Last week, after a long day of travel, I was standing in line at a U.S. customs hall when I noticed that my typical mode of frustrated urgency had been replaced with a simple practice that I had just learned while away on retreat; my energy was neutral and my mind was exploring:
Compassion - “all of these other weary travelers are also tired and wanting to get home, particularly the aged and the children.”
Gratitude - “how lucky am I to have just attended the most incredible 2-week retreat in Costa Rica and then travel home so quickly by plane?”
Equanimity - “how would it feel to be poised, graceful and self-possessed in this tedious cue?”
Joy - “how can I evoke a sense of lightness and delight in my being?”
These qualities are called the 4 Immeasurables and are pulled from a deeper and more comprehensive teaching, instructed by Dharma Bodhi of Trika Mahasiddha Yoga. They can be used as a second attention (a background awareness that is maintained throughout the day) to condition our minds toward virtuous thinking and therefore undermine the negative thoughts that so often disturb our moods and behavior. When rehearsed with regularity, this practice gives rise to an intelligent, non-reactive, and loving standard of interaction with the world, eventually replacing less attractive character traits altogether.
Psychospiritual growth is not something that we can just wish into being. It takes a moment-to-moment commitment to overriding our dysfunctional conditioning and replacing it with something more kind and adaptive. Each time we purposefully evoke compassion, gratitude, equanimity and joy the brain releases a cascade of neuropeptides, strengthens new neural grooves, and encourages these four qualities again and again. With repetition, the 4 immeasurables will arise without conscious effort, just like any other Pavlovian response.
Imagine the impact on our relationships (work, romantic, family, etc.) if each time that we felt emotionally triggered we remembered to act with compassion, gratitude, equanimity and joy. Not only would we begin to feel more emotionally empowered, but we would reduce, and quite possibly eradicate, any reactivity that contributes to unnecessary quarrels and relational harm.
This simple practice can also take a huge bite out of depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, grief, and other mental imbalances, replacing those states of consciousness with wisdom and vitality.
Now imagine that everyone else around you was also implementing this mantra; that anyone who you approached was sure to greet you with sincere kindness and respect. We would become a fearless species where unbounded intimacy ruled the day… (I love to dream about the kinds of changes that would occur with the collective betterment of the human psyche).
But back to reality…
It has now been a couple of weeks since I have committed to this second attention practice and I feel more joyful, present and relaxed in my own skin. It has provided me with a new method for transforming negative emotions and conflict, as well as a technique for flavoring the backdrop of the empty spaces in my being.
Reconditioning the mind takes effort and dedication, yet replacing typical thoughts/feelings of anger, fear and ignorance with those of compassion, gratitude, equanimity and joy will unequivocally bring us several steps closer to our true and brilliant nature.