Beware of lurking near enemies

by Marguerite Theophil, November 3, 2009

New Delhi, India -- In Buddhist teachings, the four Brahmaviharas, translated as the Immeasurables, Divine Abodes, or Divine Abidings are: metta or loving-kindness, karuna or compassion, mudita or sympathetic joy, and upeksha or equanimity.

These are not just emotions we may or may not feel; they are states that we cultivate on our journey to being truly awakened.

The Buddha taught his son: "Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving-kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return. Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.

Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well being and success.

“Practice equanimity to overcome prejudice. Equanimity is looking at all things openly and equally... Do not reject one thing only to chase after another. I call these the Four Immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others."

Although each of these states is a mark of wakefulness and evolving, each can be confused with a condition that mimics the true state, but actually arises out of fear, and is aptly referred to as a ‘near enemy’.

When we strive to follow a path like the Brahmaviharas, we may not find it too difficult to identify and perhaps steer away from their absolute opposites -- sometimes referred to as ‘far enemies’ -- which are anger, cruelty, envy, and bias.

Much less easy to notice are the near enemies, as they cunningly masquerade as a spiritual quality, being subtle, disguised versions of what we might ordinarily see as pure and wholesome. One thing that makes these distinct from The Four Divine Abodes is that this path is essentially about connecting – to the deepest parts of ourselves as well as to other beings. The near enemies end up being about compartmentalisation or separation, and moral arrogance.

The near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment. Attachment may feel like love, but as it grows is revealed as insecure clinging, fear and the desire to control.

The near enemy of compassion is pity; a superior attitude, setting us above or apart from suffering around us, turning it to a kind of unhealthy spectator-sport.

The near enemy of sympathetic joy is comparison, checking whether we have or are more, the same, or less than another. Manifestations range from hypocritical humility to even over-identifying with success of others, especially those near to us.

The near enemy of equanimity is indifference. True equanimity is about balance and acceptance in any situation; indifference is withdrawal and not caring, often numbing us to the need to stand and act for justice.

Without examining these near enemies that create separations, our spiritual life stagnates and our awareness cannot continue to grow. However, it is not an easy task, since they are so close to the spiritually true way of being, that we are fooled and can easily embrace them instead. Most of us, even those claiming to be spiritually evolved, often operate in this space of subtle self-deception without knowing it.

Wise teachers suggest that we need to work on near enemies not as something to ignore, or roughly discard, but to first know as ‘intimates’ – after all they are termed ‘near’ ones – by drawing on our inherent gifts of self-reflection and self-awareness. This we do mainly by applying loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to ourselves first and then to others, enabling us to become those “refreshing sources of vitality and happiness for others” that the Buddha taught of.

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