Cultivating Positive Attitudes towards Others

Near the end of the first chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, there are descriptions of different techniques for starting to calm the mind and overcome difficult mental states.

One of the things that Patañjali says is helpful is to cultivate positive attitudes towards others. He explains four different kinds of positive feelings that we can learn to cultivate in ourselves and which types of people that it would be most beneficial to have those feelings towards.

मैत्र करुणा मुदितोपेक्षाणां सुख दुःख पुण्यापुण्य विषयाणां भावनातश्चित्त प्रसाद‌नम् ||

Maitrī Karuṇā Muditopekṣāṇāṃ Sukha Duḥkha Puṇyāpuṇya Viṣayāṇāṃ Bhāvanātaś Citta Prasādanam || I:33 ||

Breaking down this sūtra, it says that if we cultivate the attitudes of:

1.      Maitrī – “Friendliness” to the Sukha – “Happy”

2.      Karuṇā – “Compassion” to the Duḥkha – “Suffering”

3.      Mudita – “Delight”/“Sympathetic Joy”/“Goodwill” to the Puṇya – “Virtuous”

4.      Upekṣa – “Detachment”/“Equanimity” to the Apuṇya – “Non-virtuous”

Then we will enjoy greater peace of mind.

The idea is that we often feel jealous towards happy people, scornful towards people who are suffering, and so on. These feelings disturb our calmness of mind both immediately and through the unbalanced words or actions that we might take under their influence.

MaitrīWhether we are happy ourselves or not at the time, we can cultivate friendliness or a sense of affection towards people we see as happy. The word maitrī indicates a kind of amicable attitude, a sense of approachable engagement. We should aim to help expand on the happiness of people. This doesn’t mean that we avoid talking about something important and serious just because it might not be “happy” or anything like that, but merely that we try to find a place within ourselves where we can meet the person in their state.

KaruṇāWe should also work to develop our compassion when we encounter people who are suffering. This is an especially important one to emphasize because many people in modern spiritual communities can tend towards “spiritual bypassing.” This is a kind of faux transcendence that we use to justify a sense of apathy. So, while we have no necessity to solve everyone’s problems for them or wallow in the suffering of others, we should take care to avoid feelings that overly blame a victim, such as that the person brought the suffering on themselves. We may not always be able to fix the situation, but we can often help in some way and we can always come from a place of sincere empathy and understanding.

Mudita ­– This word is sometimes translated as “delight” or “rejoicing” and sometimes translated as “goodwill.” In truth, it’s a bit of both. Mudita is the sense of sympathetic joy that we get when someone is succeeding at something that we feel is important. It is a kind of inner cheerleading, where we hope for a person’s success and feel happy at their efforts. The word puṇya is sometimes translated as “virtue” or “merit.” In the relative context of our own perceptions, it essentially means people who are engaged in activities that we see as important, positive, helpful, etc. We decide that a person is “virtuous” because they are doing something that we think is good to do. It might seem obvious that we’d want to support such an endeavor, but sometimes we find ourselves envious that they are the ones succeeding or we think about credit or social standing they might get instead of us. We can gently remind ourselves that if we truly think they are doing something beneficial, then it is a good thing no matter who is doing it.

Upekṣa This word means “detachment” or “equanimity,” but it is very important to note that it is not the same thing as “apathy.” It is the attitude that we apply towards those who are apuṇya or “non-virtuous.” Just as above, this might be a qualifier that comes from our own limited perspective. Who are we to decide who or what is virtuous or not virtuous? And yet, just as we find ourselves agreeing with the actions of some people, we will also find ourselves disagreeing with the actions of others. Practicing upekṣa means that we have a certain patience towards these people. We don’t linger in negative emotions towards them and we can detach the circumstances from the person themselves. If someone is doing something wrong, we may even have to take action to remedy the situation or we may decide not to associate with the person in question, but we can still realize that there is no need to dwell on their personal flaws.

We can generalize and say that anyone would positively benefit from cultivating any of these feelings towards anyone. The Sūtras separates them out towards specific people primarily because they are more precise remedies to the negative emotions that we might experience in those cases.

We would even benefit from feeling these attitudes towards ourselves. When we are happy, we can have an attitude of friendliness to our own happiness. When we suffer, we can feel compassion towards ourselves. When we are doing good, we can cheerlead ourselves on and when we are doing things that we aren’t sure are good, then we can remember to have patience with ourselves.

These four positive attitudes are given special importance in Buddhism as well. In Buddhism, they are called the Brahmavihara and their cultivation is said to lead to rebirth in Brahmaloka. This sūtra in many ways presages the yama of the second chapter, which forms the first limb of the eight-limbed system outlined there, though perhaps the ethics of the yama reflect dialogue with Jainism more directly than with Buddhism.

The phrase that the sūtra uses for “calmness of mind” is Citta Prasādanam. Citta is the word the Yoga Sūtras uses to indicate the “mind-space”, not exactly the thoughts themselves, but the underlying soup that these thoughts occur within. Prasādanam can mean calmness or serenity, but it also carries with it associations of clearness, brightness, and general well-being.

Perhaps the most difficult logistical aspect of practicing this sutra is the question of how exactly we are supposed to “cultivate” an “attitude” anyway. The Sanskrit term here is bhāva. It is more than just “thinking about” though and points to a real, emotionally invested, engrossing, mental engagement. Bhāva is used to describe the mood of music or a dance piece. It is defined by the academic Csaba Kiss as “empathic imagination,” which is a term that I find to capture its fullness. Being able to bring your mind to a place of invoking specific moods is a yoga technique all of its own and the term and its associated techniques will be explored more in future posts. Let’s say for now that there is not any one specific “right” way to do it, there is just what works. You have to be able to make it feel real, that is you have to find a way to really feel it.