The Four Immeasurables is one of the most influential spiritual practices I have ever engaged in and one I wish everyone would practice. They do not require any belief system other than the ability to believe in the possible. You can practice them if you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Pagan, or any other tradition. At the heart of the practice of the Four Immeasurables is love and exchanging the love and self-clinging we have for ourselves with love for everyone. It is a meditation that is very skillful in that it can be practiced by anyone at any time. Of the three wheels of the Buddhas Cannon, it is considered to be a Mahayana practice, as it follows that from engaging in it we become concerned with creating happiness for all.
The first of the Four Immeasurables to practice is Equanimity. It is the contemplation that all people, all souls for that matter, are equal. How are they equal? They are equal in the sense that if we have existed since time began, which is a very long time ago, lifetime after lifetime, every soul we encounter in our day-to-day experience must have been in a close loving relationship with us. Therefore, should we not love them now? Think about how close you feel to someone you really really are connected to, now imagine that through endless lives you have felt that way to everyone you encounter. Sometimes others were your lovers, sometimes your parents, sometimes your children. In some lifetimes your parents were your sworn enemies and killed you, other times your kids were such. Sometimes people you really really hate, you loved, and vice a versa. Contemplate like this for a while. I know this is a stretch, but it is a great contemplation for helping to develop a loving outlook towards everyone. After you have thought like this for a minute or two, relax the mind and meditate on your breath going in and out of your nostrils. Pray that you might understand how all beings are equal in their experience of suffering, desire for love, and seeking happiness in their life.
The 2nd Immeasurable to practice is Love.This love is probably most akin to Agape in Greek. The way we get there though is by contemplating someone we really love, feeling that love we have for the other genuinely in our hearts. This can be a family member or lover, what is important is it is someone we know we would sacrifice ourselves for their happiness. Then visualize or think about some people we are fond of but do not quite have deep love for. Extend this feeling of love to them. When comfortable with that think of people or animals we feel neutral to and extend our experience of deep love to them. Finally, think of people you have animosity towards and transfer that feeling of love to them. This can be quite challenging at times, especially if it is someone who we feel has wronged or hurt us, but gets easier as we practice. Before long you will be able to experience love for even those who have hurt or wronged you. This is actually really profound to experience, and why not love them, after all, we now have developed an understanding that we once, at some point in the way back ancient had a loving and intimate relationship with them. After you have contemplated like this, then rest your mind and breath in and out, following your breath and relaxing.
The 3rd Immeasurable is Compassion. Compassion grows out of love, it is not wanting to see others suffer. When we love someone, it is very hard for us to see them suffer. There suffering is unbearable, and would gladly work with effort to reduce it. This is actually the attitude of a Bodhisattva, which is a being who works tirelessly to remove and relieve others of suffering. This can be material, emotional, or mental suffering. Ultimately though this is the suffering of self reification, that is thinking there is an independent “I” which is us, and that this “I” has continuity of being and things it possesses and can control or things it should fear, and avoid. This is the root cause of suffering known in Buddhism as self clinging.
Compassion is the deep desire to free others from suffering. This can be in an ordinary way, like practicing charity to those who need it. It can be in an extraordinary way, the giving of spiritual teachings to help people free themselves from the circumstances that cause their suffering. Both ways are good and helpful to beings, the not good form of compassion is supporting others in doing what actually keeps causing them harm in the long run. Chogyam Trungpa referred to this as idiot compassion. This is because it actually does not help others, it is just being stupid.
The actual practice of compassion in the context of the four immeasurables is to cultivate the wish to free others of their suffering. Think of people you love and cultivate the genuine desire to help them no longer suffer. Mentally cultivate this feeling from the heart and think that you would do whatever it takes to free them from suffering. The lifetime before attaining perfect Buddhahood, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva fed himself to a hungry lioness in order to nurture her and allow her to feed her lion cubs. Ideally we develop that level of compassion. This does not mean harm ourselves, but within the limits of what is safe, give in such a way that we really alleviate the suffering of others. In practice you might imagine doing this, with a deep sense of compassion. First to the ones you love, then those you feel neutral to, and then those you despise. Then rest the mind and follow your breath and relax.
The fourth Immeasurable is Joy. This one is really important because it is necessary to have joy in our lives. Joy is an antidote for nihilism. It really is our birthright, but we tend to get so caught up in trying to upkeep our situation that we lose our joy. The result is we become jealous of others joy. Our joy is often stolen by our negative minds by seeing others happy and not having joy for their happiness. If we truly love others, we should always feel joy in their joy. Whenever you hear good news or see someone else being successful, have joy in their success. What you will find is that your experience of joy increases and your willingness to help others feel joy increases. The practice is like those above in that you imagine those you love and rejoice in all of their good fortunes. Then practice in the same way with those whom you may have been indefferent to. And finally meditate on how wonderful it would be if your former or current enemies found happiness. This is quite a brave meditation but will greatly increase your joy and the joy of others. Finally after having thought in the way of wishing others joy, relax your mind, breath in and out and just really relax.
The four immeasurables antidote self-clinging, which is a cause of our own suffering while simultaneously increasing our capacity to benefit other beings. In this way, they accomplish the two benefits. It is a really sublime practice.
This has been a very brief overview of the Four Immeasurables. I can not do it justice with such a short explanation, but I can assure you if you take some time to learn them, practice them, engage with them, and incorporate them into your life you will reap great personal rewards of well-being and spiritual fulfillment. I know this is true from my own personal experience.
Best wishes and May you have joy and abundance.