equanimity

Five remembrances for deep peace (Day 90)

100 Days of LovingkindnessIn learning to experience deep peace in the face of impermanence, we need to consider not just our inner experience, as I did yesterday, but our very lives, and the lives of those around us. Life is short; we all face loss.

These things aren’t really different from what I was discussing yesterday, since it’s our inner feelings about changes in the world that we largely have to deal with, but the same situations can be looked at from different perspectives. When we’re actually experiencing loss, instability, and change, we can work on accepting the the feelings that arise with equanimity. But we can also prepare ourselves philosophically for painful changes that may happen in the future by reflecting on their inevitability. And this is a technique that the Buddha encouraged.

In the Pāli canon there is a set of five remembrances that help us to recollect that change, loss, and death are not unusual events, but are woven into the very fabric of existence.

These remembrances are:

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid ageing.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become their heir.

These five reflections are then placed in a more universal context, so that the first one, for example, becomes:

I am not the only one who is subject to old age, not exempt from old age. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to old age; none are exempt from old age.

All five reflections are seen in this universal light; all beings are subject not only to old age, but to illness, death, and to separation. And all beings are owners of their actions (karma).

And these, the Buddha said, are remembrances “that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth.” In other words we should all be thinking about this — frequently.

If we do, it does a number of things.

  • We’re better prepared for change that might otherwise throw us off-balance. When we’re forewarned, change is disarmed.
  • We take change less personally. Often even getting old is taken as a personal affront: as if it’s an error. Surely this wasn’t supposed to happen! But of course it’s a universal fact. When we’re young we may look at the elderly and feel a degree of contempt, as if their age was a sign they’d failed. Actually, the fact they’re around is a sign they’ve succeeded, in a way; as they say, getting old is no fun, but it beats the alternative.
  • We realize we’re not being singled out. Everyone experiences loss. Everyone gets sick. Everyone is going to end up dying. These things are not some judgement the universe is meting out on us as some kind of punishment. All things are of the nature to decay and pass away.
  • We feel more sympathy for others. We’re all in it together. Just as I age and grow sick, so do others. The elderly and the chronically sick are simply experiencing now what I am going to experience in the future. Since we’re all equal in this regard, I don’t have to psychically distance myself from others’ suffering. Having compassion for them now, I’m more likely to be able to accept my own suffering when old age, sickness and death strike.
  • We’re challenged to take responsibility. The Buddha’s saying: “Life is short: you’re responsible for what you do with it. Now what?” When we consider our own mortality, life becomes more precious, and it becomes more important to live meaningfully and with compassion.

As a result of all this reflection, our minds become more deeply imbued with peace. We live in peace, able to be equanimous in the face of difficulties. But this is all upekkha in a more everyday sense of “bearing difficulty non-reactively,” which is not upekkha as a brahmavihara. Where upekkha as a brahmavihara steps in is where we compassionately and lovingly wish that all beings come to terms with impermanence, that all beings be able to develop calm, and peace, that all beings awaken from the dream that impermanence bypass us.

This is the dream of denial and delusion and clinging:

To beings subject to aging there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to aging, and aging not come to us…’ To beings subject to disease there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to disease and disease not come to us…’ To beings subject to death there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to death and death not come to us…’

Resisting impermanence in this way simply increases our suffering. Not only do we have to face loss and change, but we have to face the disappointment of our clinging coming to nothing. Accepting impermanence helps us to experience peace; and when we wish that others too accept impermanence and experience peace, that is the brahmavihara of upekkha.

May all beings be free from delusion and clinging. May all beings accept impermanence. May all beings awaken. May all beings live in peace.

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

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The big turn-around (Day 88)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI started this 100 Days of Lovingkindness just after our new year drive to get people meditating regularly — our 100 Day Meditation Challenge — was coming to an end.

Naturally there was a lot of discussion on our Google+ community about what we were going to do to follow on from our first 100 days, and many people were keen on exploring mindfulness, using a wonderful book by Jan Chozen Bays, called How to Train a Wild Elephant. But I really wanted to explore lovingkindness practice and the other Brahmaviharas.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. One is that I’d lost my temper a couple of times, and although I’d been able to let that pass very quickly I was aware that I still had a lot of work to in deeply imbuing my mind with love, patience, kindness, and compassion. I needed to rewire my brain for love, at a much deeper level than before.

