I care for you, but I cannot guarantee your happiness
This week we're continuing our series of articles on heart-opening practices ('Brahmaviharas') by taking another look at equanimity, a quality which is vitally important and yet easily misunderstood. Along the way, we'll take a look at how these heart-opening practices actually make a real difference in our lives, both for ourselves and for others.
So let's get into it!
What the heck is equanimity, and how does it fit with the other heart-opening practices?
I've previously written about equanimity in some detail, so for today's purposes I'll keep things brief - do check out that previous article if you want a deeper dive.
In short, equanimity is the quality of emotional stability - balance, peace of mind. In modern terms, we might say that someone who is equanimous doesn't get 'triggered'.
At first sight, this is perhaps a bit of a strange quality to find in the category of 'heart-opening practices'. We may find it easier to see how cultivating qualities like love, compassion and appreciation can open the heart, but equanimity? Maybe equanimity even sounds like the opposite of those things - an absence of emotion. If we see it this way, we might find equanimity not particularly appealing - who wants to live an emotionless, robotic life, without joy or laughter?
Actually, though, this is a critical misunderstanding of equanimity. What we find when we do the practice is actually the opposite - that equanimity allows us to experience our emotions more deeply, not less.
Equanimity as a stable foundation for a rich emotional life
In some of our recent articles, we've looked at practices like the cultivation of loving kindness ('may you be happy'), compassion ('may you be free from suffering') and appreciative joy ('may your good fortune continue'). These are beautiful qualities when we truly connect with them - but they also have a lurking shadow. I've talked about some of the more obvious manifestations of heart-opening practices going slightly off-piste before - loving kindness can turn into a sickly sweet, ostentatious 'kindness', compassion can turn into pity, and appreciative joy can become insincere or a way to gain an advantage through praise and flattery.
A subtler issue, though, is when we start trying to use the practice as a way of saying 'This is how things should be.' This can show up as a kind of 'corrective' version of the practice - so we send 'loving kindness' to someone who cuts us up on the road by saying 'May you learn to drive!' It's phrased a little like a Brahmavihara meditation, but in practice it's more of a passive-aggressive way of saying 'Your driving sucks!' Or maybe you find yourself wishing 'May you be free from suffering... and stop hanging out with that no-good partner of yours, they're a bad influence!' The implication here is that we know best, and if the universe would only bend to our will, everything would be better.
Equanimity stands in contrast to this 'Can we fix it? Yes we can!' attitude of the mind. In equanimity practice, we attempt to take the stance that everything is fine just the way it is - that nothing needs to be changed, or improved, or fixed. No matter what arises, we choose not to act on any impulse that arises, no matter how obvious it is to us that the situation would be better if only xyz would happen. Instead, we simply let it all come and go.
(If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like Silent Illumination practice, you'd be absolutely right! Silent Illumination is indeed one way to cultivate equanimity. The version of equanimity we find the heart-opening practices of early Buddhism is rather different, but we'll get to that later.)
Equanimity, then, actually helps us to connect more directly with the 'pure', no-strings-attached version of the other Brahmavihara qualities. Equanimity allows us to say 'May you be happy!', without tacking '...and you'd be happier if...' onto the end. It allows us to recognise and wish for the relief of someone else's suffering without a subtle judgement of the choices they may have made which landed them in that situation. And it allows us to recognise and celebrate others' good fortune without secretly wondering why they get it so good when we don't have such nice things happening to us.
More generally, equanimity allows everything to be just the way it is - and that includes the full range of our other emotions too. For all sorts of reasons, there may be emotions that we won't allow ourselves to feel. Perhaps you were told off as a child for 'getting too excited' when something good happened - and since then you've been careful never to let yourself feel too much happiness all at once. Or perhaps you were punished for getting angry when things didn't go your way, and so now you bury your anger deep in your heart, never allowing it to be felt directly, instead leaking out in unexpected moments of resentment or bitterness.
Taking the brakes off our emotions can be a pretty scary thing to do. After all, we locked them down in the first place for good reasons! But in the context of a meditation session with a solid foundation of equanimity, it turns out that we very often can allow ourselves to feel more than we usually do, and gradually reclaim the full breadth and depth of our emotional lives.
Recognising the limits of our influence, and understanding how the Brahmavihara practice actually helps others
I mentioned above that, while Silent Illumination is one way of cultivating equanimity, the practice that we find in the Brahmaviharas of the early Buddhist tradition is quite different - and it may, at first, strike us as rather cold.
The emphasis in the Brahmavihara equanimity practice is on recognising the limits of our own influence. Whereas loving kindness says 'may you be happy', equanimity says 'I care for you, but I cannot guarantee your happiness'. It's an acknowledgement that, while we may wish for people to be happy, fortunate and free from suffering, we can't make that happen. Most of the time we can't even manage it for ourselves, let alone others!
