Words of equanimity; wordless equanimity (Day 84)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So far in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness I haven’t said anything about the phrases we use in cultivating equanimity on the cushion, although in the guided meditation I posted the other week I suggested the words “May all beings find peace.”

In his “A Wise Heart,” Jack Kornfield suggests some beautiful phrases:

“May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.”

These remind us of a number of things. We’re reminded that equanimity includes an element of wisdom, which is where its peace comes from. Our deepest suffering comes from an inability to deal with impermanence, and from craving to have things they way we want them to be, and to having aversion to how things are. In equanimity we’ve accepted the coming and going of difficult experiences and have neither craving nor aversion.

We’re also reminded that in a way what we’re wishing for in cultivating equanimity is that other beings — all beings — have equanimity. Really we have the aspiration that all beings become awakened and experience the deepest and truest form of equanimity. We’re wishing that they have the openness, and balance, and peace of the awakened state. When I say “May all beings find peace” I don’t mean “peace and quiet” but enlightenment! We wish that the blessing of liberated equanimity (one of the uses of the word “equanimity” is as a synonym for enlightenment) arise in us and become manifest in others as well.

Sharon Salzberg has suggested the following phrases, although it would be a bit much to try to use all of these in one meditation, so feel free to pick and choose:

  • All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them.
  • May we all accept things as they are.
  • May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
  • I will care for you but cannot keep you from suffering.
  • I wish you happiness but cannot make your choices for you.

The traditional descriptions of the upekkha bhavana (the meditation practice in which we cultivate even-minded love) don’t contain any suggestions for phrases to use. In fact, both the meditation manuals I’ve been drawing on — the first century Path of Freedom and the 6th century Path of Purity — suggest that equanimity isn’t really established until the third jhana, which is a state in which verbal thought has ceased. Even in second jhana, there’s no thought, and because thinking has stopped, there’s no possibility — if we take these two commentaries literally — of there being equanimity phrases.

There are two things I’d say about this. The first of these is that I don’t think that the commentaries (which aren’t always reliable) do need be taken literally here. As I’ve pointed out before, there are different forms of equanimity. These include:

  • “Ordinary” equanimity, or mental stability, where we don’t get thrown off balance by pleasant or unpleasant feelings; we don’t, for example, lose our temper when someone says something hurtful.
  • Equanimity as a brahmavihara (what we’re mainly discussing here) which I see as mental stability combined with lovingkindness and an insightful awareness into impermanence, etc.
  • The equanimity of third and fourth jhana, where mental stability is experienced in combination with deep concentration and mental stillness.

I suspect that the commentators took the second and third of these and imagined that the equanimity of jhana and the equanimity of the brahma viharas are necessarily the same. And I don’t think they are. I think it’s possible to experience equanimity as a brahmavihara (even-minded love) in states of concentration below the third, or even second, jhana. It can be experienced in first jhana and even in access concentration. And it’s possible to experience the equanimity of jhana without having any lovingkindness to speak of.

Too great a desire for systematization is one of the besetting sins of Buddhist commentators!

The second thing I’d like to say is that although I believe that (or my experience is that) equanimity, or even-minded love, can be developed in access concentration and first jhana, it can also be experienced in second, and third jhana too. So here, all three forms of equanimity that I’ve just mentioned are experienced together: we have the mental stability of ordinary equanimity, which is pervaded with love, and which is experienced in a wordless and deeply focused mind. So this is a state of loving equanimity which is wordless and deeply concentrated.

I’ve been experimenting with allowing this wordless, jhanic, loving state to emerge while walking, and finding that it is possible just to be equanimous in this way without using any phrases at all. In fact, when a wordless and deeply calm mental state arises, it’s not possible to use phrases without dropping down to a less focused state of awareness.

The arising of this state of walking equanimity (and I’ve done this while driving, too) depends on the practice I described the other day of becoming aware of both the inner world of bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and the outer world of light, sound, space, etc., and resting in this open and receptive state. Thought quickly falls away, and a loving gaze can be introduced, leading to an equanimous and loving state.

You can experience peace, and silently wish this peace for anyone you see.

Now some people assert, quite confidently, that jhanic levels of concentration can’t be developed in the midst of activities like walking. But the Buddha seems to have been quite clear that they can:

But whoever —
walking, standing,
sitting, or lying down —
overcomes thought,
delighting in the stilling of thought:
he’s capable…

And one of the rewards of walking meditation, the Buddha said, was that “the concentration (samādhi) he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.” Ajahn Brahm, in one of his books, also mentions that he has attained deep states of samādhi (concentration) while walking.

And one of the clearest descriptions of walking meditation including the overcoming of the hindrances and the entry into jhāna is this:

“If a bhikkhu has gotten rid of longing and ill will while walking; if he has abandoned dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt; if his energy if aroused without slackening; if his mindfulness is established and unmuddles; if his body is tranquil and undisturbed; if his mind is concentrated and one-pointed, then that bhikkhu is said to be ardent…” (AN II 14)

(I give these examples because a lot of effort has gone in to trying to “prove” that walking meditation and jhāna are incompatible.)

People tend to assume — and I think this is their self-doubt speaking — that even first jhana is out of their grasp, let alone third jhana. But I don’t think this is the case. I’d suggest trying the practice I’ve just outlined above. Basically take the approach I suggested in the guided meditation a few days ago, and try it while walking, or even while sitting with the eyes open in some spot, like a park, where you can see other people. You might be surprised how far you can go.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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