July 8, 2013
Finally we come to the seventh and last of the Factors of Awakening, the fitting culmination and crown jewel, Equanimity, Upekkha in Pali. Equanimity is the balanced spacious stillness of mind that easily accommodates everything that naturally arises as it happens. As Mindfulness is the foundation and the first of the factors, Equanimity is the capstone which keeps all of the previous factors in balance.
Nyanaponika Thera, the 20th century German scholar and Theravadin Buddhist monk describes equanimity as “a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight.” A perfectly balanced and unshakable mind may seem like a lofty goal, perhaps even unattainable in the busyness of our daily lives. But in our lay lives and cultural context, developing an accommodating, balanced and non-contentious mind is both possible and realistic. And it takes perseverance, patience and practice.
I think of equanimity as the quality of spacious even-mindedness that allows me to experience whatever occurs with soft, 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. Sylvia Boorstein has a simple, yet poignant way of addressing the struggling mind. She says, “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I’ve got.” This is the expression of a balanced mind. When I respond wisely and appropriately rather than react impulsively, I’m more likely to get a better outcome and be at ease. This is how I think of Equanimity, the capacity to make room for it all, to say “this, too.”
In Buddhist practice, the natural and endlessly changing conditions of our lives are known of as “The Eight Worldly Winds.” They include:
· Pleasure & Pain
· Loss & Gain
· Praise & Blame
· Fame & Shame
Our natural inclination is to pursue and be drawn to pleasure, gain, praise and fame, just as strongly as we try to avoid and push away pain, loss, blame and shame. They are the natural and normally recurring components of our lives. When we pay attention, it is easy to see that we all experience all of these “winds” continually. The key is how we respond. Do we get blown around unable to gain a foothold? Or do we have the capacity to see these conditions for what they are as they occur and work with them in a balanced patient manner?
With equanimity we develop the resilience, skill and wisdom to ride the winds and calm the vicissitudes of our lives with greater ease and acceptance. One of my favorite teachings comes from Ajahn Sumedho, a well-known contemporary Theravadin monk. He encourages us to see things as they are, rather than how we wish them to be. “Right now, it’s like this.” In recognizing how it is, we become familiar with the varying shades of joy, anger, fear, love, sorrow, delight, sadness, grief, happiness, etc. It is through this familiarity that we learn to accommodate it all; soft, wise and resilient.
“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the midst of it all.”
Here we are at the end of this exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, each a vital link in the chain that creates the whole. To conclude: stable and continuous mindfulnessleads to investigation and discerning wisdom. This stirs up the energy and effort that leads to rapture and joy, which in turn open the door to calm and tranquility. Meditation practice is then deliberately directed towards nurturing this calm through quieting the mind and body, the fertile soil necessary for concentration to grow and develop. Finally, out of a steady and concentrated mind equanimity arises, evolves, and becomes an ever present established state of mind. Developing these factors offers a path to awakening; living a balanced, kind, and skillful life.