Yoga Sutras, Book 1, Sutra 33
Each word in the first line corresponds to its sister word in the second line—first word to first, second to second, etc. And the last line of the sutra tells us what we must do and what benefits we will receive. We can cultivate these attitudes that don’t necessarily come naturally by making this a practice: friendliness when we encounter a happy person, compassion when we encounter a suffering person, joy in reaction to someone else’s good deeds and equanimity in reaction to someone else’s negative deeds. As we cultivate these attitudes, we are removing obstacles to our achieving our goals.
We spot the qualities that seem to be responsible for imbalance in our world as the 2nd and 4th words in the second line: dukha, which is suffering and apunya, which is vice. These are the qualities that make us shudder and cringe and say, “Not fair!” to the universe. So why are sukha (pleasure or happiness) and punya (virtue or goodness) listed here as well? Don’t we want the world to be full of happy people and good-doers? Though, yes, we yogic types may all want that in theory, most of us are still stuck in old reactive patterns that reveal a universal human truth, that seeing happy and successful people can actually upset us. If seeing another person who has something that you want for yourself can conjure feelings of jealousy, competitiveness, anger, fear or sadness, then you’re not alone. It is apparent that this has been an issue for people at least since Patanjali’s time! These negative emotions are the very obstacles we are trying to remove from our path. These throw our inner life out of balance, and skew our image of reality.
Everything listed in the second line of this sutra eggs on a different part of the ego: the part which seeks to attain pleasure, the part which wants to avoid pain, the part that wants to be recognized as the best, and the part that wants to be separated from those that are the worst. Respectively, they cause us to be jealous of those who have pleasure when we don’t; to avoid opening ourselves to those in pain in fear that we will suffer too; to get competitive with those who are doing a great job and to hate those who are not doing such a great job. That doesn’t leave many people to get along with. So much for a worldwide kumbaya session. The point here is that it is our ego-driven reactions cause our own suffering. And that suffering prevents us from actually practicing yoga. No samhadi, or state of oneness, falls upon someone with so much push and pull in their heart, with so much disturbance in their mind.
Each face of love should be developed in response to the negative emotions that plague our lives and interrupt our well-being. And each set of negative emotions has false beliefs underlying them. Often these false beliefs are unconscious but they are at the root of the behaviors that we are working to eradicate, so after we discuss each part of the teaching, I will offer practices that will address the very roots of the negative behaviors. In this issue we will look deeply at the first flavor of love: friendliness.
DEVELOPING MAITRI (FRIENDLINESS, BENEVOLENCE):
Sukha → Maitri : when you see a happy person, or a person experiencing pleasure, develop a sense of fraternity and friendliness
Sukha means pleasure or happiness. Often, when we encounter a person who is enjoying him- or herself, it triggers a state of craving and agitation. We want what that person has and can get whiny with the universe as we experience a “Mommy, I want one!” moment. This frustrating experience of craving and covetousness gives rise to an endless variety of negative and wholly made-up story lines, such as, “That person doesn’t deserve to be happy.” Or, “Why is everyone else happy but me?” Or, “Great! Further evidence that the universe hates me!” Just to name a few. In any case this longing to possess the happiness of another being traps us in a desperate and irritated state of longing.
Why are we driven to pull this person’s happiness away from them? Do these thought patterns only plague bad people or stupid people? Absolutely not! Their original source is the most basic human instinct: the drive to have pleasurable experiences. We come out of the womb seeking comfort and nourishment. This may seem obvious but it’s actually extremely important for us to remember that all negative emotional states originate in our humanness. When we look deep to the source of an outer behavior we will always come to something that is natural, not “good” or “bad” but simply true. Instead of fearing what is earthly in us, the Yogi turns toward it, honors it and works from there. So here we find the innate pleasure seeking part of us. The problems for our happiness in relating to others come when that this craving becomes hyperactive by meeting up with some just a few false beliefs.
False belief numero uno: that balance is brought into one’s life by accumulating pleasant experiences. I’m using the word balance but we could use other words as well. It depends on your orientation. What do you come to yoga for in the first place? Peace, contentedness, health, well-being? To discover the meaning of life or your purpose here in this lifetime? Well however you answer that question could be used to replace the word “balance.” Basically this false belief is that life should be chock full of pleasant experiences, the more the better! Anyone who has eaten too much at Thanksgiving knows that this isn’t true. But much of the time this logic is absent and we move from a place that seems to want this—endless sensory pleasures and enjoyable emotional states. But life isn’t made up of just these and often deep wisdom, strength and satisfaction come at the other end of a challenging or un-fun experience. Right? Why else do we go to kick-ass yoga classes? When we are constantly searching for the next pleasure we are never satisfied. To be stuck in pleasure-seeking is to be constantly distracted. This deep stretch is not enjoyed because we can’t wait for the lunch that awaits us after yoga class; this precious moment with a loved one is not appreciated because we are too busy looking for what’s next. It’s a distracted state of being, this constant craving, and when these patterns set in deeply for someone, they end up with what we call an “addictive personality.”
WHAT IF WE LEARNED HOW TO RELISH THE JOY OF OTHERS ALL THE TIME? INSTEAD OF SAYING, “I WISH I COULD HAVE THAT HAPPINESS,” WHAT IF WE SAID, “I MUST BE IN LUCK TO SEE SUCH HAPPINESS! THAT HAPPINESS WILL INFECT ME TOO!”