Not long after that I was leading an online Dharma Study group one night, and we were exploring the Buddhist precepts and the basis of Buddhist ethics. (This group meets in a Google+ Hangout, which is a form of videoconferencing.) And as part of our studies we explored the following passage, which is from The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, a book Sangharakshita wrote on Buddhist ethics. Take a deep breath — it’s a long quotation and it includes other quotations.

Killing is tantamount to the rejection of the most basic principle of ethics, just as the cultivation of love represents this principle in its positive form. As Shelley so finely says:

“The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his own species must become his own.”

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, or “Entry into the Way of Enlightenment,” Śāntideva gives this principle what is probably its highest expression in Buddhist literature. In his chapter on “Meditation,” after describing how a man stills vain imaginings and strengthens his “Will to Enlightenment” (Bodhicitta), he proceeds:

“First he will diligently foster the thought that his fellow creatures are the same as himself. “All have the same sorrows, the same joys as myself, and I must guard them like myself. The body, manifold of parts in its division of members, must be preserved as a whole; and so likewise this manifold universe has its sorrow and its joy in common…I must destroy the pain of another as though it were my own…I must show kindness to others, for they are creatures as I am myself…Then, as I would guard myself from evil repute, so I will frame a spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards others.”

…I will cease to live as self, and will take as myself my fellow creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then why not love other living beings, as members of the universe?…Thus in doing service to others pride, admiration and desire for reward find no place, for thereby we satisfy the wants of our own self. Then, as thou wouldst guard thyself against suffering and sorrow, so exercise the spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards the world.”

Avalokitesvara_BodhisattvaThis is what is known as the practice of equality of self and other, and the substitution of self and others. Blake gives succinct expression to the same principle when he declares “To put another before you is the most sublime act.”

I’d read this book several times, and this particular passage even more often, but I found myself more receptive to it that night than ever before. And I thought, Yes, I want to live a life that embodies and exemplifies compassion. I want compassion to be the main thing I do.

And so I proposed that we do 100 Days of Lovingkindness, and fortunately it turned out to be the more popular of the two options. (Bear in mind though that we’ll start to explore How to Train a Wild Elephant when the current 100 Days is over.)

The Mahāyāna, a Buddhist movement that began a few hundred years after the time of the Buddha, strongly emphasized compassion. Śāntideva, who is quoted above, wrote passionately about developing compassion, and saw it as being central to the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who is not only set on enlightenment, but whose deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment too.

The compassion that Śāntideva describes, and that was central to the Mahāyāna, is actually identical to upekkha. Now that statement makes little sense if you take upekkha to be “equanimity,” which is the standard translation. But upekkha literally means “closely watching” and is a brahmavihara, which means it’s a loving quality. The peace or equanimity of upekkha is what we experience when we closely watch our own experience, and peace is what we wish for others. In other words, in upekkhā bhāvanā our deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment. The compassion that the Mahāyāna teaches is actually a bit different from the compassion of the brahma viharas. It’s deeper, more far-reaching. It includes an acute awareness that the only way we can help someone to be completely free of suffering is to help them become awakened. It’s more closely aligned with insight, as upekkha is.

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As Buddhism developed, somehow the loving and compassionate nature of upekkha as a brahmavihara became overlooked, and the quality of even-mindedness or equanimity was seen as being its defining characteristic. This gave the impression that in the brahmaviharas we start with love, then develop compassion, then develop joy, and then cool everything off by becoming equanimous. The word equanimous has a “straight from the fridge” coolness, or even frostiness, about it that can be very off-putting. It’s hard to be inspired by the ideal of equanimity.

But upekkha isn’t fundamentally about equanimity. It’s closely watching other beings and guiding them to the peace of awakening. And that is inspiring.

There’s a mythic Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvas can be people like you and me, but sometimes they are human images of enlightenment) called Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara literally is “The Lord Who Looks Down” with compassion upon beings, although I like to think of him as the Lord Who Watches Closely Over beings with compassion. So I see upekkha and the Mahāyāna take on compassion as being the same: closely watching over beings with the desire that they find the peace and equanimity of awakening. And that’s not a cold quality at all; it’s warm, and loving — and wise, and it brings about in ourselves and others the biggest turn-around you can have.

Om manipadme hum.