Actually, the phrases I recommend on my Brahmavihara page are pretty mild compared to the contemplation you find in the Visuddhimagga, which offers this: 'Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose, if not theirs, is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?' There's a very strong emphasis here on recognising that other people are autonomous individuals in their own right - while we can wish the best for them, we can't ultimately make their decisions for them, nor should we try to.
It's important to realise that nobody is going to become happy simply because we sit on a cushion and wish that it were so. Meditators coming off retreat often have a rude awakening in this respect - they've just spent a week cultivating boundless love for all beings everywhere, but as soon as they get to the train station to head home, it turns out that all beings everywhere didn't get the memo, and are just as awkward, rude and unruly as they ever were.
That doesn't mean that Brahmavihara practice is a waste of time, however - far from it. Heart-opening practices help in two ways.
First, heart-opening practice benefits the person doing it, in several ways. By cultivating one of these qualities, we tend to move towards more positive, enjoyable mind states - we feel calmer, happier, more joyful. And by doing that over and over, we condition ourselves to feel that way more often. Over time, our default reaction to a minor upset may shift from irritation to self-compassion, for example. As we practise generating kindness, we gradually become kinder people. We also come to see the world differently. Maybe you've noticed that when you're in a rush, obstacles and hold-ups seem to be everywhere - every traffic light turns red, people have chosen today of all days to drive especially slowly, and so on. By comparison, when we're feeling relaxed and peaceful, the world is a much calmer place. If we do meet someone who is giving off a frenetic vibe, we're more likely to experience compassion for them than for their frazzled energy to infect us and get us feeling stressed too. And so, by doing these Brahmavihara practices, we are essentially training ourselves to see the world as kinder, more compassionate, better, than we previously did.
(It's important to say at this point that I'm not describing a kind of brainwashing, or a process of pretending that things are better than they are. We're simply placing a different emphasis on what's going on - highlighting the good points rather than focusing on the bad ones. An understanding of emptiness can really help here, as we learn that there really isn't any one way that things 'really' are, just an infinite variety of ways of looking at what's going on.)
The second benefit of heart-opening practices is in how they affect others. But wait, didn't I already say that doing these practices doesn't help others? Bear with me as I explain.
I tend to believe that the simple act of my wishing that someone else be happy does not automatically make them happier. Maybe it does, but if so, the effect must be pretty small, because I've never noticed it! I don't think that loving kindness practice has a 'spooky action at a distance'-type effect where the universe instantaneously realigns itself just because I want it to. Remember equanimity - part of the point of this practice is to reflect on the limits of our personal power, not to suggest that we can mould the universe however we choose to.
However, as I noted above, doing the practice most certainly does have an effect on me. And that means that, after I've done my loving kindness (or equanimity) practice, I'm in a better place than when I started. Now, I don't live in a cave - I go out into the world, go to work, hang out with my friends, meet people in public places, the whole bit. And when I meet other people, we interact. The way I am in that interaction leaves a bit of an imprint on the other person, and conversely how they are leaves a mark on me. Most of the time it's a very small effect, to be sure. (Although not always!)
So let's say I meet Person A, and I'm in a good mood when I do it - and a little bit of that good mood rubs off on Person A. Person A then goes on to meet Person B - and Person A is now bringing a slightly more positive mood to that interaction than they would have done otherwise, and so maybe a little bit of that rubs off on Person B, and so on. And as we know, it only takes seven people (that's Person G) to reach Kevin Bacon.
To put it another way, my presence in the world sends ripples out in all directions. Those ripples might only go a short distance, or they might travel much further than we expect. For all I know, a chance negative encounter with Person A, insignificant to me, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, kicking off a chain of negativity that ends up touching hundreds of lives, or even more. Each of my actions has an unlimited number of consequences, both seen and unseen, most of which I will probably never know. It could even be the case that the loving kindness practice I did in the morning genuinely does end up having a positive impact on the very person I brought to mind when I was doing it - through a long chain of secondary interactions, slowly working its way through the world until finally arriving at the person in question.
Personally, I think this is a pretty beautiful way to look at the world. Seeing the rich, vast web of interconnections that joins us all together can be a very effective way to step out of those self-centric patterns of thought which are often characteristic of our darker moments, giving us a fresh perspective and some distance from our problems, so that they don't seem so all-consuming. In order to get to the point where we can take that expanded perspective, though, we need to be coming from a fairly stable, grounded place - in other words, we need a basis of equanimity. So whether you're more of a Silent Illumination person, or whether you prefer the Brahmavihara approach, I hope that you find your way to the peaceful quiet stillness of equanimity, and the emotional riches that lie beyond it.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!