Meditation which is understood as ‘a means or technique to control the mind’ (Rao & Paranjpe, 2016; Aronson, 1996), seems to have immense variety in practice. For ease of research and applications, modern psychology has grouped it into three categories, i.e., (a) open awareness/mindfulness, (b) focused attention/concentration and (c) transcendental meditation. The current paper will briefly discuss the interpersonal aspects of meditation, which is associated with a specific type of attention and behaviour towards other people.These are especially relevant now since most meditators worldwide are engaged with life, and only a few take an ascetic route.
The Indian tradition has given enormous importance to a certain way of being in the world and with others. The positive interpersonal qualities of Maitri/loving friendliness, Karuṇā/compassion, Muditā/sympathetic joy and Upekshā/equanimity, commonly known as brahmaviharas are to be cultivated, as are restraints like ahimsa, asteya, aparigraha etc., to be developed. These qualities have cognition, feelings, and behaviour components involved, and there are also relevant meditative practices. Modern psychology is now studying some of these ideas from the buddhist angle and utilizing them for applications. However, it may be noted that brahmaviharas is a pre-buddhist (Hindu) and extra-buddhist (Jain) practice, with later inclusion in buddhism with its own philosophical perspective on it (Aronson, 1996; Harris, 2001; Wiltshire, 2013). There are references present in ancient texts, from Upanishads, Yoga Vashistha, Bhagavadgita, and Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Even the term brahmavihara connects with the Chandogya Upanishad, which suggests that the path to brahmaloka is through matri and ahimsa. Further, the buddhist text Digha Nikaya mentions that the ancient King Govinda used to practice brahmavihara, but it is unclear if the king referred to here is Lord Krishna worshipped by Hindus, who is also popularly known as Govinda. This is possible to imagine since maitri/loving kindness is the foundational quality for all other brahmaviharas, and Krishna is associated with love, beauty, and bliss.
However, we may consider that the roots of this practice go back to mitra (in Samskrit, to embrace, contain, hold, and link together) in Rigveda, the Vedic God of dawn, truth and friendship. Sri Aurobindo has further described him in the following manner: “Mitra is considered to be the Lord of Love, a divine friend, a kindly helper, the most beloved of the Gods as he brings in our reach divine enjoyment and perfect happiness. He creates in us a happy rightness of mind and feeling—sumati, a state of grace, an unhurt abiding-place within, “free from all undelightfulness. Often invoked in company of Varuna, since Mitra cannot fulfil his harmony, except in the wideness and purity of Varuna” (Aurobindo, 1971, in The Secret of the Vedas).
Now, we can turn towards Patanjali Yoga Sutra to understand the processes of developing the quality of maitri and associated practices. Patanjali proposes that by deep focus and contemplation (samyama) on maitri and related feelings (karuna and mudita), they become stronger.
This means that “By performing Samyama on friendliness, etc., comes strength of the quality” (Patanjali Yoga Sutra, 3.24, translation by Taimni, 1961). The ‘Samyama’ mentioned here is a combination of three meditative processes, i.e. Dharana (fixed attention), dhyana (contemplation) and samadhi (concentration). This stage may come gradually as one grows in practice (PYS, 3.1-6, explanation by Vyasa and Commentary by Misra, in Woods, 1914).
“The mind becomes clarified by cultivating attitudes of friendliness, compassion, gladness and indifference respectively towards happiness, misery, virtue and vice (PYS, 1.33,Taimni, 1961). Thus, a yogic practitioner needs to develop friendliness for the happy, compassion for the suffering, joy for virtuous and equanimity or indifference for non-virtuous. This, in turn, can increase Sattva, overcome negativity and purify one’s mind (PYYS, Vyasa&Misra, in Woods, 1914).
One may note the qualities of brahmaviharas in the familiar Hindu chant, which is often used at the end of pooja and other rituals.
May all be happy (Maitri / Loving-kindness)
May all be free from infirmities (Karuna/ Compassion)
May all see good (Mudita/Sympathetic Joy or appreciative Joy)
May none have misery of any sort ((Karuna/ Compassion)
Om Shanthi Shanthi Shanthi.
Om, peace, peace, peace (Upeksha/Equanimity)
(- VājasaneyaSaṁhitā of Sukla Yajurveda)
Pratipaksha Bhavana: Since one may have negative thoughts about specific people, the cultivation of maitri and related feelings are supported by another process of ‘pratipaksha bhavana’. Here, one is supposed to replace negative thoughts about others (e.g., anger) with its opposite (e.g., goodwill).
As per Patanjali, “When the mind is disturbed by improper thoughts constant pondering over the opposites, is the remedy” (PYS 2.33, Taimni 1961).
Interconnection: As mentioned by Sri Aurobindo, Mitra is “Often invoked in company of Varuna, since Mitra cannot fulfil his harmony, except in the wideness and purity of Varuna”. Therefore, Maitri as a practice is closely related to a sense of wideness and interconnection with others along with inherent oneness (Tat TvamAsi).
Ishopanishad mentions ‘He who sees all beings in his own self, and sees his own self in all beings. He does not hate anyone thereafter’. One may start with one’s current stage with ‘dharana’ on this idea itself. As Yogi Philosopher Sri Aurobindo says (Aurobindo, 1986, Commentaries on Isha Upanishad: Part One, pg 35-36), “Although in the initial stages, one needs to understand and sympathize with others, widen one’s love, compassion or fellow-feeling for others and work for others. As one experiences self-realization, they directly perceive essential oneness in multiple forms of the universe.”
