Maintaining a steady footing, no matter what
Over the last few weeks, we've been looking at the heart-opening practices of early Buddhism commonly known as the Brahmaviharas - previous articles have addressed loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy, so check those out if you aren't familiar with them.
This week, it's the turn of equanimity - the fourth and final practice, and one of the less well known. (Loving kindness and compassion get almost all the attention, and when equanimity does show up it's often in a different context, so there probably aren't many people who have deliberately engaged equanimity as a Brahmavihara.)
So, first things first - what is it?
A stable footing
The Pali term upekkha (Sanskrit: upeksha) is most commonly translated as 'equanimity', although sometimes you also see 'equipoise', 'non-attachment' or 'even-mindedness'. My Zen teacher prefers 'unshakeable peace', which I like very much, although it does tend to make the quality sound rather intimidating and unattainable! I'll stick to equanimity for the purposes of this article, because it's the most commonly used term.
On the simplest level, equanimity is about keeping your balance - not being swept away by thoughts or emotions, lost in reactivity or suffering. We probably all know someone who manages to keep their cool even in difficult circumstances - that's the kind of quality we're shooting for here. Another way of putting it is that we're immune to the Eight Worldly Winds, which I've written about previously - check out that article for a fun story about someone losing their cool in dramatic fashion!
Traditionally, equanimity's 'far enemies' are greed and hatred, i.e. exactly those qualities which cause us to get hot under the collar. More generally, we might think of any kind of extreme emotional volatility or instability as a far enemy to equanimity. If we routinely explode when the slightest thing goes wrong, our lives will be unpleasantly intense and chaotic, and that isn't good for us either psychologically or physiologically.
While the far enemies are easily identified and distinguished, the near enemy is a bit more complicated. The fact is that early Buddhism, and especially the Theravada tradition that developed out of it, are strongly renunciate. The ancient Indian world view was that we are endlessly reborn into an existence of suffering and misery, and the only way out is to arrange for ourselves to stop being reborn. If we can totally purify ourselves with equanimity and become totally devoid of attraction or aversion for anything in the material world, then we will at least live out the rest of our lives in relative peace, although even then we can't escape the aches and pains of having a physical body, or the negative karmic consequences of our prior actions. But it's the best we can do (so the teachings go), and once we finally die we'll be off the wheel of rebirth for good.
Now, I can't speak for you, but I don't tend to see the world in those terms. I don't know what happens after we die, but I want to use my time here productively, and engage with the people around me, ideally in a beneficial way. As such, I tend to regard any presentation of equanimity which seems to imply a turning away from the world as not much use to me. The Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is a better fit for that kind of aspiration, especially when paired with the much more life-affirming view of Chinese Buddhism (including the Chan tradition, which Japanese Zen developed out of). Indeed, one of the things I like about Zen is that its traditional 'maps' of spiritual progress tend to end with the practitioner living a completely ordinary life helping the people around them, rather than floating off on a rainbow toward a heavenly realm. Consequently, for the rest of the article, I'll present a Zen-informed view of equanimity, rather than the most traditional variety that you would find in a Theravada text like the Visuddhimagga.
With this in mind, I'll suggest that any practice which appears to be anaesthetising you to your life is not actually helping much in the long run. If you find yourself sitting in a peaceful bubble totally disconnected from everyone around you, indifferent to their suffering because 'that's not my problem', something has gone very wrong in your practice. I'm sure you can find other teachers and texts who would disagree if you search hard enough, but that's my take on it.
Rather than turning away from what's going on, I would instead suggest that a useful definition of equanimity which is both compatible with the other Brahmaviharas and helpful on the Zen path is that quality of emotional stability that allows us to turn toward what's going on, and take a stand right in the thick of it, without being overwhelmed. It's the quality of inner peace that provides just enough space for us to hold our difficult experiences without falling into reactivity. It doesn't mean that we shut down our emotions and become blank, soulless robots, but rather it gives us the capacity to experience those emotions fully without being ruled by them. In a nutshell, it isn't 'I don't care, I'm fine'; it's 'this may be uncomfortable, but that's OK, I can handle it'.
This kind of equanimity is a powerful support to the other three Brahmaviharas. If we aren't careful, our earnest wish for someone to be happy may manifest as interfering ('helping') in their lives where we aren't wanted, or overly empathising with someone's suffering to the point that we become burnt out. So a key part of the practice is not simply wishing that both we and others can experience peace, but also consciously taking a step back from the potential entanglements of our relationships and seeing people and situations exactly as they are, rather than as we might like them to be.
