“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” Marcus Aurelius (Day 80)
“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control,” wrote Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations. “These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
I’ve described even-minded love (upekkha) as being love with insight. One thing that allows our love to be even-minded, or equanimous, is insight into impermanence.
Even-mindedness is a quality that accompanies all of the other brahmaviharas, which are the four qualities of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joyful appreciation (mudita), and even-minded love (upekkha) itself. We need to have even-mindedness accompanying these other states because loving-kindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation each involve desires. Metta is a desire that beings be happy; compassion that they escape suffering; and mudita that they continue to experience the joy and peace that comes from the good qualities they embody.
And the problem is that the things we want aren’t necessarily going to happen, or if they do they won’t last. We can wish that beings be well, but they’re going to experience distress, sickness, and loss. We can wish that beings be free from suffering, but their suffering isn’t necessarily going to end. And we can wish that they continue to enjoy the benefits of their skillful qualities, but it’s not guaranteed that either the skillful attributes nor the peace and joy that spring from them will endure.
In the brahmavihara meditations, we desire particular outcomes, and yet the things we wish for can never last. And so, in order that we ourselves be at peace, we need to appreciate impermanence.
In order to strengthen our even-mindedness, we can cultivate lovingkindness while bearing in mind that although we wish happiness for beings, they’re not necessarily going to find it, and when they do it’s not going to last. We can bear in mind their sufferings and develop compassion, wishing that they be free from suffering, and at the same time remember that any freedom from suffering that they experience will be temporary. And we can rejoice in their good qualities and the peace and joy flowing from those qualities, and remember that any peace they may experience is a phenomenon, like every other experience, that arises and passes away.
Non-equanimity is like sitting on the shore, watching waves rising and falling and cheering when the waves rise, mourning when they fall. With equanimity we recognize that the waves are not under our control. They rise, they fall; we watch, with love.
The “love” part of this is important. It’s easy to be fooled by words like equanimity and even-mindedness into thinking that upekkha is an emotionless, detached quality. Rather, it’s a form of love. It’s well-wishing. In upekkha we sincerely love beings and desire that they be well and that they be free from suffering, but we also accept that happiness and suffering are impermanent experiences that arise and fall outside of our control.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our love, or that acting is pointless. We act with kindness; we seek to relieve compassion where we can; we encourage and rejoice in the good we see in others. But we don’t get attached to outcomes. When we do get attached to things turning out in a particular way, we may initially wish beings well or wish to relieve their suffering, but we soon become frustrated or despondent. We try to help them and perhaps they don’t want to be helped, and our love turns to aversion. Or we don’t have the skill to assist them, and we feel dejected. We act compassionately to help one person, and recognize that there’s an immeasurable amount of suffering in the world, and our efforts are just a drop in the ocean, and we feel depressed and hopeless.
This is why equanimity is necessary, and why it pervades the other three brahmaviharas. But it’s also cultivated as a quality of even-minded love in its own right, as the fulfillment of love.
In the formal practice, we develop a state of loving equanimity toward ourselves, by wishing ourselves well while bearing in mind that the joy and sorrow we experience is impermanent, and by simply accepting any pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences that may arise.
Then we do the same with a neutral person (someone who we neither like nor dislike), then with a person we find difficult, then with a friend. Finally we expand our awareness into the world around us, where happiness and unhappiness rise and fall like waves on the ocean, and we wish all beings well while accepting the impermanence of their joys and sorrows.