What Are the Four Dimensions of Love — and How Do You Reach Them?
Typically, we describe love through the prism of relationship styles: romance, or friendship, family. Each of these are different expressions of love, but they don’t quite explain the underlying qualities.
Love is an unconditional cosmic force. Understanding the qualities of love is essential if we wish to integrate the power of loving energy increasingly into our lives. Fortunately, Buddhism, a philosophy built on the foundations of unconditional love, has offered me deep insight into the nature of love with four key virtues, known as “the brahmavihārās.”
These virtues can be applied to all relationships — to ourselves, others, and the wider world.
Here are the four dimensions of love:
The first virtue is “mettā,” or benevolence. This is the desire to care for the wellbeing of others; not just those who we are close to, but all beings, human and non-human. Although we may understand the benefits of this approach on an intellectual level, actively living mettā is a whole new level of experience.
I was introduced to loving-kindness meditation (mettā bhavana) early on in my meditation journey. It’s one of my favourite practices. It’s also an eye-opener into how difficult it can be to truly open the heart to all.
The practice varies, but its core remains the same. You evoke feelings of peace, love and tranquility, either by visualizing a bright light around the heart, or repeating phrases such as “may you be well, may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved.”
The meditation is broken into stages. Initially, mettā is directed inwards, to yourself. This can be surprisingly difficult when starting out, especially if we are used to always caring for others, and not ourselves. The next stages move onto someone you care for, a neutral person, and someone you dislike or are having difficulty with (this is also challenging!). The final stage expands to include all of these people, then continues to expand to all living beings, beyond the city you live in, the country, the planet, and beyond.
There are no limits.
The Latin origin of compassion is compati, meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion is love with intent, the willingness to ease suffering in others. In Buddhism, “karuṇā” is the active desire to ease other’s pain. As our hearts open and we cultivate unconditional love, we reveal a tenderness within which may elicit a deep sadness in response to the suffering in the world. Indeed, it can be difficult to deal with at times.
A natural response is: how can I be happy with all this suffering? The answer lies with skilled compassion. Retaining the qualities of loving kindness, we extend our desire to alleviate the suffering of others without drowning ourselves. This desire then shapes our actions, enabling us to better serve and assist others.
The beauty of this approach is it reduces suffering in the outside world without increasing our own. Bringing lightness, support, and loving-kindness into the lives of those we come in contact with is the best antidote to suffering.
In order to bring such lightness, it’s important to avoid neglecting the first object of loving-kindness — yourself.
3. Sympathetic joy
Sometimes referred to as empathetic joy or altruistic joy, “muditā” is the ability to authentically share the joy and success of others. It’s the opposite of jealousy or envy.
Despite what Jordan Peterson claims, the best expression of humanity and the only hope we have for reducing suffering in the world is collaboration, not competition. Understanding the inherent interconnected nature of existence, wanting the best for all is a powerful practice of heart-felt living.
Again, this practice is surprisingly difficult to begin with, because we live in a culture that breeds separation and competition. Whereas “karuṇā” looks towards those suffering, “muditā” looks at those with good fortune, and rejoices. Combined, these two practices dissolve the illusion of ego separation and our habitual traits of comparison.
Equanimity is a fundamental principle of mindfulness, the practice of remaining balanced and avoiding the extremes of indulgence or aversion. This virtue is also described as freedom. Through “upekkhā,” one doesn’t get caught up in strong emotions or thoughts and doesn’t become easily swayed by the ups and downs of life. This creates the space to love unconditionally.
A common misconception about equanimity is that it creates a sterile, disengaged approach to life. This isn’t the case. Equanimity is developed along with your increasing awareness of the role your mind plays in life’s events. By being more engaged, we witness the ways life throws us off balance.
Upekkhā is a powerful form of love, as it allows us to remain open-hearted through hardship or perceived disappointment.
Combined with the virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, balance allows us to continue to cultivate a mature, all-encompassing love for everyone we encounter in life.
By applying these traits, the power of love can be harnessed, to improve your life, and the life of those you meet. There is no worthier goal.