Buddhaghosa decribes the “far enemies” of equanimous love like this: “Greed and resentment … are its far enemies … for it is not possible to look on with equanimity and be inflamed with greed or be resentful simultaneously.”
He also says, “[Equanimity’s] function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval.”
Equanimity destroys greed (or approval) and resentment, and greed (or approval) and resentment destroy equanimity, and so they’re direct opposites or, as the tradition calls them, “far enemies.”
Equanimity is a state of neither approval nor disapproval, aversion nor craving. It’s a state of balance, calm, and peace. When it’s applied in relation to our own experience, it means being with our painful experiences without resisting them in any way, and being with our pleasant experiences without clinging to them or longing for their continuation. We just act as skillfully as we can and let our experiences come and go.
Applied to our relationship with others, equanimity means more than one thing. It means that we don’t play favorites. We recognize that each person’s suffering and joy and welfare are as real to them as to anyone else. That’s why we “see equality in beings.”
Equanimity also means that as we wish beings well and wish for their suffering to end, we don’t have any aversion to their suffering nor any craving for their happiness. This can be harder for us to get our heads around; this is most certainly not a state of uncaring, but is simply an acceptance of the limits of our power. To use language from the late “Seven Habits” author Stephen R. Covey, others’ suffering and happiness are within our circle of concern, but are often outside our circle of influence.
And to avoid misunderstanding, it’s perfectly possible to want to relieve someone’s suffering and yet not have aversion to their suffering. Aversion here is an inability to deal with discomfort, where we can’t accept the reality of others’ suffering. And it’s perfectly possible to desire the well-being of others without craving it. Craving is where we’re attached to particular outcomes, and when those outcomes don’t appear we suffer.
So the state of equanimity is where we have the courage to change the things we can, and the serenity to accept the things we can’t.
In fact Buddhaghosa makes it explicit that equanimity, as a brahmavihara, is a stance where we recognize the limits of our influence:
Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds [kamma/karma] thus: “Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose, if not theirs, is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?”
This is one of those places where even-minded love becomes a wisdom practice, because we’re cultivating an awareness of karma.
Now obviously not all suffering arises because of beings’ own choices and actions, but much of it does. When something unpleasant happens to someone, like they lose their job through no fault of their own, or they are subject to a bereavement, there is initial suffering, which is the “first arrow.” But the bulk of the suffering that comes from circumstances such as these is usually self-induced secondary suffering, and comes from the mourning and judgements and inability to let go that we commonly experience. This is the second arrow.
And it’s that self-induced suffering (and happiness) that we’re mostly concerned with here. When we see someone suffering, we may well start off by being compassionate toward them. But when we see them wallowing in their pain, or acting in ways that are going to deeper their suffering, then we can end up losing our sympathy and feel annoyed and resentful: “Pull yourself together!”
So with equanimity we cultivate love and compassion toward beings, and even knowing that they bring about much of their own suffering we refrain from judging or blaming them. We also don’t judge ourselves for being unable to keep them from suffering.
And similarly we cultivate love and compassion toward beings, and aware that they bring about much of their own happiness we refrain from approval. Normally we’d think of approval as being a good thing, and usually it is, but here approval is just the flip-side of blame. It might be useful to think of it as “conditional approval” — I’ll love you as long as you keep being “good” and as long as you’re happy. But as soon as you slip up, acting unskillfully and causing yourself suffering, I withdraw my approval and begin to blame you.
So this is what we’re avoiding in even-minded love: we don’t have conditional approval when beings are happy, and we also don’t blame beings when they suffer. We recognize that beings’ actions are outside our control, and while we continue to give them our love and compassion we don’t feel resentful to ourselves for our inability to save the world, nor cling to the idea that we should be able to save the world.
This is the highest form of love: We do what we can to help others; we love them and have compassion for them when they cause themselves to suffer; and we don’t judge. We love them and rejoice in their good qualities, and we rejoice in the peace and joy that come from those good qualities. But we don’t judge.