Protection and Direction: The Four Infinite Truths
Yoga Sutra 1.33, the “Four Infinite Thoughts”: Maitrī karuṇā mudito upekṣāṇām sukha duḥkha puṇyāpuṇya viṣayānam bhāvanātaś citta prasādanam
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” – Swami Satchidananda
“Whether you are interested in samadhi or plan to ignore Yoga entirely, I would advise you to remember at least this one Sutra. In my own experience, this Sutra became my guiding light to keep my mind serene always.” – Swami Satchidananda
The Four Infinite Thoughts “effect a radical change in one’s perceived relationship with the other creatures on earth. These practices work to demolish the boundaries between oneself and others, and to break through the barriers that lock people into egoism. [. . .] These practices bring about a transmutation of personal emotions into immeasurable virtues.” — Barbara Stoller Miller
In my garden in the early morning, I admire the orange trees. From the roots, the trunk rises and splits into branches, which split into smaller and smaller branches that hang heavy with fruit. The trees were planted by the previous owner of this garden when he was a young man. He planted the trees for his mother; she loved oranges. Both the son and mother have passed away now, but the creative power within the seeds he planted, to express his love for his mother, lives on. As I am pregnant and expecting a third child, I am touched by this connection that bridges time. I know little more of their relationship, other than that she loved to garden and he planted these trees. He could have given her anything—a scarf or a hat, for example—and my family may never have known. Their relationship would not have touched our lives. But because he chose to plant a tree, his gift self-renews in a way that no longer depends on him. The trees nourish me, my family, the friends of my children who joyfully pick oranges on temperate afternoons, the baby I carry, our neighbors and even those we don’t know, like the homeless who accept a bag of oranges or a jar of juice at a red light.
Thousands of oranges hang on the trees. As I gather enough to make fresh juice for breakfast, I barely make a dent in the abundance the trees offer. One seed, sunlight, water, soil, care, and patience made thousands of oranges possible. They come back every year. Each orange carries seeds which could become new trees to nourish future families. I wonder what it would be like to find and plant the right seeds to care for others like this. I wonder what it would be like to know the right thoughts, words and actions that could create an impact that would help more than just me in the short term, whose affects might last even beyond my own lifetime. Are there ways of being that self-renew, that carry their own energy, that regenerate, like seeds in nature? What seeds can I plant now to create a future of greater care, kindness, and abundance?
In the world of my experience, not all trees are as pleasant, giving, or kindly-intended as those orange trees. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, karma functions according to natural law. An orange seed creates an orange tree; a single thought has the ability to take root in the mind, to re-express the same thoughts again and again. Our repetitive patterns are called samskaras. It is said that each action leaves a trace which will incline us to do the same thing again, much like the fruit of an orange tree contains the seeds for future trees. If our thoughts were all of kindness, this natural law would be to our advantage. But often, the mind is characterized by kleshas, or inner conflict, which breed with a momentum all their own unless we learn to work with them. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “many branched and endless are the thoughts.” We try with a little criticism here, guilt, or “pruning,” but do they go away? Or do they simply redirect and reappear, as if they have a life force of their own?
In a garden, all plants need access to sunlight to survive. In the world of mental phenomena, thoughts need the light of our awareness to thrive. What we focus on has great power, like the light of the sun. If we focus on negativity, negativity will grow. If we focus on service, our sense of connection with others will grow. It has been said that worry is “praying for a negative outcome.” Our minds shape the world we perceive and then we act in ways that confirm our perceptions. If our minds are so powerful, what is the best kind of thinking to engage in to overcome the conflict we live with in our minds and in this world we share? What kind of seeds would we like to plant to bring happiness now, and to see flourish in ways we may not even be able to currently imagine in the future? Is there a simple mental practice which could bring this kind of protection and direction to our lives?
According to Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is one way of thinking which is the remedy for all our problems (see Yoga Sutras 1.30-1.32). He gives us the one seed to plant which can tower over all the other “trees” we have unintentionally invited into our lives—trees of worry, jealousy, craving, hopelessness and the greater patterns in our communities which result from this kind of thinking.
“The Four Infinite Thoughts” are a code of kindness expressed in Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.33 to outpace, outgrow, and overshadow any negative tendencies we have. By looking for ways to plant this seed, you will have protection and direction regardless of the situation. This one seed expresses itself in four ways and can be used at any time.
Maitri – Loving kindness. The wish to create happiness in other’s hearts.
Karuna – Compassion. The wish to bring an end to others’ suffering now and forever.
Mudito – Joy. The ability to celebrate virtue and to make the highest wish for all beings: the wish for enlightenment.
Upekshanam – Equanimity. The literal translation is to “over look.” This means to not waste time and energy fighting in the trenches with others, not to spend your energy decreeing wickedness in others, but to keep to your intentions high and to focus on your own practice of virtue.
With a new year beginning and much change in our world, there has never been a better time to bring a fresh eye to this process. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “In order to have a happier future for oneself, you have to take care of everything which relates to you.” So, if your daily habits trouble you, plant seeds for new habits. Take care of yourself and others who wrestle with the same habits. Even habits we have engrained over decades have an end to their life cycle if we no longer feed them with the “sunlight” of our awareness and instead bring our resources to new seeds for the future. If the situation in our country or our world troubles you, plant seeds for the world you wish to inhabit now and in the future. Let go of looking to place blame. If it relates to you, if it’s in your garden, know you can plant seeds for a new season in the future.
This kind of thinking may feel like an awkward asana pose in the beginning, but over time our minds adapt to new patterns. If we are no strangers to inner conflict, why not invite in new patterns to heal the psyche, new patterns of protection and direction now and in the future? It is said that when we are in the process of awakening, our mental energy will flow more and more in alignment with these four infinite ways of thinking, so why not start now? New habits take great effort only in the beginning.
We begin with our work on the mat. The legs are the roots of the pose. Engage your legs during all standing poses and heart openers. Strong legs provide protection for the spine. If the legs are not engaged, no matter how open our backs are or how beneficent our intentions, we make ourselves vulnerable to injury. A plant which cannot root cannot thrive. Practice standing poses like vrksasana, parsva vrksasana, and even adho mukha vrksasana with legs engaged. Notice how engaged legs provide stability and potential for growth, even when you’re upside down! A soft but focused gaze, or drishti, helps us move in the right direction as we practice. We can ask ourselves, what am I looking for in others? Where is my focus? These questions can help us remember to always look for the good. Whenever that is hard, we turn to one of the four infinite thoughts. As Sharon Gannon says about our gaze in an asana class, “look to the horizon of infinite possibilities”. Through your focus and efforts, we can plant powerful seeds of kindness.
Through our practice, a new season is beginning: a season to awaken out of ego with its kleshas and seeds for future pain, and into a way of being led by “Awakening Mind,” a mind that has awakened to the innate potential for kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Master Patanjali’s Four Infinite Thoughts, found in Yoga Sutra 1.33, contain a recipe shared by ancient Yogis, Hindus, and Buddhists alike to create radical shifts in our hearts and minds. If an orange seed creates an orange tree, what does the seed of Awakening Mind create? To practice Awakening Mind, plant the Four Infinite Thoughts in your mind stream as often as you have any trouble with yourself or with your world. Make prayers not only for yourself, but for an infinite number of beings—and be sure to include yourself in that infinite family. Plant this seed to create protection and direction: protection from the ego’s conflict and direction to create a better future for us all.
Written by Keith Porteous