The Four Immeasurables by Scott Probst

1″Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.
Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.
Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success.
Practice non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is because that is. Myself and others are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase after another.
I call these the four immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others.”[1]

The Four Immeasurables

The four immeasurables are one of the most profound and useful of Buddhist ideas. It may seem a little odd to describe some parts of the Dharma as “useful”, however what I mean by this is that the Four Immeasurables are some ways of thinking that can be applied to one’s self in very practical ways, not simply providing abstract food for thought or a logic puzzle to be wrestled with.

Loving kindness:

First, we take loving kindness. We remind ourselves that all being want fundamentally to be happy, and we generate the wish that this will happen. Of course, there are many stages to achieving the universal heartfelt wish for all being to be happy, but simply to stop and remind ourselves that any given person is simply acting in order to find happiness is a very practical way to work with our own negative feeling about others. This can make us puzzle over another person’s actions rather than react with anger or hatred, which is certainly a great improvement. It may even cause us to puzzle over our own reaction to their actions, which is an even greater improvement. This helps us not to lapse into selfish, attached love, where we act to help others only when we receive something in return.


Having stopped to consider that all others are trying to make themselves happy, we begin to generate the wish that they are free from their suffering. We might begin by feeling sorry for them in their struggle to be happy, but we try to avoid the trap of pitying them. Instead we begin to naturally develop an urgent, personal sense of wanting to help others. This gradually extends itself to all others through consistent, conscious application of loving kindness and turning ourselves to consider how wonderful it would be for others to be free of their suffering.


Once we begin to develop the heartfelt wish that others be free from suffering, rather than a cynical or affected ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ attitude, it becomes natural to feel joy as they refine their own suffering into true happiness, and develop positive qualities of mind. The reality of our compassion may be measurable by how much we are affected by jealousy rather than joy, and it is important to stay grounded rather than fall into unreasoning positivity, or getting ‘blissed out’. But as we continue to develop our loving kindness and compassion, it becomes easier and more spontaneous to feel joy at others’ spiritual achievements, and to extend this joy to all others rather than only those we know and like.


Having developed our capacity to love other, feel compassion for them and experience joy at their progress, we begin to be able to see all others as equals, with none better or worse in relation to ourselves or regards as greater or lessor beings due to our relationship with them. We are less affected by our clinging, revulsion or indifference towards different people. One pitfall to avoid here is that of lapsing into

‘detachment’ or a kind of hip indifference, rather than equanimity, which is a profoundly sensitive and heartfelt outlook towards others.

Of course, “Immeasurable” means that these mental approaches need to become very subtle and flawless, extended towards all beings, known or unknown, before they are Immeasurable. Until then they are attitudes we are trying to cultivate on a daily basis, bringing to bear such skills as the single pointed concentration and insight we have developed to aid us in these efforts.

A personal perspective

Whenever I read descriptions of the Four Immeasurables, I have a feeling that I am somehow dealing with the Four Noble Truths, but in a different form. The Four Noble Truths are broad, all-encompassing observations that can be taken philosophically and discussed in the abstract. The Four Immeasurables however are much more personal, even though the seem to me to be organised in the same kind of logical progression as the Four Noble Truths, from realising other’s motivation, to wishing for their success, celebrating their good qualities, to regarding all others as the same as ourselves. This is how I have interpreted them here, and I hope that the flaws in my thinking have not obscured the value of these teachings for you, the reader.

They are steps we can all take to work with our mind to change the way that we perceive and react to things, which is the practice, rather than the philosophy, or Buddhism.

Compiled by Scott Probst

[1] From ‘Old Path White Clouds’, Thich Nhat Hahn, quoted on, 26.1.11.