Equanimity is a powerful heart practice, combining lovingkindness, compassion, and joy with wisdom and clear seeing. This post, offered on the cusp of the 2020 election, explores some of the scope of Equanimity.
Clearing - Martha Postelwaite
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it. Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worth of rescue.
Equanimity is one of the four heart practices, called the Brahmaviharas, or Divine Abodes. The others are Lovingkindness (metta in Pali), Compassion (karuna), and Joy for the wellbeing of others (mudita). If compassion is like being in the middle of the forest and caring for each tree, equanimity is like being at the top of the mountain - you get to see the whole landscape clearly and calmly and caring for the whole forest. Equanimity combines our capacity for care, with our capacity for clear seeing.
Each of the heart practices has what are called Far and Near enemies:
The far enemy of equanimity is paranoia – seeing each situation as an opportunity for catastrophizing, for only seeing what is wrong. With paranoia, we see the unpleasant particular and turn it into the big picture. We lose a job and turn it into a lack of self-worth and incapacity to care for myself, that I will be out on the street. Mark Twain writes, “I have lived a long life and seen many terrible things, most of which never happened.”
Equanimity, instead, sees the bigger picture. Equanimity knows that the perspective I take affects what I see and experience. I could, for instance focus on the election and its outcome and its effect on me personally, or I could focus on the societal meaning of the election. Or I could focus on big societal sufferings, war, poverty, abuse. Or I could focus on the interconnectedness of all beings and the earth, on how the very food I eat requires so many people and natural elements to be part or the process. Or I could recognize that this whole Earth is but a speck of dust in the cosmos, with all of human existence but a tiny speck of time in the life of the universe. Or I could realize that this body that I can get so attached to is made of atoms, and is mostly empty space, and that these atoms are the very same atoms that make up all matter, coming originally from stars. Sri Nisargadata says, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing; Love tells me I am everything. Between these two my life flows.” The perspective I take affects my experience, and I get to choose my perspective moment to moment.
Equanimity knows that suffering is written into the life experience. Animals eat other animals. Accidents happen. Greed, hatred, and delusion have been with us forever. As the Clearing poem implies, no one of us has the capacity to alleviate all suffering. Even the great spiritual masters have not alleviated very much suffering. But we can each do our part. And over time, this leads to an evolving experience of kindness, compassion, and letting go.
Equanimity sees that suffering is not all that is here, that there is much beauty and joy in the world as well. Sometimes when I am in despair, such as the beginning of the lockdown, I look at the trees and the birds and animals living their lives as if nothing were wrong. There is so much more going on here than what is wrong.
Equanimity sees that all experience is constantly changing; that what we like will disappear, but also what we don’t like will disappear – in everything we don’t like lays the seeds of a new Spring. Out of the devastation of a forest fire lies the potential for new life.
Equanimity knows that if I attach my identity to things being a certain way, to having certain things and experiences in my life, that I will suffer. What we have, even these bodies, these lives, is subject to change. When we shift our identity from what we have in the world to what we do in this world, cultivating our character, then nothing can take that away from us.
Equanimity sees that everything that is, every being, every condition, is a function of universal causes and conditions, that everything that is, even what we don’t like, is an expression of the divine. How can it be otherwise?
Equanimity sees that everything and everyone is interconnected. What I do affects all beings everywhere. We are all in this together, in this grand experiment.
Equanimity recognizes that my personal capacity to affect change and to alleviate suffering is limited. It knows that each being has their own path, their own journey. I cannot live the journey for another. I can walk with them. I can perhaps offer guidance and influence. I can love them. But my own sense of peace lies in recognizing that their journey is their own.
Equanimity knows that suppressed emotion impedes my capacity for equanimity. When reactivity arises, fear, grief, anger, these emotional experiences need to be acknowledged, felt, attended to. As they release, a sense of equanimity and an experience of greater wisdom can arise.
Equanimity is akin to our witness self. Even in the midst of strong emotion or pain, there can be a part of ourselves that witnesses our experience, and that witness is not experiencing emotion or pain.