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

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Radiating peace (Day 87)

100 Days of LovingkindnessUpekkha involves closely (upa) watching (īkś) ourselves in order to develop insight, and the calm that follows from insight, and it also involves wishing that peace for others in a compassionate and loving way — which means wishing that others attain insight. So there’s a self-regarding and an other-regarding aspect to upekkha, just as there is with lovingkindness.

These qualities of closeness, lovingness, the helpfulness that comes with compassion, are usually not stressed when people discuss upekkha. It’s the peace that is emphasized, although usually it’s translated as “equanimity,” which I’m now finding rather inadequate.

In cultivating upekkha we can start by closely watching our own experience, observing the arising and passing of pleasurable and painful experiences, and over time we come to accept this impermanence and experience peace, which is santi in Pāli and shanti in Sanskrit. This peace is what’s usually called equanimity, but I think peace is a much warmer word than equanimity, and one that resounds in the heart. But this peace is not all that there is to upekkha, which is why equanimity is a poor translation.

“Santi” is commonly used in the Pali texts as a synonym for Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, and the Buddha often referred to his way as “the path to peace.” Nirvana is the ultimate in inner peace, and literally means the complete extinction of inner turmoil.

There’s another term similar to the close watching of upekkha, and that’s vipassana. Vipassana combines the prefix vi-, which is an intensifier, and passati, which is “to see.” So vipassana is “truly seeing” or “really seeing” and it’s simply the activity of examining the impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness of our experience.

(Vipassana is not a category of meditation practice by the way; the Buddha didn’t offer a list of “vipassana practices,” nor of samatha practices, samatha being the activity of calming the mind and developing skillful qualities of mindfulness, metta, etc. Since vipassana and samatha are activities, or approaches to meditation, any meditation practice can be either samatha or vipassana. You can use mindfulness of breathing with the intent of calming the mind and developing concentration, and that would be a samatha practice. You can use metta bhavana purely to develop kindness, and that too would be a samatha practice. But you can also, in mindfulness of breathing or in metta bhavana, notice the impermanence of your experiences as they arise and pass away, and so your mindfulness of breathing or your metta bhavana practices would be vipassana practices.)

Both samatha and vipassana approaches to meditation lead to peace. Samatha calms the mind, reduces conflict and turmoil, and leads to us being more at ease with ourselves and others. Vipassana, where we closely watch our experience, can deepen this peace yet further, leading ultimately to the profound peace of awakening. When we see our experience as a passing stream of impermanent events, we take them less seriously and we’re not thrown off balance by them. And so our upekkha, our close watching, leads to a sense of even-mindedness, or equanimity, or peace.

Oddly, it’s even-mindedness that has come to be seen as the defining characteristic of upekkha, even though upekkha literally means “close watching” and even though it’s one of the brahma viharas, and thus a loving quality. But really what’s happening is that in upekkha bhavana we cultivate peace, and wish that peace for other beings. We turn our attention toward ourselves, and closely watch our own experience; this leads to peace. We turn our attention toward others, and watch them closely and lovingly, and we wish that they experience the peace, the santi, of close watching. Upekkha really isn’t equanimity, although equanimity is an outcome of our close watching.

From this point in our 100 Days, on I’m going to refer to upekkha as “close watching,” and I’m only going to use the words “equanimity” and “even-mindedness” when referring to the quality of stability and peace that our close watching leads to. Really, upekkha is about radiating peace. Upekkha bhavana is really about cultivating peace through insight, and about radiating peace by wishing for insight to arise in others.

Yesterday I talked about how our speech can contribute to that project or radiating peace, as we take our close watching into daily life. We try to speak truthfully, and kindly. We try to speak helpfully — in ways that help people to grow. And we try to speak in ways that bring people into harmony with themselves and others. We try to speak, in short, in ways that will guide people toward experiences of awakening and of peace.

But talk isn’t enough, and if we’re to benefit others we must also act in ways to help bring about peace.

There is a lovely teaching that could be translated as the four grounds of bringing people together (if you’re geeking out on all this Pāli they’re the “sangahavatthūni”).

First we have giving (dāna). We have to put our money, and time, and energy where our mouth is. So it’s not enough to talk peace and to talk about being helpful and compassionate to others. People need places to practice. They need teachers. Sometimes they need basic material help. If we’re closely watching beings in a loving way, wanting to nudge them toward awakening, we have to help them in practical ways.

There’s kindly speech (peyyavajja), which I discussed yesterday, and won’t say anything more about for now.

