Intentions and the Four Immeasurables

I’m going to share with you a meditation prayer that we recite at the Rime Center. I started reciting it in all my meditations at home as well. It goes like this:

May all beings be endowed with happiness;

May all beings be free from suffering;

May all beings never be separated from happiness;

And may all beings abide in equanimity,

Undisturbed by the eight worldly concerns.”

This is how we set our intention to cultivate what is called “the four immeasurables.”


I used to think these kinds of things were silly. But setting an intention is important. It motivates and inspires us. It reminds us what’s important. In my opinion we all spend much of our lives on auto-pilot. Living in a more intentional way is a good thing. When we set our intentions we are helping ourselves to remember what direction we’re trying to go in. In this case we are inclining ourselves toward having open hearts.

In ‘A Fearless Heart’ Thupten Jinpa says, “When we set an intention in the morning, we’re making a choice about what kind of day we want to have. We’re taking life into our own hands instead of waiting for it to happen to us.”

This set of virtues is called “immeasurable” because it’s said to be a list of things that you can never have too much of. They are: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Thupten Jinpa goes on to say, “We all have these qualities; they’re part of – the best parts of – being human.”

All of these are about wishing it for all beings. That can be hard. It’s easy for us to wish for our own happiness and the happiness of our friends and family. This is much more broad. We are called to cultivate the wish for all beings to have these things because that will build a better world. It’s easy to say, “No one gets left out” but that can be very hard to really embody. If we suggest everyone is deserving of kindness and compassion, this can be a tough thing for us to relate to. Every one of us stops and thinks, “Even that person?” if we’re really reflecting on this. And the answer is yes, even that person. Opening your heart helps you…and everyone else.

May all beings be endowed with happiness

This is what we call loving-kindness. Some prefer the term loving-friendliness and some just call it kindness. The original word is Metta. Jinpa calls it, “The pure wish for someone to be happy.”

May all beings be free from suffering

This is compassion. I imagine some people wonder “what’s the difference between kindness and compassion?” This is it. Loving-kindness is wanting others to be happy. Compassion is wanting others to not suffer. They are not far apart, but they’re a little different. Kindness is wanting good things to happen to people. Compassion is wanting bad things to not happen. The original word is Karuna. Jinpa says, “Our concern, if it comes from genuine compassion, is based on the recognition that, just like I do, this person wishes to be free from suffering.” and also, “In the Tibetan tradition we recognize compassion as both the highest spiritual ideal and the highest expression of our humanity.” This is what makes me like the Tibetan tradition.

May all beings never be separated from happiness

This is sympathetic joy. What if we can really be happy when someone else succeeds? I’m not talking about when we just say empty words like, “I’m happy for you,” because that’s what you’re supposed to say. What if we can take real joy at someone’s success? And I’m also not talking about just your kids or your partner. What if we can apply this kind of joy to everyone? Then there will be no end to where we can feel joy. The original word is Mudita. Jinpa says it is, “Experiencing happiness at someone else’s happiness and good fortune.” To me this is probably the most challenging one of the four to really reflect on and embody.

And may all beings abide in equanimity, undisturbed by the eight worldly concerns.

This is equanimity. It’s our ability to weather the storms of life, to keep it together when things are falling apart. It’s that quality that stops you from freaking out and falling to the floor when there are setbacks in life, as there are for everyone. The original word is Upekkha. Jinpa describes it as, “Staying calm no matter what life throws at us – pleasure and pain, likes and dislikes, praise and blame, fame and disrepute – and it lets us relate to everyone as human beings, beyond the categories of friend, foe, or stranger. With equanimity we are free from the habitual forces of expectation and apprehension that make us vulnerable to over-excitation and disappointment.” Those pairs he listed are called ‘the eight worldly concerns.’ The point of reflecting on those is that we can get carried away by being blamed too much, of course, but we can also get carried away by being praised too much. Equanimity is what helps us keep an even mind whether things are going very well or very badly.

So, these are the four immeasurables. Learning to cultivate these four qualities helps us to open our hearts and deepen our relationships to ourselves and others. They’re sometimes called ‘divine abodes’ which is not a term I like that much. But it does convey that they are considered important things to cultivate.

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The Courage to Open Your Heart


“It takes courage to open our hearts to others and to expose our vulnerability.”

-Thupten Jinpa, PhD

In 2016 I received teachings from Lama Lena on a retreat at the Rime Center. At that time she would come visit us in Kansas City every year and give teachings, so I’ve been on retreats with her a few times. At that event she taught us something called “The Practice That Takes the Open Heart as the Path to Awakening.”

At that time I really didn’t want to receive that kind of teaching. I just wanted to go on retreat with a teacher. I was still feeling inspired to try to be a Zen Buddhist then and these kinds of practices weren’t what I wanted to explore. I thought I could work on opening my mind and not worry about my heart so much. My thoughts on the subject have evolved. This is not to say that there isn’t emphasis on opening the heart in the Zen tradition. I don’t want to suggest there is no heart-centered practice in Zen. But to my mind compassion isn’t nearly as central as it may be in some other traditions.

Anyway, when she was giving this teaching she said something that stuck with me and still sticks with me now.

She said, “It can be hard to open our hearts because we’ve all been kicked in the heart in the past. This causes us to want to have closed hearts for protection.”

This was such a big revelation to me. We have all been kicked in the heart. Everyone on this planet has. Most of us have many times. I like that line so much I use it in my own talks and writings.

