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Equanimity and the Happy Heart

Equanimity is not indifference 

This week we reach the last of the four divine abiding meditations: Equanimity. This is the hardest one for me to write about, for as my friends will tell you I do not rest in perfect equanimity all the time! This meditation is more of a wisdom meditation and has a reflective quality. It is less about making a specific wish for another and is more an acknowledgement that as much as we want ourselves or others to be happy, or other’s happiness to deepen and continue and to feel for others in their pain, all of these experiences are arising as part of a flow of life: they come into existence, last for a period of time and will pass away again.

When we start to get trapped in feeling that our life is not how we would like it to be, to connect with this sense of equanimity it can be useful to reflect that “this is part of life, it too will change….. but until it does I am willing to be with it as it is.” This attitude is expressed in the well know equanimity prayer: “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The core reflection in this practice for seeing this difference between what I can and can’t change is “actions have consequences”. It is based on the Buddhist principle of conditioned co-production which was central to the Buddha’s insight and is described as the direct knowing that all phenomena arise in dependence on conditions and hence no one thing or person is totally independent or separate from the matrix of interconnected actions and events that have made any one moment possible. The Buddha expressed this principle many times in the following phrases:

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This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.

[Majjhima-Nikaya ii.32; Samyutta-Nikaya ii.28; etc.]

From this perspective when we reflect on joy or suffering we see that as much as we may wish that others and ourselves may be free from suffering or experience ongoing joy, we are all in this moment inheriting the consequences of our own actions and decisions and the impact of the actions and decisions of all those around us. After we have done all we can to promote well being and happiness and wished for ourselves and others to be free from suffering in the end we can simply reflect “this is how it is” and rest in a sense of allowing the present moment to be as it is rather than how we think it should be and this letting go and allowing can bring an intense sense of peace.

This sense of allowing can make it possible to rest in not knowing.  There have been times in my life when I thought I had brought myself to the edge of what I could bear and had wasted the opportunities this life had to offer.  There were times where I felt so low, in so much physical pain and mental anguish that death was a welcome option, and were it not for the love I felt for my mother I could have happily left his life. What also kept me going was the belief that death was not the end, instead I would face it all again in another life if it were not processed in this life. So I kept going. Moving to the monastery was my way of surviving.

Years latter I see that those difficult times were part of a series of experiences that have led to where I am now, and that the future self we are to become is almost calling back to the past self and requiring these experiences so that it might yet be born. We can only look back at the life lived, not forward to the life to come and this can slant our understanding of what is unfolding. If we can have a sense of being one point, a nexus in the matrix of being and becoming that spans past, present and future than the future needs us to be how we are right now for it to be born, and we do not know what that furuture is so we do not know if what is happening right now is wrong.  All we know is that it is not how we want it to be. And if that means we are suffering then we can feel compassion for ourselves right now, but with this added ingredient of equanimity: this is how it is, and I do not know how it is going to be, and perhaps this is how it needs to be in order for how it will be to be born. Suffering might give birth to a new state of being, one where we are much happier than before. Equanimity enable us to go through that suffering with love for ourselves.

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Indifference, the enemy of equanimity, love and compassion

The risk of such a philosophy is indifference, thinking that the suffering of oneself and others is due to karma and will last as long as it lasts so there is no point in trying to alleviate it. Buddhism has been accused of this, and although in the original teachings the Buddha warned that the near enemy (the emotion that appears to be the thing we are cultivating but undermines it) of equanimity was indifference at times his teachings have been used to suggest we should just stand back and let things take their course.

How then do we cultivate equanimity without it becoming indifference to what others are feeling or a way of dissociating from our feelings by saying “nothing matters it’s all as it’s supposed to be” when underneath we are crying and in pain but don’t want to feel it?

If we are practicing all of the four divine abidings then we are spending time wishing ourself and others well, rejoicing in their joy and empathising with their sorrow and our words and actions will grow out of this. As we practice we are learning to hold our pain and relax into our joy and from this open and embracing attitude we can then reflect that “everything arises upon conditions” – not as a cold or indifferent distancing from the world, but as a gentle acknowledgement that this is how things are. In this way we might soften around the thought, “its not fair”, or “why me” and instead allow that right now, this is how things are – I wish myself well, I do what I can to improve my experience and that of others, but I also embrace this  moment as being exactly as it is, rather than being wrong or a mistake.

The far enemy (or opposite of what we are cultivating) of equanimity is craving or clinging.  This was what the Buddha considered to be the the cause of all of our suffering – the holding on to things in the hope that they would give eternal security, rather than seeing that everything is impermanent and in a state of flux and change. Equanimity, the gentle acceptance that this is how it is, allows for loss and change as being part of life. Rather than holding on we see that we are constantly letting go into a new experience, and eventually this letting go will include the death of this body and identity. If we can learn in life to let go into this flow of constant  passing away and coming into being then death will have no fear. Instead we will feel an ever deeper compassion as we see those struggling with wanting to hold on to how they think things should be and love for each unique moment.