There’s beneficial activity (atthacariyā). This is any activity we take that promotes peace and harmony. So this might include giving that’s non-material, like making yourself available to help others. It might include teaching, or sharing your practice with others (teaching really ought to mainly involve sharing your practice with others). It might include responding when you hear there is suffering, by doing whatever you can to help. It might include responding when you’re aware of conflict, by helping people to gain a broader perspective on their lives.

And this is the best of helpful acts: to arouse, instil and strengthen faith in the unbeliever; to arouse, instil and strengthen virtue in the immoral; to arouse, instil and strengthen generosity in the niggard; to arouse, instil and strengthen wisdom in the unwise.

Lastly there’s exemplification (samānattatā). This is where our life itself becomes a teaching. Even without intending to, you demonstrate kindness, compassion, and rejoicing in the skillful. Your actions show your peace and joy.

The Buddha’s presence seems to have had a profound effect on those around him. One time a Brahmin priest called Doṇa was walking along a road between two towns, and he’s said to have seen the Buddha’s footprints and recognized in them the form of a 100-spoked wheel, which is a very auspicious symbol. And of course he wanted to meet the Buddha and so followed him and tried to discover what kind of man this was. Now, I’m not a believer in miracles, but this story makes perfect sense to me. I can well imagine that the Buddha left a mark on those who saw him. Even if people didn’t talk to the Buddha, you can imagine them being affected by his bearing, and talking about him for some time afterward. We talk about having a carbon footprint; you can think in terms of the Buddha leaving a spiritual footprint. And you can imagine Doṇa hearing the “buzz” about this man who seemed to radiate peace as he passed, and being curious to meet him.

So perhaps we too can be a bit like this, although it’s not something you can try to do; it’s something that has to emerge naturally as your practice transforms you. As you keep a close watch on your speech and actions, as you keep a close watch on your mind when you’re meditating, as you closely watch the arising of pleasant and painful experiences and simply let them flow by, you’ll become calmer, kinder, and more peaceful. And this exemplification of the path will in itself help point others in the direction of peace.

Om shanti shanti shanti

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

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Acting with equanimity (Day 86)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI’ve always suspected that the Buddha had a hard time expressing himself, not because of any lack of ability of his part, but because the language that he had available to him was very limited. Actually all language is limited, but the Buddha was trying to express teachings that were very profound and subtle. He said he’d doubted whether it was possible to communicate the insights that he’d realized:

This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.

Fortunately “he saw beings with little dust in their eyes” and decided it was worth trying.

And he was trying to express something subtle in quite an earthy language. To give you an example, there’s a word “gocara” that’s often translated as something like “sphere,” as in “the sphere of the Awakened One.” The word gocara is a compound term, with “go” meaning “cow” and “cara” meaning “faring” or “wandering.” So the “sphere of the Awakened One” is more literally “the Buddha’s cow-pasture.” It has a pleasant, earthy ring to it, even more so than when we similarly use the word “field,” as in “his field is nuclear physics.”

Anyway, our own language has its limitations too, and we’re also trying to understand in our language something that was said in another. So we’re dependent on scholars and translators and their work, and on tools like dictionaries, which were also created by scholars and translators. The problems in all this are particularly evident when we’re discussing something like equanimity. In discussing upekkha we’re really struggling to understand what the Buddha meant — and we should bear in mind that the Buddha was probably struggling in having to use the word upekkha to cover several different kinds of mental quality. I’ve already pointed out the dangers of misreading equanimity as “not caring.” But even interpretations that avoid the error of thinking that equanimity is a neutral and indifferent state can be wide of the mark.

What if upekkha is really love plus insight? Let’s take love to mean the desire to help beings be all they can be, so that they can maximize their experience of peace and joy. And let’s take insight to mean seeing deeply into the nature of the mind, so that we really understand, on a very profound level, how peace comes about through an appreciation of impermanence. And so equanimity becomes about helping beings to become awakened.

There’s an old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.” How about if we had sayings like “Be kind to someone and they’re at peace for a day; teach someone to be kind to themselves, and they can be at peace for a lifetime”? Or something like “Recognize that you have no permanent and separate self, and you can behave toward others in ways that bring them joy; help someone to see that they have no permanent and separate self, and they can create their own joy”?

I’m struggling with language too, but I hope you get my point.

