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:
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.
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.