The still, spacious, and vibrant mind of equanimity (and how to get there) (Day 83)
Sometimes I find it hard to write about equanimity. It’s hard to make an absence of reactivity sound interesting. There’s so much emphasis on not reacting to others suffering with aversion or to their happiness with craving, that it can sound like a rather dull and uncaring state. And even though I’ve been emphasizing that equanimity is actually love that is even-minded and free from reactivity, the emotional side of equanimity tends to get lost sight of.
So I’m going to try to stress some of the positive qualities of equanimity.
Upekkha (that’s what I’m calling “equanimity” or “even-minded love”) is a state of completely free and unbounded love, care, kindness, and compassion. It’s the removal of craving and aversion, which are barriers to our love. With equanimity we no longer get to the point where we withhold our kindness or compassion from anyone. It doesn’t matter whether we like people or dislike them, whether they’re skillful or unskillful, whether we know them or don’t know them, whether we admire them or not, whether they’re similar to us or wildly different. The barriers to us recognizing another person’s basic humanity — their deep-rooted wish to be happy, their even more deep-rooted wish to be free from suffering — have gone.
Equanimity is truly unconditional love.
Equanimity is seeing the mind as like the sky — spacious, open, vast, and by nature free — and our experiences as like clouds passing through the sky. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings, emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations arise and pass away, but never adhere to the sky. In fact because the sky is as insubstantial as the thoughts, emotions, etc., that pass through it, there is nothing for those experiences to cling to.
But the space of the mind of equanimity is a warm and loving space — at least with equanimity as a brahmavihara, which is what we’re discussing here. So the cool blue of the sky is warmed by the radiance of the sun.
And that sun shines on all. Equanimity as a brahmavihara is experienced, to some extent, in the final stage of the lovingkindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation practices, where we “break the boundaries” and let our expansive mind be filled with these loving qualities. And whoever the mind alights on, whether in our sensory experience of the external world, or in the inner world of our thoughts, they are met with love.
Buddhism has its roots in a hot country where sunshine was seen as much a problem as a blessing, and so Buddhist metaphors tend to focus more on rain. In the Flower Ornament Scripture (the Avatamsaka) we’re told:
The supreme water spirit Ocean covers the earth with clouds; the rain in each place is different, but the spirit has no thought of distinction. Likewise, Buddha, sovereign of truth, extends clouds of great compassion in all directions, raining differently for each practitioner, yet without discriminating among them.
Equanimity is deep peace. In “I Am That,” Nisargadatta Maharaj is recorded as having said “Pain and pleasure are the crests and valleys of the waves in the ocean of bliss. Deep down there is utter fullness.” While the surface of the ocean may be calm at one time, turbulent at another, in its depths the ocean is always still. Similarly, pleasant and painful experiences — such as witnessing great joy or great suffering in others — are said not to disturb the mind of one with equanimity.
Equanimity is strength. In the collection of ancient verses known as the Theragatha (songs of the elders) we’re told that “Just as a solid mass of rock is not moved by the wind” so the ” steadfast and unfettered” mind does not tremble. Equanimity is a courageous stance which is able to accept that which it cannot change. It does not fear discomfort nor seek immersion in pleasure. It doesn’t fear change. Pleasures and discomforts come and they go, like winds blowing around a rock.
Perhaps what I’m describing sounds impossibly remote. But I think that actually an experience of this state of equanimity is quite accessible. I’ve found that bringing two simple practices together can help induce a sense of equanimous love. A Youtube video of a guided meditation I recently led gives an outline of these two practices.
The first of these practices is of becoming aware of both the outer world of light, sound and — above all — space. We simply notice the space around us — in front, behind, to the sides, above, below — and notice the sounds and light that fill that space. It can feel as if our consciousness is filling the world around us, so that there is a spacious sphere of awareness. This in itself is enough to induce a sense of calmness. Often the mind clears and thoughts grind to a halt, are at least become less frequent and less disturbing. Then we extend this spacious awareness so that we’re also paying attention to the inner world of physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings, although it’s better to think of this as simply noticing the inner part of our sphere is awareness. Lastly, we simply maintain this awareness of the inner and outer dimensions of our awareness. If we start to lose touch with either the outer world (because we’ve started obsessing about a thought, for example) or if we start to lose touch with the inner world (perhaps because we’re listening to a sound) we relax back into this open, spacious awareness. As we hold this balance, the sense of there being any distinction between the inner and outer worlds may well fall away, and we’re left just with a unified sphere of awareness, which isn’t divided into “me” and “not me.”
The second of these practices is what I call “Loving gaze.” Here we may start by recollecting what it’s like to look with love. I often remember what I feel like when I sneak into my kids’ room at night and see them sleeping. There’s a sense of cherishing, of love, of tenderness, and of vulnerability. Recollecting this in meditation, I find that I now have a “loving gaze” — which isn’t of course a literal gaze, since my eyes are closed, but is more a sense of love pervading my awareness of the sphere of awareness. (If you can’t recall a memory of gazing with love, then just imagine what it’s like to look in this way.) So now, I have a sense of a vast, spacious consciousness that extends well beyond my physical body, and this vast and spacious consciousness is imbued with love.
It’s not terribly hard to bring those two practices together, and if you manage you’ll find that this experience of equanimity is a very positive and vibrant state.
PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.