I think upekkha (equanimity as a translation seems almost entirely to miss the point) is really about helping others to become awakened because of your compassion. Let’s remember that “upekkha” is from a root meaning “to closely watch over.” It’s not directly about “balance” or “even-mindedness” at all. Those qualities are present in it, because if we’ve found the deep peace that comes from recognizing impermanence then we’re at peace. But I believe that upekkha is actually about wanting to share our insight, and the peace that arises from it, with others. It’s thus a close parallel with mudita (joyful appreciation) which is about wanting to see others developing skillful qualities, so that they can experience the joy and peace that comes from them.

Now you might be thinking something like, “Wait a minute, I’m not enlightened. I don’t have any insight to share.” But what I said above is only an approximation of the practice. I believe that when we’re cultivating upekkha, we’re both seeking insight ourselves, and wanting to see it develop in others too. All of the brahmaviharas have this dual nature; for example in developing metta we’re wanting to develop love ourselves, but we’re also wishing that others be well and happy. And when are beings well and happy? It’s when they’re experiencing metta. So we’re wishing for others what we’re developing ourselves.

So in upekkha bhavana we’re exploring impermanence, and trying to come to terms with it in order to experience the profound letting go that brings peace, and out of our love and compassion for others we wish them also to come to terms with impermanence and to experience that same letting go into peace. We want to be enlightened; we want others to become enlightened. We want awakened qualities to manifest in the world.

And it’s partly through our speech that we’re going to be able to help others develop insight. Possibly it’s going to happen in teaching situations, or where we’re studying with others, but it could also take place in therapeutic situations on in friendships.

The Buddha, in talking about skillful communication, held helpful speech and speech that brings harmony to be the highest forms of communication. For example, here’s how the Buddha describes spiritually helpful speech: “He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal” (emphasis added). And rather than speak in divisive ways, we should speak in ways that create harmony: “Reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he is impassioned for peace (samagga), delights in peace, rejoices in peace, speaks things that create peace.”

I don’t want to suggest that it’s only speech through which we can put our upekkha into action, nor do I want to suggest that we should be continually pointing out to others that things are impermanent or that they have a mistaken view of their selves! There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. But I’d suggest just carrying around this view, as a practice, in the background of your mind, that you want to be awakened. And as you think about others, or see them, or interact with them, call to mind that you want them to be enlightened as well, so that they can experience the deep peace of awakening.

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

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Upekkha as an insight practice (Day 85)

100 Days of LovingkindnessOne of the things I love is that when you spend some time hanging out with a practice, you often start to see it in new ways. This has happened for me with each of the four brahmavihara practices we’ve been exploring — lovingkindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and also equanimity, which is what we’re currently focusing on. I see each of these practices differently after practicing them regularly and reflecting on them, but I’m also starting to see things about the brahmaviharas as a whole that I’d never noticed before.

I’m noticing a kind of progression, suggesting an underlying framework that crops up over and over again in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this progression, but I’m now seeing it in a new way.

By way of background, many of the Buddha’s overviews of the path can be seen as consisting of two synergistic activities, which it’s tempting to call “stages” although that terminology is a bit misleading, since it tends to assume that the first stage is “lower” and less important than the second. In a synergy, both factors are crucial, and it’s not possible to say that one is more important than the other because each depends on the other for its fulfillment. These two synergistic activities that crop up over and over again are different ways of doing what I call “unselfing” — that is, reducing the sense of separateness that causes us to suffer.

These synergistic activities are found, for example, in the categories of puñna and pañña, or merit and insight. “Merit” is where we “unself” by developing skillfulness. We change our emotional and cognitive habits so that we think, speak, and act more skillfully. We replace greed with contentment, letting go, and generosity. We replace ill will with love and compassion. We become less selfish and less self-oriented, and more in tune with other people. This aspect of practice is like knocking down weeds and planting flowers. Insight is where we uproot the very cause of greed and ill will, by closely examining our experience and realizing that because everything that constitutes “us” is constantly changing, we don’t have the kind of separate and unchanging self that can be defended by ill will or bolstered by greed. So this is a more radical form of unselfing, where we learn to see through the delusion of separate selfhood.

Puñña and pañña — together — help us to abandon selfishness and self-view.

And these two, puñña and pañña, are mutually supportive. We can’t develop insight until we’ve done substantial work on ourselves to reduce our negativity and to become more open and positive. So puñña supports pañña. But as we begin to develop more appreciation into the impermanent nature of our experience, and of our selves, we find that we naturally become more skillful. So pañña supports puñña.

