During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and exploring them with you because they have great relevance for our world today. We’ve already looked at compassion. The next one I want to talk about is equanimity. Equanimity – what’s that?
The dictionary says equanimity is “calmness, composure” from the Latin word for even-tempered. Buddhists say it is upeksha, a Sanskrit word that means non-attachment, non-discrimination, letting go. Non-attachment here does not mean indifference; it does not mean emotionless; it does not mean anything goes. True equanimity is neither cold, indifferent, nor mindless. In Sanskrit “Upa means over and iksh means to look. You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not just one side or the other.” You can make better judgements when you can see what’s on both sides of the mountain; you become more powerful because you see and understand more. You become more peaceful. I’d like to suggest that equanimity comes from a deep place within. Equanimity is what gives rise to calmness and composure. Equanimity allows one to let go of attachment. It is a steadiness composed of strength, balance, fearlessness and a wide view.
Balance: Equanimity, steadiness, is something I want to cultivate more of. One autumn I watched a swift moving stream and I saw how the water turned to churning foam whenever it encountered rocks. Hanging out over the banks was a slim tree, leaves yellow in the autumn air. A wind came by and blew some of the leaves off their branches and they fluttered gracefully down into the water, where they were snatched up in the tumble. I watched the leaves go under. And after a while I would see them re-surface and float. I wrote this poem about it.
Leaves detach and drop
and land in foaming water
which enfolds them, then
submerges them in rough love.
Look, on the surface, the leaf.
That process, to me, is the balance of equanimity. You go along and then suddenly something changes and it affects you, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, and you’re in what feels like a whirlwind. You’re pulled under by forces that are stronger than you are. You seem not in control. And then, somehow, you resurface, like the leaf, and float. Equanimity.
And then we have to do it all over again because things are always changing. We are always called to respond to something new and different, often before we’re fully prepared to do so. We long for peace and quiet. Maybe we’d like to hang out on that branch, safe and sound, for the rest of our lives. But autumn comes and we fall off. That’s the nature of life. If we’re going to survive and maybe even thrive after those falls, we need to cultivate equanimity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
There’s a move in contra dancing called balancing. You hold your partner’s hand, face him/her, take one step toward each other and one step back. It’s a static step because it goes no where and requires another move to get the dance along. Balance, per se, is static. We don’t, we can’t, stay in a perpetual state of balance because our world is always moving. When gymnasts work a balance beam they don’t get on it and then stand still, in perfect balance. No, they keep moving, challenging the balance, losing it and re-finding it over and over. We live on a balance beam. We have to go forward or backward on it, and by the very act of moving, we are challenged to upset and re-find our balance. The very act of re-finding our balance prompts us to move again. To re-define our purpose, to create further meaning. Balance and imbalance work together.
Balance is about making a fresh start, over and over again. We’re in balance, life throws us a curve, we fall out of balance, we find a new balance. A critical time is when we have fallen out of balance but not yet found our new balance point. When we’re at a stone wall and haven’t yet found the way over, or through, or under, or around. When we’re out of balance and frozen there. When have you been frozen – unable to move forward or backward? When have you felt as if you had a brick wall in front of you that you could not penetrate? In a work situation? A personal relationship? In the face of your own creativity? In the midst of important life changes? How did you find a way to go on? Where was your new balance point?
Equanimity is being able to get through the times of imbalance with enough trust and confidence to know that another time of balance will emerge. It takes courage to be present to our imbalances and climb back onto the beam when we’ve fallen off it.
Courage: Creating a new balance in order to know equanimity requires us to push at the edges of our fear. We’re human and we feel afraid sometimes. This is befuddling, but it’s okay. Mark Twain said that “Courage is mastery of fear; not absence of fear.” Meeting and greeting our fears often provides a look at our interiors. “Our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if we explore them.” (Marilyn Ferguson)
I was talking to my supervisor the other day about my fear of needles, especially of IV’s and drawing blood and the like. She asked me how I manage at the dentist. Surprisingly, I do okay at the dentist, at least in terms of fear. I kind of trust the dentist. She asked me what that was about. As I thought about it, I realized what scares me is having people doing things to my body that hurt when I have no control over what they are doing. I mind the dentist less because I can see what she/he is doing and somehow that feels a little more in control. I realized that I have a fear of helplessness in the face of physical pain. It’s less a fear of needles themselves than what they represent. That’s how our fears give us information about ourselves. When we understand the root of the fear, a way to mitigate it often appears. If I’m afraid of pain and helplessness, would it serve me to find ways not to feel so helpless? It would. It does. I find that my fear lessens if I control my breathing, make it slow and steady. If I’m really afraid I’ll breathe through my mouth and count my breaths, up to ten, and then start over again. I breathe my way through the imbalanced place that pain and fear send me and I come out the other side, in a different state of balance. I push at my fear and breathe my way to at least a bit of equanimity.
