February 17, 2014
Out of the soil of metta
Grows the bloom of compassion,
To be watered by tears of joy
Under the cool shade of equanimity
– Longchenpa, 14thC Tibetan Master
Finally we come to the last of the Brahma-Viharas, equanimity, upekkhain Pali. Even though equanimity is classically taught as the natural summation of loving kindness, compassion, and appreciative joy, it actually functions as a continuous balancing current, an opposable thumb. And even though we can focus on developing metta, developing compassion and joy, none of them really exist in isolation.
Try it out sometime. Can you really wish goodwill to someone without the thread of compassion? Can you really feel the joy in appreciating someone else’s success without the support of goodwill and kindness? Can you feel compassion without kindness? It doesn’t really work. With equanimity as the through line, the brahma-viharas are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. They function as an integrated whole.
“When you feel bad, let it be your link to others’ suffering. When you feel good, let it be your link with others’ joy.”
Just like loving kindness, compassion and appreciative joy, equanimity has its “near enemy” or subtle opposite, and in this case it’s indifference. We might think we’re balancing and navigating the big and small storms of our lives with, but if we do it by looking the other way, erecting impenetrable walls, cutting ourselves off from our own hearts, ignoring our direct experience, we actually create denial and indifference, not equanimity. Our exterior may appear calm and balanced, but our interior is working hard to protect ourselves from difficulty and pain.
I like to think of equanimity as the balanced spacious stillness of mind that easily accommodates everything that naturally arises as it happens, a relaxed even-mindedness that allows me to experience whatever occurs with soft, curious, wise resilience. If I can soften my edges, there’s nothing too sharp to bump up against. Painful experiences don’t sting as much or for as long, and it’s easier to come down from and let go of even the most wonderful, exciting and joyous events. Softening allows me to release the grip of grasping and craving, and not push so hard against adversity.
Here is a practice for exploring and cultivating equanimity. It can be used anywhere, either in formal meditation practice or standing in what you thought was going to be the fastest line at the grocery store. I’ve adapted it from James Baraz’ book Awakening Joy.
Settle in and take a few comfortable mindful breaths. Let your awareness move slowly through your body arriving, settling, softening and breathing. Silently say to yourself:
May I have balance and equanimity in this moment
May I be centered in this moment
Imagine what being balanced and centered feel like, drop into that. Try to allow any thoughts or emotions that arise to just be there, without needing to grasp onto or push them away. Repeat the phrases as long as you like and see if you can gently relax into equanimity.