And this pattern of synergy can be seen in the terms samatha (calming) and vipassana (clearly seeing), and in the formula of the three trainings (ti-sikkha), where ethics and meditation correspond to puñña, and wisdom to pañña. And this can be seen in many other teachings as well, where there’s often a pattern of skillful qualities giving rise to concentration, which allows us to make a breakthrough into insight, which is sometimes described as “seeing things as they really are” or simply as “equanimity” (but here talking about the equanimity of the awakened mind, and not as the brahmavihara, although the one can lead to the other).

The brahmaviharas follow the same pattern, but in a particularly interesting way.

Metta and karuna (lovingkindness and compassion) are where we wish that beings be happy and free from suffering. We recognize, though our ability to resonate (anukampa) with others, that all beings wish to be happy and don’t wish to suffer. We all share these deep drives. And when we really recognize the universality of these drives, we find it harder and harder to stand in the way of others’ happiness, or to cause them suffering. Just knowing this intellectually isn’t enough, of course. We have to train our ability to resonate, and we have to train our ability to be kind and compassionate. (And we also have to train to be less selfish, grasping, and antagonistic). So this is a puñña activity, where we’re changing our habits and becoming less selfish.

Then there’s mudita, joyful appreciation. Now this is often described as us feeling joyful when we see joy in others. And seen that way it’s a mirror image of compassion, which is what we feel when we see pain in others. But mudita is far more than being empathetically joyful. It’s appreciating the skillful in others and appreciating the joy and peace that comes from those skillful qualities. It’s recognizing the operation of karma — how our actions affect our happiness, for good or bad — and so it’s really an insight practice. But it’s an insight practice that focuses on the arising of puñña in others. Mudita is when we appreciate, rejoice in, and support the arising of the skillful in others, because we clearly see that these qualities lead to true peace, joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering.

Upekkha is of course an insight practice too. It’s an insight practice where we ourselves cultivate and experience a loving peace. We experience peace as we learn that painful experiences and pleasant experiences come and go. We experience peace as we recognize that selfish clinging and ill will can never bring happiness, and because we’ve recognized that letting go can. We experience peace as we recognize the limits of our own abilities, and so there’s no clinging to unattainable outcomes (“I must save all beings!”) and no despondency and aversion when we’re not able to help others (“Some of those idiots just keep on causing suffering for themselves!”) We experience peace as we recognize that we can do what we can do, but ultimately all beings are the owners of their own karma (actions); ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness. We can help others. We can empathize with them. We can point the way. But as the Dhammapada says, “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” And to the extent that we ourselves have any skill in pointing toward awakening, we have to recognize that others may not be interested in following that direction.

But we’re also wishing this peace for others. Even if we haven’t developed much peace ourselves, we can still wish that others attain to peace. We can wish that they come to recognize impermanence, and that they come to see the arising and passing of experiences with balance and equanimity. We can wish that they learn to let go of the desire to change that which cannot be changed, and that they increasingly see letting go as the path to peace. So really, we’re supporting the development of insight in others.

So mudita, joyful apprecaition, is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others, as they bring about peace and joy through the cultivation of skillful qualities. On the other hand upekkha, or “closely and lovingly watching over others” is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others as they bring about peace and joy by recognizing and realizing impermanence.

Mudita and upekkha are not just things we feel, however. They are intentions that lead to actions. Mudita leads to our rejoicing in the good we see in others, and upekkha leads to us appreciating and supporting any insight we seen in others, so that we help them to let go whenever we can, of any grasping that causes them to suffer. Having unselfed ourselves, we help others to relax their own sense of self, so that they too can become unselfed. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about putting upekkha into practice in our lives.

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

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The still, spacious, and vibrant mind of equanimity (and how to get there) (Day 83)

100 Days of LovingkindnessSometimes 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.

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The “near enemy” of even-minded love (Day 82)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe traditional term “near enemy” points to some spiritually unhelpful quality or experience that can be mistaken for a helpful quality or experience. The near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of what we’re actually aiming for, and it’s unhelpful because while the genuine article helps free us from suffering, the counterfeit doesn’t.

Each of the four practices we’re focusing on in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness — metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joyful appreciation), and upekkha (even-minded love) — collectively known as the divine abidings (brahma viharas) or the “four immeasurables” has a near enemy.

