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THE FOUR DIVINE ABIDINGS - ESSENTIAL QUALITIES
FOR LISTENING TO OTHERS
The Four Divine Abidings (Nārada, The Buddha and His Teachings, chapter
42) were said by the Buddha to be the only four emotions worth having, the
rest being attachment, aversion and ignorance (or wrong view) in one form or
another. They are the fruit of the life of practice yet they are also
cultivable virtues not limited to Buddhism. They are universal, wholesome
characteristics latent in all human beings and, likewise, accessible to all
human beings. (For example, in his letter to the Galatians, St Paul refers to
them as the fruits of the Spirit.) In saying that they are both virtues to be
cultivated and the fruits of spiritual practice, the out-flowing of the true
self, we are also saying that there is no way to Enlightenment, Enlightenment
is itself, the way.
The Four Divine Abidings or Four Measureless Minds are loving kindness
(which includes good will, generosity and mercy) known as metta in Pali or
maitri in Sanskrit; compassion or karuna in Pali and Sanskrit; spiritual joy or
sympathetic joy, known as mudita in Pali and Sanskrit and equanimity,
openness, serenity or inclusiveness, known as upekkha in Pali or upeksha in
Sanskrit. Loving-kindness has as its counterfeit or ‘near enemy’, attachment.
Compassion has as its counterfeit or ‘near enemy’, pity or condescension. Joy
has pretence and envy as its counterfeit while equanimity has indifference
as its ‘near enemy’.
What follows are some suggestions about how we might apply the four
measureless minds and avoid their counterfeits in our dealings with others
whilst listening deeply to them. When we are really listened to by another
person, we can easily sense that the other person is truly present to us and
it has a healing effect because we have been loved and taken seriously. By
being truly present to others, we can also offer this wonderful gift of
healing. This gift of true presence and deep listening is characterised by
metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha.
When we listen to another we need to have a genuine sense of lovingkindness towards them manifested in the physical posture we take towards
them and a warm and friendly look on our face. We need to approach them
with a generous spirit, offering them as much time as they need to allow
their story to unfold and we need to be merciful towards them, accepting
whatever arises as the best they have been capable of and placing no
judgment upon them. We need to beware of the counterfeit of lovingkindness which could be a desire to rescue them or to build on their trust in
us as a means to extract something from them including what we might call
friendship. Sometimes this may necessitate keeping the relationship of
listening out of the realm of socializing friendship, if we are to continue to
be most useful.
Compassion means being on the person’s side, no matter what. It means being
prepared to stand by them and not run away if we feel averse to what we are
hearing. Understanding is said to be the substance of compassion. This does
not mean we agree with everything proposed by the person we are listening
to. Sometimes true compassion means finding a way to be honest with
someone when you believe that their thoughts, words and actions are
unwholesome. This disagreement, while needing to be firm needs also to be
kind, whilst making clear to them that you will continue to stand by them. We
need to be concerned with the possibility that our listening is characterised
by the sense of pity that goes with the thought: “I am so glad I am not you!”
or by giving advice which is condescending. We must trust that if we listen
to the person’s suffering and allow for the discharge of any painful emotions
attached to that suffering, they will come up with their own next step,
integral to their healing.
Sympathetic joy means listening to and truly rejoicing with the person in all
that is good and going well in their life. When we are listening to someone
who is suffering, we need to be careful in determining when we might ask
them to share with us also what is going well for them in their life as an
antidote to the despair that often accompanies suffering. Our joy in their
wellbeing must be genuine. Nothing will make it more clear to another person
that we are not truly present to them than a remark like “Oh, I know how
you feel.” or if we use the opportunity to take over the listening period with
our own sharing, even if what we share is positive. Generosity means making
sure that we truly give them the gift of our time.
Equanimity here means being very clear that when somebody says something
to you, you understand what it is that they mean by what they have said
rather than proceeding on the basis of your own assumptions about what
they mean. Ask them to clarify what you are concerned about might lead to
misunderstanding. Be open to who they are and all that they say without
judgment. Assume inclusiveness in your approach for it may be that people
will talk with you about things that you have never experienced or are
outside the ambit of your knowledge or expertise. Avoid judgment. Avoid
judgment. Avoid judgment. Further, in your attempt to be impartial, avoid
indifference. No matter what you may think of the person or their difficulty
or their joy, to them it is highly significant and to them it is also highly
significant that they have trusted you with their heart. Be aware of the
precious nature of this person’s life and the rare opportunity for trust to
have arisen in their hearts. Here it becomes clear that the Four Divine
Abidings are not separate and discrete entities: equanimity needs loving
kindness if it is to avoid becoming indifference. Loving-kindness needs
equanimity if it is to avoid becoming attachment. Compassion needs
sympathetic joy if it is to avoid leading to despair. Sympathetic joy needs
understanding and compassion and equanimity if you are to avoid becoming a
Pollyanna.
Above all else, we need to have let go of a sense of a separate self for the
purposes of listening. I do not mean that we need to let go of intelligent
consideration while we listen but I do mean we need to let go of a sense of
being separate and different from this other person and their ten thousand
joys and their ten thousand sorrows. We need to let go of the ego’s need for
self-aggrandizement. We need to know whether the other person’s suffering
is triggering our own and, for the purposes of listening, we need to put aside
the restimulation of our own painful emotions until the listening period is
over. If we cannot, we need to be very honest telling them that our capacity
to listen has now become compromised and we need to give them the option
of finding someone else to listen to them. If we are honest in this way, we
are practising equanimity, compassion and generosity towards them and
equanimity, compassion and mercy towards ourselves. There is no waiting for
Enlightenment required, for we touch the Buddha in ourselves as we listen
deeply and mindfully.
