Cultivating equanimity or evenmindedness (upekkha) (Day 76)
The fourth of the series of practices we’ve been exploring in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness is evenmindedness, which is more often translated as equanimity. The Pali word for this is upekkha, and in Sanskrit (Pali’s big sister, so to speak) this is upeksha.
The word upekkha actually covers a number of distinct but related qualities, with the common factor being non-reactivity. Here are three ways the Buddha talked about equanimity — and that’s before we talk about the practice of equanimity as a brahmavihara (the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings, beingthe four practices we’re exploring over this 100 days).
- The word upekkha can point to a quality of not being thrown mentally off balance by our experience. Usually we have a tendency to react with aversion when something unpleasant happens. “Who used the last of the coffee!” And we can get rather giddy when something enjoyable happens, which may seem nice at the time, but it’s very unpleasant when the giddiness ends; witness how you feel when the new iPhone you’re so excited about gets its first scratch. So in developing everyday evenmindedness, we’re more mindful. We notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences arising, and we have a certain attitude of standing back, observing, and not getting too emotionally caught up. We can simply remember that it’s better for us to have equanimity than it is to get worked up, and, as the Buddha put it instead of a fixation on the agreeable, disagreeable, or neutral experience, “equanimity takes its stance.”
- Upekkha can refer to a factor of jhana, meaning a deep meditative state of stillness and absorption. Equanimity arises as a factor in the third level of jhana. In the first jhana we’re more or less absorbed in the meditation practice, although there’s still some thinking going on. In the second level of jhana our attention is more stabilized in the body, the thinking stops, and we more strongly experience pleasurable bodily feelings that are called rapture. In the third jhana we move our focus to the emotion of joy, which is very stable, and equanimity arises: “Then there is the case where a monk, with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses joy [sukha] with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a joyful [again, sukha] abiding.'” So this is a deep stillness of mind, in which there is no thought, and joy is firmly established. And then in the fourth jhana, we cease paying attention to the experience of joy, and our equanimity becomes “purified” and even more intensely still. This is a state of deep peace, which is even more satisfying than the joy that was previously experienced.
- Then there’s upekkha as a synonym for the awakened state. This is where non-reactivity is permanently established (more or less).
These three are covered in one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Niramisa Sutta:
“Now, O monks, what is worldly equanimity? There are these five cords of sensual desire … [things] that are wished for and desired, agreeable and endearing, associated with sense desire and alluring. It is the equanimity that arises with regard to these five cords of sense desire which is called ‘worldly equanimity.’
“Now, what is unworldy equanimity? With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of gladness and sadness, a monk enters upon and abides in the fourth meditative absorption, which has neither pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called ‘unworldly equanimity.’
“And what is the still greater unworldly equanimity? When a taint-free monk looks upon his mind that is freed of greed, freed of hatred and freed of delusion, then there arises equanimity. This is called a ‘still greater unworldly equanimity.’
But strangely, that list of three types of equanimity doesn’t include any mention of the Brahmavihara.
- So fourthly, there’s equanimity or evenmindnedness as the fourth brahmavihara.
Evenmindedness as a brahmavihara shares the quality of non-reactivity that the other three senses of upekkha have. But it’s a brahmavihara, so it’s also a loving state. The equanimity of not-reacting to pleasant or unpleasant experiences may or may not be loving. The equanimity of jhana is joyful, but may or may not be loving. Equanimity as a brahmavihara is both non-reactive and is, by definition, loving. The equanimity of enlightenment I can’t speak about from experience, but the later Mahayana tradition emphasized compassion — an obviously loving quality — as an aspect of the enlightened experience, along with wisdom. In the earlier tradition it seems that the emphasis was more on equanimity, but unfortunately that term doesn’t sound very loving, even though it is an aspect of love!
There is an element of insight involved in the brahmavihara of upekkha. This can be love plus an awareness of impermanence, or love plus an awareness of non-self, or love along with an awareness of the intrinsically unsatisfactory nature of our experiences. And it’s this combination of love and insight that I see as characterizing evenmindnedness as a brahmavihara. Equanimity is love plus insight.
So the way I see it is that equanimity as the brahmavihara and equanimity as awakening are really the same thing, it’s just that the insight has sunk in to different degrees. In the brahmavihara we’re letting insight sink in, and in awakening it’s sunk in all the way, so that insight has fully transformed us.
- We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that they and every experience they have is impermanent.
- We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that our love is not our love and that there is really no separation between “ourselves” and “the world,”
- And we love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that
letting go ever more deeply into love and compassion is the way to peace, not clinging to craving and aversion.
So we work with these understandings in the brahmavihara of equanimity, and eventually they cause a deep change within us, and those understandings become permanent. At that point we’re experiencing upekkha — equanimity, evenmindedness — not as a practice but as an ongoing part of the way we are. At that point we’re awakened.
So we’ll be exploring there various aspects of equanimity — not just upekkha as a brahmavihara but also evenmindnedness as a positive quality in everyday life — over the remainder of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.