Buddhaghosa, a 6th century commentator, has the following to say about the near enemy of upekkha, or even-minded love, which is translated here as equanimity:

Equanimity has the equanimity of unknowing based on the home life as its near enemy, since both share in ignoring faults and virtues. Such unknowing has been described in the way beginning, “On seeing a visible object with the eye equanimity arises in the foolish infatuated ordinary man, in the untaught ordinary man who has not conquered his limitations, who has not conquered future [kamma] result, who is unperceiving of danger. Such equanimity as this does not surmount the visible object. Such equanimity as this is called equanimity based on the home life.”

You can pretty much ignore the term “home life” here since this doesn’t really have anything to do with living at home, or being a householder as opposed to being a monk or nun. “Home life” is just “monkish” for “spiritually uneducated.”

What this passage as a whole refers to is simply “not caring.” You see a “visible object” such as a suffering person, and you simply don’t care. You may not have aversion for the suffering person (aversion is the far enemy) but for some reason you’re not moved by their plight. Perhaps you lack empathy at that particular time or generally lack empathy. Perhaps you’re cognitively overloaded and can’t take anything else in. Perhaps you’re tired. Perhaps you’re self-preoccupied. Perhaps your mind is moving too fast for you to slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling. Maybe you have a mindset that other people’s suffering is not your problem. Whatever the reason, you just don’t care. You’re apathetic. You “ignore faults and virtues” because other people’s sufferings and joys just don’t interest you..

You may even think that all this is a virtue! You may think that you’re being “detached.” In fact a lot of people have the view that Buddhism is about detachment, and that you shouldn’t have any desires — even positive desires — if you’re practicing the Dharma.

In fact someone just wrote to me today, saying, in part, “To be free of desire – does that mean we shouldn’t have any goals and objectives for anything. or love our families or pursue any desires because ultimately they are impermanent and will eventually lead to suffering?”

This is as bad a misconception of Buddhism as you can have! The Buddha encouraged us to abandon craving, not desires as such. If we abandoned all desires we’d never do anything. We wouldn’t “strive diligently” for awakening (those were the Buddha’s last words). We wouldn’t develop compassion, since wanting to develop compassion is a desire. We wouldn’t practice compassion, since wanting to relieve another’s suffering is also a desire. Practice simply wouldn’t happen without desire! In fact I’d go as far as to say that you need a huge amount of desire to become awakened and to realize the goal of enlightenment, and that most of us lack that level of desire. For most people, the task is to develop enough desire to develop the desire we need for becoming awakened!

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If you benefit from the work I do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

The brahma viharas are mostly defined in terms of desires. Lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy. Compassion is the desire to free beings from suffering. Joyful appreciation is the desire that good qualities, and the peace and joy that come from them, take root and flourish in the world. Without desire the brahma viharas simply wouldn’t exist.

Equanimity, or even-minded love, is not where we say “OK, all that desire for beings to be happy and free from suffering was great — now I’m going to give it up.” It’s the point at which our lovingkindness, our compassion, and our joyful appreciation of the good reach their fullness. It’s when they become imbued with a keen sense of impermanence. Because things change, happiness won’t last. So we don’t get intoxicated when people are happy. Because things change, suffering won’t last either, so we don’t get disappointed or depressed when people suffer. But what you do do is love, have compassion, and appreciate the good. You “ignore faults and virtues” in the sense that your love is unconditional, but not because you don’t care.

None of this causes us to become inactive. In fact, equanimity, or even-minded love, allows us to be more effective and sustained in our actions, because we don’t demotivate ourselves by dipping into depression or hopelessness or fear — or into not caring, the “near enemy” of equanimity — but are unshakable in our love and in our efforts to help beings.

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Equanimity’s “far enemies” (Day 81)

100 Days of LovingkindnessBuddhaghosa 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.

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“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” Marcus Aurelius (Day 80)

marcus aurelius“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.

100 Days of LovingkindnessIn 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.

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Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)

100 Days of LovingkindnessUpekkha, or even-minded love, is the fourth of the series of meditations we’re looking at in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series.

As I discussed in the first post on upekkha, this word has several different meanings, although they’re all related.

There’s:

  1. Even-mindedness where we are able to accept ups and downs (specifically, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings) without being thrown off-balance.
  2. Even-mindedness in the deep states of meditative absorption called jhana, where the mind is very stable and focused.
  3. Even-mindedness as one of the four immeasurables (brahmaviharas), where we have even-minded love.
  4. Even-mindedness as a synonym for the awakened state, or enlightenment, where greed, hatred, and delusion have been unrooted, and so the mind is not thrown off-balance by them.

