Magha Puja, a Buddhist holiday two days after Valentine’s Day, honors the teachings of the Buddha. Although these two celebratory days arise from cultures half a world apart, a common thread is personal sacrifice and love for humanity.
The teachings of Buddhism help keep a love for humanity central to my life’s priorities. As an emergency physician, I must maintain that love within my heart at all costs. If I don’t, I can no longer be a caregiver, and my intentions would be soured by cynicism and spite due to the confines of America’s current medical system that results in undue financial burdens and unequal access to high-quality care. When my work as an emergency physician feels emotionally and physically depleting, Buddhism’s four abodes help me reclaim mental clarity and joy.
In the midst of a destructive pandemic, people in the workforce, and especially health professionals are burned out as they sacrifice their lives for the health of their communities. Buddhism offers a reminder of the greater good and need for civic duty, even in the darkest of times, and the virtues of Buddhism’s four abodes shines a light on the beauty of universal love.
The first virtue, known as Maitri (or Metta), is often termed “loving kindness.” Maitri is the benevolent desire that all living beings are well, happy, and successful regardless of their role in your life. When you feel anger or envy towards a person or situation, this meditation can bring peace.
Karuna, or compassion, is the second virtue. It is the desire to remove harm and great suffering from everyone. This wish should be sent to all, including those who may wish harm upon you or others. We may feel slighted when people treat us rudely or engage in offensive behaviors. However, the Buddha advises one to focus all attention on developing a state of compassion and feel that compassion deep within your core. Being compassionate creates the opportunity to forego revenge and form more meaningful, productive relationships. Compassion also lends more understanding to those who may be suffering.
The third virtue, Mudita, is sympathetic joy. This virtue is practiced when we feel happiness for success that is not our own. Also known as vicarious joy, Mudita is not meant to occur with self-interest related to someone else’s success. The Buddha said that practicing Mudita develops a spring that carries an infinite amount of joy at any moment another person is progressing and happy. Watching an employee achieve a promotion could make coworkers grow angry and dissatisfied at their own perceived stagnation, but Mudita would be the direct antidote for this anger.
Upeksha is the fourth virtue, and is also known as equanimity. This virtue advises us to stay neutral and unwavering when faced with suffering. Equanimity helps to perfect the first three abodes, but does not replace them. During difficult encounters or hard conversations, Upeksha can be a reminder that every person is just one small, finite piece of the universe seeking connections. Conflict may be unavoidable, but it will not be surprising for those with an evenness of spirit. Upeksha removes the sense of self and focuses on shared humanity, a love for all that is needed to rise above compounding crises negatively impacting the well-being of millions of Americans.
Vinoo Dissanayake, MD MPH FACEP, is currently an emergency medicine educator and physician at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and Rush University. She attended University of Southern California for medical school and then trained at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL for her emergency medicine residency. She completed a double fellowship in Global Emergency Medicine and Medical Toxicology, during which she obtained her MPH in Environmental and Occupational Health.