Yama: The God Mitra dislikes violence, and Chandogya Upanishad associates maitri with ahimsa. In Patanjali Yoga Sutras, ahimsa is one of the foundational yama elaborated as not wanting harm for anyone, in actions, speech or thoughts. Yamas are five other-directed practices (PYS, 2.30-2.31, Taimni, 1961), of ahimsa/non-violence, Satya/truthfulness, asteya/non-stealing, aparigraha/non-coveting and brahmacharya/continence. These yamas, harmonizing our outer life, help us live a dharmic life, and become maha-vrata when practised consistently, leading to perfections (siddhis, PYS 2.35-2.39).
In the last decade, empirical studies have expanded, although primarily including compassion and loving-kindness (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008) and from a buddhist perspective. Loving-kindness meditation seems to decrease anhedonia, asociality and avolition, depression and PTSD symptoms and has been found to increase positive emotions, hope, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, satisfaction with life, psychological recovery, self-compassion and mindfulness (Johnson, et al., 2011; Kearney et al., 2013). Compassion-focused work decreases self-criticism and shame, anxiety, depression, self-criticism, OCD, interpersonal sensitivity, psychoticism and paranoia, and improves social cognition and empathy (Gilbert & Procter, 2006; Mayhew & Gilbert, 2008; Mascaro, Rilling, Negi & Raison, 2013). Appreciative Joy improves positive, pro-social, other-focused emotions, satisfaction with life and decreased jealousy and other negative emotions. Later, Zeng and his colleagues (Zeng, Chan, Liu, Oei, & Leung, 2017; Zeng, Wang, Oei, & Leung, 2019). Equanimity seems to increase with mindfulness (Hadash, Segev, Tanay, Goldstein, & Bernstein, 2016) but published empirical work focusing predominantly on the cultivation of equanimity is lacking.
Indian studies: In one of our studies, we found that peer-group nomination ratio of wisdom was associated with brahmaviharas and anasakti (Smrithi, 2017). The author has also developed an intervention module on brahmavihara based on Yoga-Vedanta tradition. It was found that it helped decrease psychological distress among caregivers of people with mental illness (Agrawal & Sahota, 2021).
Those diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder often have childhood abuse and neglect, and after that, a life history of hurt in relationships, making psychotherapy comparatively more challenging. While mindfulness-based dialectical behaviour therapy is popularly used, usually leading to good outcomes, it sometimes does not work or leads to remission without full recovery in such clients. Maitri meditation in such clients has been found to lead to ‘an unhurt abiding-place within’ along with ‘happy rightness of mind and feeling’, similar to Sri Aurobindo’s description of Vedic God Mitra (Agrawal & Sahota, 2021).
Indian psychology emphasizes first-person research. This practice by the author seems to indicate a somewhat effortful initial journey, but the process becomes easier later, resulting in a kinder and more open state of mind.
In summary, the interpersonal aspects of meditation in Vedic traditions is an important area that needs further attention, both from meditation practitioners and mental health professionals. It may especially be helpful in current times of post-pandemic and resulting burnout in health professionals.
Agrawal, J., & Sahota, P. (2021). Interpersonal Aspects of Mindfulness and Concentrative Meditations. In S. K. (Eds), Clinical Applications of Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Mental Health. IGI Global.
Aronson, H. B. (1996). Love and sympathy in Theravāda Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publication.
Aurobindo, S. (1971). The Secret of the Veda. . Pondicherri, India : Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library.
Aurobindo, S. (1986). Isha Upanishad. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,.
Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 13(6), 353-379.
Hadash, Y., Segev, N., Tanay, G., Goldstein, P., & Bernstein, A. (2016). The decoupling model of equanimity: Theory, measurement, and test in a mindfulness intervention. Mindfulness,, 7(5), 1214-1226.
Harris, I. (2001). Attitudes to nature. Buddhism, 235-256.
Johnson, D. P., Penn, D. L., Fredrickson, B. L., Kring, A. M., Meyer, P. S., Catalino, L. I., & Brantley, M. (2011). A pilot study of loving-kindness meditation for the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research, 129(2-3), 137-140.
Kearney, D. J., Malte, C. A., McManus, C., Martinez, M. E., Felleman, B., & Simpson, T. L. (2013). Loving-kindness meditation for posttraumatic stress disorder: A pilot study. Journal of Traumatic Stress,, 26(4), 426-434.
Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,, 8(1), 48-55.
Mayhew, S. L., & Gilbert, P. (2008). Compassionate mind training with people who hear malevolent voices: A case series report. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 15(2), 113-138.
Rao, K. R., & Paranjpe, A. C. (2016). Psychology in the Indian tradition. New Delhi: Springer.
Smrithi, M. (2017). Association of Kleshas and Brahmaviharas with Psychological Distress and Wisdom among College Going Youth (Unpublishes M.Phil thesis). Bangalore: National Institute of mental health and neurosciences.
Taimni, I. K. (1961). Science of Yoga. England: Quest Books.
Wiltshire, M. G. (2013). Ascetic figures before and in early Buddhism: The emergence of Gautama as the Buddha (Vol. 30). New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Woods, J. H. (1914). The Yoga-System of Patañjali … Called Yoga-Sutras, or Patañjali and … Yoga-Bhashya, Attributed to Veda-Vyasa and the Explanation, Called Tattva-Vaiçaradi, of Vachaspati-Miçra (Vol. 17). Boston: Harvard University Press.
Zeng, X., Chan, V. Y., Liu, X., Oei, T. P., & Leung, F. Y. (2017). The four immeasurables meditations: Differential effects of appreciative joy and compassion meditations on emotions. Mindfulness,, 8(4), 949-959.
Feature Image Credits: istockphoto.com
Watch video presentation of the above paper here:
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.