Now I don’t think these are entirely separate. I pointed out that upekkha as a synonym for the awakened experience (type 4) could be the same thing as the brahmavihara (type 3), but experienced permanently. Even-mindedness as an experience in jhana (type 2) is just ordinary even-mindedness (type 1) plus concentration. And even-mindedness as a brahmavihara (type 3) is just even-mindedness (type 1) plus love.

Since even-mindedness type 1 is the basis for all the rest, we should take a look at that.

The Buddha talked about there being “two arrows.” The first arrow is when we have an experience that is painful in some way. That’s an inevitable part of life. But then there follows a second arrow, which consists of our aversive response to pain. So we think “This shouldn’t happen to me! It’s not fair!” Or we think “It’s his fault!” Or we think, “This is horrible, this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life!” Or we think, “This always happens to be. It must show that I’m a bad person, unworthy of being loved. My life sucks!” And all of these responses simply cause us more pain: hence, the second arrow.

And the same kind of dynamic works for pleasant feelings as well, except that the pain usually comes when the pleasant feeling has gone, and we mourn it, or when we find ourselves having been led into unwise actions in pursuit of further pleasure.

So the Buddha’s advice is simply to observe feelings as they arise and pass away, and to accept them mindfully without reacting with either craving or aversion. This acceptance of our feelings is equanimity, even-mindedness, or upekkha. We don’t ignore any pain or pleasure, and in fact we’re more conscious of it than when we’re busy reacting to it. We simply notice it as another experience. We lose the judgment. It’s not “bad” to experience pain, and it’s not “good” to experience pleasure.

And this is important in each of the brahmaviharas. At a very basic level, at the start of a period of lovingkindness, we have to become aware of how we feel, so that we know what we’re working with. Now it actually doesn’t matter whether we feel good, or feel terrible, or whether we don’t know how we feel — it’s only important that we’re aware of what our experience is. So if you’re feeling unhappy, that’s OK. To be paradoxical, it’s not “bad” to feel bad. You just feel unhappy, you accept the unhappiness, and you start cultivating lovingkindness for yourself. If you’re feeling happy, then that’s fine too. Same thing: just accept what’s there and start cultivating lovingkindness. If you’re not sure how you’re feeling, this is probably because you’re not feeling much. You’re experiencing a neutral feeling. And you accept that and start cultivating lovingkindness toward yourself. It’s all too common for people to go into a downward spiral when they feel bad or feel neutral, because they assume that something is wrong. Equanimity prevents this happening. It stabilizes the mind. We neither reject who we are, nor crave to become someone else. We simply accept what’s going on, and work patiently with it.

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And, later in each of these practices, we call to mind people who are friends, people you neither like nor dislike, and people you have a conflicted relationship with. Generally when we think of a friend we’ll experience pleasant feelings, a neutral person neutral feelings, and a difficult person unpleasant feelings. So these practices give us the opportunity to develop equanimity. We cultivate the ability to sit mindfully with the three basic “flavors” of feeling. This is a very important part of lovingkindness practice. The more we’re able to have equanimity for our painful, pleasant, and neutral feelings, the easier it is to cultivate upekkha.

In a more vipassana approach (and by that I means simply meditation that focuses on impermanence, non-self, and the unsatisfactoriness of our experiences, rather than the form of meditation taught by Goenka or other teachers as “Vipassana” or “Insight Meditation”) we can train ourselves to observe that our feelings come and go. This is something we know, of course. But in paying particular attention to this fact — by observing it in action — we take our feelings less personally. We’re not so prone to reacting when we remember the impermanence of our feelings. Also in a vipassana approach we can learn to recognize that because our feelings pass through, they’re not ultimately a part of us: “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this” was the phrase that the Buddha taught. And lastly, in a vipassana approach to feelings, we can recognize that no feeling is capable, fundamentally, either of permanently destroying our wellbeing or of giving lasting happiness. We recognize the dukkha, or unsatisfactory nature of our experiences, and recognize that it’s not the contents of our experience that create happiness or lack of happiness, but the way we relate to the contents of our experience.

And the most powerful thing we can do to transform our relationship with the contents of our experience is to allow it to be, with equanimity.

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

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