There is a story of a subsistence farmer that illustrates our capacity for equanimity. In the story, the farmer saves enough money to buy a horse to help with the plowing of the field. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky you are.” The farmer replied, “Lucky, unlucky, who knows.”
Then one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came and said, “How unlucky you are.” The farmer replied, “Lucky, unlucky, who knows.”
The next day, the horse returned with another wild horse. Now the farmer had two horses. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky you are.” The farmer replied, “Lucky, unlucky, who knows.”
Soon thereafter, the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to tame the wild horse. Now the farmer had no one to help him with the work. The neighbors came and said, “How unlucky you are.” The farmer replied, “Lucky, unlucky, who knows.”
Then the army came through the town and took all the able-bodied young men, but not the son of the farmer because of the broken leg. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky you are.” The farmer replied, “Lucky, unlucky, who knows.”
The Near Enemy of Equanimity is Indifference.
It is to think, all that is happening in the world, I am above all of that, I am more spiritual or evolved or equanimous. Many of us may run to meditation as a way of moving beyond worldly experience. This practice would be a spiritual bypass because it suppresses our humanity, our innate capacity to care. This bypassing is essentially suppressing fear of experiencing the pain of suffering. We fear to be in the presence of suffering, but rather than work through that fear and find a way to hold the suffering with compassion, we escape through indifference.
Equanimity is considered one of the heart practices, one of the divine abodes. There is a Tibetan story of the Buddha that after his enlightenment, he contemplated the suffering of all beings. From this contemplation, he shed a single tear. When that tear touched the earth, out sprung the (deva) Tara, who holds the world in compassion. The Buddha could have stayed indifferent to the world, just enjoying the experience of Nibbana, but instead, his care drove him to teach for 45 years. Our sense of liberation depends on our capacity to feel the suffering of the world (and our own suffering) and to care for it.
Playing PingPong With Dad - Ken Slaughter
You never once hit a slam at me – just quietly returned everything.
I would stay out late while you stayed awake waiting for the sound of my car door closing - so little did I know.
On one of those nights that car got stolen. There was no one to call for help – but you. You could have brought a sermon for the ride home – but you didn’t.
In the sixties I longed to be a soldier in the Radical Revolution just like my smarter-than-you friends.
One day, I laid my principles on the line at a local high school near Notre Dame to protest an outrage I read about in a flyer and got arrested.
You wanted to talk to me.
The hammer was coming now. I was ready, armed with catch phrases, all in a crouch, alert for the lecture which never came.
“When you are out of school, son, you can save the world, if you want. For now, while I am supporting you, I would appreciate it a lot if you would stay out of jail.”
An unhittable shot and you knew it.
Your next offering had a legal spin - No stain of my sin would appear on any record or be an issue in any job interview, ever.
In your old age now, you laugh a lot, and repeat things: “Happiness is the sound of a car door closing at three o’clock in the morning.”
Game. Set. Match.
You can sense the equanimity of the father. There is care, but it is a care that sees the big picture. The father wants the son to grow, to become independent, and he knows that his son needs to make mistakes. So rather than focusing on each mistake or flaw, the father sets guardrails, boundaries to keep the son safe as he explores who he is in the world. Care with a wise view.
T. S. Eliot writes, “Teach us to care, and not to care.” This statement is the heart of the experience of equanimity.
Choose a situation that concerns you, that you are worried about.
Notice the feelings of worry and stay with them. Breathe through them.
Imagine you can move far outside your own body and look at the situation from afar, perhaps from the top of a mountain, or from a time many years from now.
As you hold the experience in care, what larger picture do you realize. Perhaps a recognition of much more going on than you had been focusing on. Perhaps an awareness of the constant change of phenomena. Perhaps a recognition that each person is on their own journey. Perhaps a recognition of the continual flow of impersonal life currents. Perhaps a recognition of the seeds of benefit lying in the midst of the challenge.
Sense what effect this new perspective has. Can you experience a sense of caring and not caring at the same time?
Notice what this experience is like.