Equanimity is about cultivating fearlessness. Part of that requires us to find our creativity, find our courage by trusting that we have the resources to unfreeze ourselves. Paralysis by fear is a sign of scarcity mind. Here I am and I can’t do anything. I’m not smart enough, strong enough to get out of this. I’m powerless and without any choices. Cultivating fearlessness is a sign of abundant mind. I am enough. I can do this. I know where to get help. I know how to help myself. I have choices and my choices empower me. I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela these days. He is, for me, an example of equanimity. How did he take care of himself for twenty seven years in prison and come out reconciled to his captors? How did he let go of his rage, his fear? His presence of equanimity and his choice of forgiveness went a long way to avoiding a blood bath in South Africa when apartheid ended. Courage, balance, wisdom. Equanimity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.” Why be open to what we’re afraid of? Because accessing our courage gives us strength and power. Because you never know what situations you will be called upon to walk into. And personally, I want to be of use, if at all possible, in any situation I’m in. To do that I need to take care of my fears and I need to know how to regain my balance in order to move forward with equanimity.
Wisdom: This is when the quality of equanimity that is non-attachment and letting go comes in. To a certain extent we let go of our fear and our need for things to turn out a certain way as we find the new balance that allows us to regain our movement . This is when our equanimity guides us up the mountain in order to see over the whole valley. Equanimity is a radical non-attachment, a big, wide open to see what’s there with as few pre-conceived notions as we can manage. It’s also called thinking outside the box. That way we can be surprised. We can be creative. We can use imagination. We can see, really see. We can understand, really understand, what’s going on. In order to gain the wisdom of a new perspective, we need to let go of the idea that our way is the best way, or the only way, even when we really, really think it is. Even we fear what will happen if we don’t get our way. We need to trust that other people have wisdom and understanding. As we see a bigger picture we can question whether there is only one possible, correct answer, one possible, correct action, all the time. Will the world come to an end if things don’t go our way? Sometimes we fear that it will.
Equanimity is a letting go of attachment to our own ideas. It is a letting go of attachment to things unfolding the way we think they should, or wish they would. Equanimity is seeing a bigger and broader picture because seeing a bigger and broader picture will lead to a better outcome. Because the bigger and broader picture will allow us to see more of the parts, more of the possible consequences, more of the varying needs and wants, more of the factors at play. Oh, we want what we want, yes we do, of course we do. But it’s helpful to remember that the world is bigger than us and it doesn’t revolve around us and it probably wouldn’t be too cool if it did. We learn that, while on one level we take things personally, on another level they aren’t really personal at all. Equanimity is cultivating wisdom. Standing on the top of the mountain we see how everything is connected more readily than we see the separations.
To put ourselves on the path of equanimity is to take a certain approach to living. It’s an inter-connected approach, that wants to glean the wisdom of the big picture. It’s a steadiness that results from a confidence in our ability to find our balance again when we have lost it. Not for the sake of balance itself but for the sake of moving out of the state of being frozen, or stuck in imbalance. It’s a courage that arises from a mind of abundance and enables us to make choices even when the way forward is unclear. Equanimity shows itself as outward calmness and composure, but it is an ongoing process of letting go, of doing somersaults on the balance beam and either landing on our feet on the beam, or falling off and getting back on again. In either case we prepare for the next moves.
May we do so with a sense of strength. May we do so with a sense of trust in our own abilities, as well as an empowering sense of humility about those abilities. Life offers us both darkness and light. May we ever meet them with equanimity. May it be so.