Below is a summary of the four divine abiding meditations with their near and far enemies.

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Gay and bi men’s mindfulness group reaches 6 year Anniversary

This week marks the 6th anniversary of our first meeting at the Friends Meeting house on 15th February 2010. We had started meeting at another venue in the Autumn of 2009 which is why, like the Queen, we have two official birthdays, a Spring and an Autumn!

Anniversaries are often a time to look back and reflect as well as to look forward – and as a mindfulness group it’s also a reminder to be in the present moment!

There were many people who helped the group come into being. For those of you who have been watching War and Peace you’ll be aware of how a simple event requires many people to be involved, some clearly seen, others in the background. I read War and Peace when I was 20 and I was struck by the vastness of human interactions it depicts. It’s a great reflection on how we do not exist alone or in a vacuum. We exist as a result of the interplay of individual actions that create a matrix of interconnectedness from which this moment takes birth. Sometimes we know the people who cause it, sometimes it’s the effects of someone’s actions whom we have never met that ripple out and have an impact on us. As this is our anniversary I’m going to dedicate the rest of this email to the people who have helped contribute to that matrix out of which the group has arisen.

Our principal benefactors were David Hews Esq. and my mother and stepfather Jillian and Steve Clements. When I went to discuss setting up the group at the Friends Meeting House the requirements were to pay three months rent in advance and three months rent as a deposit. This meant finding £1,600. As my bank account was more often in debit than credit I had no way of paying this.  For a moment I thought it was hopeless. But then I made the resolve to make it happen and thought of who might be willing to help. I presented the idea of the project and what my hopes and intentions were for it to David, who is a good friend and to  my parents, with the promise that once I was in credit I would repay them their loan.

David was excited by the project and eager to help and to my surprise my parents also decided to help. This was the same step father who when I came out to him aged 20 told me he thought homosexuality was dirty, disgusting, immoral and something he  never wanted to speak of again  And now here he was 20 years latter putting his money into a mindfulness group for gay and bi men.  It shows how people can change if we stay open to them.

Whenever I think of this time in my life I see it as one of those moments of standing on a cliff edge and deciding to jump, trusting that I could fly. We had been meeting twice a month previously in a small venue on Sundays and about 10 people were coming to the class. I had the confidence that if the group became a regular weekly event people would want to come to it and we would get enough to pay for the room. I had paid for six months so at the worst we would meet for those months and if it didn’t work out then I would have tried and have had the satisfaction of knowing I had seen if it could work. I had recently watched the film Field of Dreams in which there is a recurring theme of “build it and they will come”. It’s a very moving film and I won’t say more so that I don’t spoil it for any of you who have not seen it.  I started the group with that sense, build it and they will come – create a space that provides a healing and welcoming environment for gay and bi men to learn mindfulness and to hold themselves with love and compassion and people will come.  And so it turned out to be. This New Year we had our largest meeting yet, with 64 men sitting together quietly focusing attention on their breath.

I did not create this in a vacuum though or only through my own efforts. Juan Serrano encouraged me from the the time I left the monastery to set up a group as he had seen one work very well in Madrid. So we party have the efforts of the gay men’s Madrid group to thank for the example they provided. Juan continued to support and encourage me once the group was established and led an evening when i was away on a retreat in Greece last year..

Then came the work of promoting the group and getting it seen. I was able to enrol various friends in the idea of what the group could offer and they all gave their services for free. Kam Munsamy provided help with graphic design and photography. Ian Patrick was one of our first members and has consistently helped with tea making and clearing up along with Tim Waldron and Meirion Todd. They were the initial dream team as I could relax knowing tea would be brought out and everything cleared up at the end. Thank you. As is the case with all things everything changes, and there are now new people helping with the tea and clearing up at the end – a big thank you to all of you for your help and generosity. I also thank Boyz magazine, which ran an article about the group when we first started which brought in a lot of the first members.

Then there are our door babes!  It took me a while to develop a system for welcoming people as they arrived.  The first helpers to welcome people were Meirion Todd (who can no longer attend due his therapy work) and Olivier Droillard. Andy Jones helped for years with setting up the room and being on the door until his work at TFL left him no time to come, but I’m grateful for all this help in the early years as it made it a lot easier to get the room set up. Kevin O’Neill helped me with IT and to get the web site set up and Graham Humphries designed the first fliers. Darren Brady was always available to run ideas by and provide support and it was his life coaching that helped me start to feel more confidence in myself so that I could take this leap.

More recently Malcolm has stepped in from his help in the kitchen with the tea making and washing up to be on the door along with Dan and Sam. As I now teach an earlier class and can’t be on the door as people arrive it is so great to know that they are there welcoming people and being a friendly face to all those who are new or returning. Thank you for your regular and committed help and for organising your rota between yourselves so I do not have to be involved with ensuring there will be someone on the door.