I’m telling you that because opening our hearts is brave. Kindness is courage and vulnerability is strength. Sometimes people seem to imply that kindness is bad, that sensitivity is a weakness.

Opening your heart helps others feel empowered to open theirs. In ‘A Fearless Heart’ Thupten Jinpa says, “When people understand the reasons why we chose to do something, when they get the basic message that we don’t want to hurt them, they tend to be more accepting of our decisions and compassionate toward us. This is human nature.”

He goes on to say that we are afraid of opening our hearts and showing compassion because “These fears stem from confusing compassion with submissiveness, weakness, or sentimentality.”

We are afraid people could hurt us, but there is more than that to it. We are taught sometimes that compassion isn’t cool. People have been throwing around terms like “bleeding heart” and “snowflake” to describe someone with an open heart in a negative way.

The thing is that opening our hearts empowers others to open theirs. AND armoring our hearts doesn’t work. Compassion is in our nature. Closing our hearts will not make us happy. We can dare to be compassionate instead. We can try to protect ourselves against all the suffering and pain in life, but we can’t do it, not really. It’s like trying to cover the world with leather instead of putting on shoes. We can’t really do that.

If we open our hearts our hearts can be stronger. We can develop an inner strength that we don’t have now. We can become more patient, wiser, and more motivated to do the work of helping ourselves and others.

An open heart brings connection with other people. And we should connect with others even when we’re afraid of being hurt. One thing we’ve learned in a the last few years is that isolation can be really hard on us.

Jinpa goes on to say, “Through training we can make compassion our basic stance, the very outlook with which we perceive ourselves and the world around us, so that we engage with the world from that place.”

What if we can open our hearts and change our way of thinking?

Kindness, Compassion, and Open-heartedness are virtues. We should be cultivating these things.

Open up your heart. 

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Below is a teaching like the one I received from Lama Lena. Highly recommended:

Benefits of Compassion

Cultivating compassion benefits us and the world around us in many ways.

Being compassionate:

-motivates and inspires us

-helps us deal with stress

-helps us deal with loneliness

-inspires others to be compassionate

Compassion is a worldview that can help us have the opportunity to be home anywhere and create and strengthen communities.

In ‘A Fearless Heart’ Thupten Jinpa says, “Kindness affirms something fundamental to our human condition – our need for and appreciation of connection with our fellow humans.”

Compassion brings us together and connects us to other people. It brings us together in a way that few other things can but more importantly it penetrates the rigid walls we put up that separate us from other people. We’ve been kicked in the heart so we try to put our hearts in cages. But that’s not a good way to live. We can uncage our hearts instead and dare to be kind and open.

Jinpa goes on to say, “If we look, we will always find people who are helping, in big ways or small, because it’s one of the things humans were born to do.”

This echoes the quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”


It can be easy to have a negative view of humanity. We see so many things that make us think people are bad. I was going to say this is especially true with the strife and division that is happening now, but it was probably true throughout human history. But we can always look for the helpers. Big and small acts of kindness are happening all the time.

One more quote from Jinpa. He said, “We humans haven’t given ourselves enough credit – and we suffer from the self-fulfilling prophecy of selfishness.”

When we look for trouble, we can find it. When we start from thinking the worst about people, we can find faults.

But what if we don’t look for trouble? What if we stop looking for signs that people are bad?

How can we be confident that people are good, that our true nature is compassion and wisdom?

Is this an article of faith? Is this what I believe in in spite of evidence? I get a lot from looking for the helpers. You can see selfless people all the time if you’re looking for them.

Also, studies show that being compassionate and seeing the world in a positive way are linked. Caring about other people brings you some measure of happiness and joy. Thinking it’s a terrible world and other people are all jerks will make you sad.

I was a depressed and negative teenager before I was a positive adult (as many people are). I thought the world was awful, I thought other people were out to get me, and I hated movies with happy endings. And I was endlessly unhappy.

When I set an intention to be a more positive person, it changed everything. Compassion isn’t just a virtue we’re trying to cultivate. It’s a worldview. If you change how you see the world, you can change your life.

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Fearless Compassion

Fearless Compassion

Compassion is something that we all agree is important. It’s fundamental to all religions and systems of virtue. We all agree that it’s important, but at the same time we so often and clearly fall short of really trying to embody it. When you see someone that needs help and you make excuses not to do it, or when you see someone being harmed and think “they had it coming”…these are examples of falling short in generating compassion.

What is it, really?

Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted by another being’s suffering and when we feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.

In his book ‘A Fearless Heart’ the former monk and professor Thupten Jinpa says, “Compassion is fundamental to our basic nature as human beings.”

It’s part of who we are. At the core of our being we are good. We are not broken and hopelessly selfish as we sometimes think we are. We are good and compassion is our nature. It can be easy to believe that human beings are bad, that things are awful out there. But I’m here to tell you compassion is our nature. We just have layers of delusion that keep us from embodying that good true nature. We’ve all been kicked in the heart many times and it has made us feel like people are out to get us and vulnerability is a weakness.

We are called to be vulnerable anyway. An open heart is so important to our spiritual journey and opening our hearts is the way to cultivate compassion.

Jinpa goes on to say, “Compassion offers the possibility of responding to suffering with understanding, patience, and kindness, rather than, say, fear and repulsion.”
 
 Compassion is powerful. It can take us all the way to awakening. We just have to open our hearts and be Fearless and Vulnerable.”

Brene Brown said, “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.”
 
 I think she’s right.

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