The brahmavihāras, or sublime attitudes, are attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that you spread to all beings, without limit. In other words, there’s no limit to the amount of goodwill, etc., that you spread, and no limit on the number of beings to whom you spread it.
Each of these attitudes is an antidote for mental states that can get in the way of training the mind. For this reason, they play an important role in fostering the path to the end of suffering.
…These attitudes boil down to two—goodwill and equanimity—in that compassion and empathetic joy are basically extensions of goodwill.
Compassion is what goodwill feels when encountering suffering; empathetic joy is what goodwill feels when encountering those who are already happy.
The Buddha may have separated them out from goodwill in his list of the brahmavihāras because they’re good checks for the honesty and truthfulness of your goodwill.
If someone whose behavior you don’t like is suffering the consequences of that behavior, is your goodwill sincere enough to want to see their suffering end? If someone whose behavior you don’t like is enjoying the fruits of past good actions, can you honestly say that you’re happy for that person?
Equanimity is the backup for cases where, for the time being at least, there’s nothing you can do to stop people from suffering or creating the causes of suffering. This means that you develop each of these qualities where appropriate. You don’t regard equanimity as the goal of the practice. It always has to be on goodwill so that it doesn’t shade into apathy or indifference.
Notice that you practice developing these attitudes toward all beings—including yourself.
To do this, you have to develop them consciously because in the normal human heart these attitudes tend to be partial.
It’s easy to feel goodwill, for example, for those you like, or equanimity toward those who have no connection to you. But it requires a conscious effort to be able to maintain these attitudes toward anyone and everyone.
It’s not the case that the brahmavihāras are the heart’s innate nature. After all, their opposites can come just as naturally to the heart.
It’s just as natural to feel ill will for those who have betrayed you or people you love as it is natural to feel goodwill for those who behave in ways you like. It’s just as natural to get irritated when things don’t go your way as it is to be equanimous when nothing disturbs you.
So in making your goodwill and equanimity limitless, you’re learning to take these human attitudes that tend to be partial and to intentionally erase any trace of partiality in how you apply them.
In doing so, you lift your human mind to the level of the Brahmās, the highest level of heavenly beings, who have developed the sublime attitudes to the point where they can extend them to everyone, no matter who, no matter where.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Retreats book, Sublime Determinations: a Retreat on the Brahmavihāras, “Introduction.”