So let's see how we do this!
If you've been following the last few articles, it won't be a surprise to hear that we're going to work again with a sequence of people, generating equanimity toward them one after another, gradually working up to the point that our equanimity is equally potent in all directions, rather than easier for some people than others.
The major difference this time is that, whereas the others have a kind of 'reaching out' quality to them, equanimity is more inwardly focused. You might think that we would be using phrases like 'may you be at peace', but we already have another practice that covers wishing someone well (loving kindness). Instead, equanimity practice is about finding ways to be with people and situations exactly as they are, finding a source of peace within ourselves that we can rest in no matter what else comes and goes.
With this in mind, we actually start this one with a neutral person, the theory being that if we don't know someone terribly well or don't have strong opinions about them, it's probably relatively easy for us to see them in a neutral way, unclouded by thoughts of how much easier their lives would be if they would just change that one annoying habit they have. Then, from the neutral person, we go to ourselves, and then to a friend, then a teacher/mentor/very dear friend/'boon companion', and finally to a negative or hostile person. And, as before, we practise until we can experience the same level of equanimity towards all types of people, 'breaking down the boundaries' in the traditional language. You can do these one at a time, or use the practice I suggested last week to work with them all at the same time.
If you like to work with visualisation, one option is to see the person as if from a distance, going about their business without your interference, getting used to seeing them as they are without feeling the need to jump in and help (or hinder!) them. Another option is to see the person resting, at peace, perhaps with a calm, unfurrowed brow.
If you prefer the phrases, here are some suggestions (gathered from a variety of modern teachers, since the classic texts don't offer any suggestions!):
As an aside, those of you who are familiar with the Zen practice of Silent Illumination/shikantaza, or with modern mindfulness techniques which emphasise being with experience without trying to change it, may notice a strong similarity here in the attitude of the practice, if not the specifics. That's no accident! It may be encouraging to know that, even if the specific Brahmavihara practices I've presented in these last few articles aren't quite to your taste, there are other ways to connect with equanimity - and indeed with the others as well.
Four facets of one jewel
We're arriving at the end of our journey through the Brahmaviharas, and in closing, I'd like to say a little about how these practices fit together. At first sight, maybe they seem like an odd grouping, particularly now that we have equanimity in the mix. But most people who've spent a decent amount of time working with these practices tend to agree that all four qualities are deeply connected.
The foundation of each of these practices is the experience of an open heart. We tend to live our lives with our shields up, uncomfortably conscious that the people around us can say and do hurtful things, sometimes deliberately, often unintentionally, and so to avoid pain it's better to protect ourselves by closing down, either a little or a lot. When we start trying to generate loving kindness or compassion, we rapidly find that it can be extremely difficult to open ourselves towards certain people (including ourselves) in that way - all of our emotional muscle memory is pointing in the opposite direction. So the first challenge is simply to get the practice to work at all.
Over time, we learn to open ourselves to others, at least within the safe container of a meditation practice. Many people find that one practice in particular provides a 'way in', and then the others start to come online subsequently. This can sometimes be a little confusing if (for example) you've tried the traditional compassion practice without success, but after getting really into mudita practice you find yourself having a strong instinctive response to suffering as well - if you're only really familiar with one of the Brahmaviharas at that point, you might find yourself wondering what's going on. 'It feels like mudita, but it was suffering! That's weird.'
What we're discovering in that moment is really the experience of an open heart. That one experience underlies all four Brahmaviharas, whether we use their names or not. When our heart is open, we naturally look upon those around us with kindness, we are naturally moved to help those who are suffering, we naturally notice and celebrate the wholesome joys of others, and we discover a capacity within ourselves to withstand just about anything life throws at us without losing our footing. In the long run, this open-hearted quality becomes a profound resource in every aspect of our lives.
I hope these articles have been helpful - I'm planning to put on a four-week course sometime in the new year so that a group of us can dive deep into the practices, and you'd be very welcome to join us. Details will go up on my Teaching page when the course is confirmed, but you could also sign up to my (very low-traffic!) mailing list if you'd like to be notified when it's ready.
Thank you for your practice, and may all beings everywhere be at peace.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!