The second false belief at work when we are bothered by others' having pleasure is that another person having more happiness means that we must have less. As if there is a single happiness pie in the universe and that mo-fo took too big a slice. So now we have a constantly distracted state of craving, compounded with the fear of there not being enough pleasure around. And this assumes a third belief. That is the belief that I am this separate and special being and that my needs come first. Just because mine is the viewpoint from which I encounter the world, I tend to function under the false impression that mine is the most important viewpoint. Though it’s obvious when we think it through logically that this cannot be the case, it is difficult to really live from this truth until we’ve put some effort toward putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. We must actually realize this truth in our entire being before we live from it. This is awakening and, in some definitions of Yoga, its very goal. To realize that I am not separate. The false belief of separateness is actually functioning underneath ALL of our negative emotions, and all four flavors of love are practices for uprooting this most insidious of false beliefs.
For many people all three of these false beliefs are working together subconsciously much of the time. This is a recipe for not only an addictive state of being but a selfish, grabby and greedy one. People are less and less inclined to be generous to people who are always trying to snatch and grab from others, so when this pattern sets in, with all three false beliefs going strong, our lives begin to reflect back this fear to us: that there isn’t enough. We fulfill our own self-made prophecy and find a world that won’t open up in generosity. “Oh, she’s coming over? She is so greedy. Everybody get a slice before she arrives!”
This sutra suggests that instead of letting the happy person provoke a craving and covetous nature, I build up a habit of feeling friendliness toward happy people and a sense of connectedness with people experiencing pleasure. Maitri is often translated as “loving-kindness,” that special flavor of love that we feel for a friend, brother or sister, that makes you want them to have all that they desire. Camaradarie or fraternity also get to the heart of it—that sense that I am looking out for my comrade and when she gets what she wants, so do I. I think of my house growing up when I need to develop maitri. If one family member was a in a bad mood (especially Mom!) we all went down with them. The blues or the anger would spread like a virus. But when one person was in a wonderful mood, that would spread too and the most wonderful times were those when everyone was easeful and laughing and kind. You could feel the contagious contentedness spread through every room. Because we’re part of one whole, those around me getting pleasure and joy helps me too. What if we learned how to relish the joy of others all the time? Instead of saying, “I wish I could have that happiness,” what if we said, “I must be in luck to see such happiness! That happiness will infect me too!” Then I would not have to be disturbed by jealousy any longer and, at the same time, I would be increasing the amount of happiness I feel because I would experience it in the presence of every happy person I encounter. And when people know I’m on my way they’re likely to set aside a big hunk of pie with extra whipped cream for me, the one who never tries to snatch sweetness from others.
A few practices for uprooting false beliefs and developing maitri
- Maitri meditation. Find a relaxed seat and take a few breaths. Think of someone whom you consider a great friend. Sit with that sense of interconnectedness that you feel with them. The sense of being a teammate. Then wish them well, thinking of how much better your life is when that person is happy. Once you get good at doing it with this person, try doing it with other people. Try doing it with an acquaintance. The advanced practice: do this with a person who has what you desire in bountiful amounts.
- Do work with your first and second chakras. The first, muladhara chakra, is in balance when we feel like our basic survival needs are met. Without this sense we will always feel hungry and grabby. The second, svadisthana chakra, is in balance when we feel in touch with our most basic creative force, our capacity for positive and creative collaboration. When it is out of balance we can fixate on and abuse sensual pleasures. There is a chakra meditation in this issue which may help!
- Mantra: “Om I have enough ah hum.” Repeat this throughout your day, especially if you’re going to be in a situation that might make you feel small, dissatisfied or greedy.
According to the Yoga teachings, bringing our lives back into balance starts with the ability to see ourselves as one part of a big whole. As we will discover together in the coming installments of this piece, we will have to learn to shift some of the stories we tell ourselves in order for this to happen. All of us who suffer, all of us who get knocked off our center, are still acting from some false belief working under the surface. It can be challenging to examine these and hard work to undo the years of conditioning that set them in place. But the whole premise of Yoga is that we can evolve, we can grow up, we can upgrade our status and our happiness. If we weren’t able to adapt our shallow or illogical theories, then I would still be stuck thinking that pretty little girls became ugly ladies. So we’re all capable of it—and thank goodness for that. As you make your way through the holidays, lean into this sense of interconnectedness, remember that the best nourishment is realized through your Yoga practice, and be sure to share your pie.
ABOUT Aaron dias
In retrospect, Aaron Dias couldn't escape becoming a yoga teacher. From her childhood training in theater, dance and song; to her adolescent obsession with spirituality in all forms; to her teenage talent for teaching and tutoring; to her enthusiastic absorption in philosophy studies as a college student; to her predilection for hosting lively gatherings, all of these seemingly disparate roads have led to the present.
Aaron has been deeply influenced by many incredible teachers in her 14 years of sincere yoga studies. She is endlessly grateful to each one. Among her main influences over the years, she would like to especially thank the following: Lesley Desaulniers, Adyashanti, Jonathan Fitzgordon, Kelly Morris, Raghunath, Maria Cutrona, Amanda Harding, Venerable Phuntsok, Sharon Saltzberg, Kimberly Theresa, Lama Marut, and Lauren Imparato.