And of course there is a big thank you to all of you!  If you did not come, we would have no meeting. Thank you to all who have come in the past but who for various reasons no longer are able. And thank you to all who are coming now.

Finally, I have to thank those without whom this would never have been possible, my teachers. I thank the FWBO for initially introducing me to meditation and Buddhism through the Cambridge Buddhist Centre.  Then I thank Ajahn Chah, whom I never met but whose insight and teachings were passed down to me by my teachers Ajahn Munindo, Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Vimalo. Little did Ajahan Chah know when at the turn of the 20th Century he set off to live in the forests of Thailand to follow the Buddha’s original teaching that one day a disciple of his disciple would be teaching a group for gay men In London. I also thank the generosity of the many lay people whose support meant the monasteries where I lived were able to run and function. My six years in the monasteries were so impotent to me and without the generosity of the Thai community in the UK and other supporters the monasteries would not exist.

To return to what we learn from War and Peace, here we see that the actions of Ajahan Chah, someone whom we have never met, has sent ripples out that touch us this very day. It is a reminder to reflect on our own actions and consider what ripples are we sending out into the world?

If there is anyone I have omitted to mention – thank you.

Opening the heart to delight in the good fortune of others

This week we reach the third of the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abiding meditations. To summarise what we have covered so far Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives the following clear and succinct description of the first three meditations in this set of four. We’ll cover the last one, equanimity, in another blog.

The brahma-viharas, or “sublime attitudes,” are the Buddha’s primary heart teachings — the ones that connect most directly with our desire for true happiness.

Of these four emotions, goodwill (metta) is the most fundamental. It’s the wish for true happiness, a wish you can direct to yourself or to others. Goodwill was the underlying motivation that led the Buddha to search for awakening and to teach the path to awakening to others after he had found it.

The next two emotions in the list are essentially applications of goodwill. Compassion (karuna) is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: it wants the suffering to stop. Empathetic joy (mudita) is what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness: it wants the happiness to continue.

Empathetic Joy (or sympathetic joy, altruistic joy) as a meditation is allowing our heart to take pleasure in the happiness of another and to wish that it may continue and deepen. It is the antidote to jealousy or envy.

Looking at the photo at the top of this email which emotion comes up? Joy for the person and the wish that their experience may continue? A frantic sense that one should book a flight right away so that one might be there? Or a secret hope that a storm is about to blow in and the rest of their holiday will be spent shut up in the hotel!

These different potential responses show the range of our emotional response. We may feel sympathetic joy – delight in their happiness and the wish that it may continue. But if we do not feel this it may go to the near or far enemy. The near enemy of sympathetic joy (an emotion which appears to be what we wish to cultivate but is not as wholesome) is exuberance, which is defined as ” grasping at pleasant experience out of a sense of insufficiency or lack.” Rather than simply delighting in the happiness of another or a situation there is grasping at it in an attempt to avoid the feeling of lack or emptiness in one’s life.

I know someone who has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. She was always very bubbly and laughing – so much so that other people used to say she was a bit too much and they felt exhausted by her. After years of battling her condition alone and trying to hide it she sought help and was given a diagnosis and her behaviour changed. She was no longer trying to show everyone how happy she was and instead was able to be more authentic, letting us know when she didn’t feel so great, saying that she struggled with leaving work and having to check the windows and doors were locked five times. She changed her work and became a dog groomer, something she could do at home, and by managing the things that caused her stress she was able to settle and now is in a much more centred and grounded place where she can express happiness but not as a mask or act to convince others she is well.

In this Facebook world where we look around and see others showing their happy face all the time it can feel hard to be authentic and express our struggle. We are like Eleanor Rigby who “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?” but now our window is the internet.

The far enemy of each meditation in this set is the opposite emotion to the one we wish to cultivate. For sympathetic joy the far enemy is resentment. Seeing someone else feeling happy and having good fortune when we are unhappy or struggling it can be hard to feel happiness for them. It is the hatred of an Iago for Othello and the plotting of his down fall, the snide remark that seeks to puncture another’s happiness or the secret hope that it will all end in tears. We can find it hard to acknowledge we are feeling such a toxic emotion and may seek to justify it: “they are so up themselves they need to be brought down a peg or two”, “I’m just saying the truth” or whatever we need to hear to justify being the rain cloud on someone’s parade!

The Buddha compared empathetic joy to a mother seeing her child doing well and feeling joy for and with the child. This shows the simplicity of the emotion. We feel happy for the other person as a separate individual, not because it benefits us or we get anything from the situation. It is the thought “I am happy that you are happy. May it continue and deepen”

We’ll explore this meditation in this Monday’s class. Looking forward to seeing you there.

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