even-mindedness

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 “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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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 Lovingkindness

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.

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Equanimity is love — even-minded love (Day 78)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

It’s easy to forget that upekkha, or equanimity, is love. The word “equanimity” doesn’t sound very loving. It’s coldly Latinate, lofty, and remote, and doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. Few of us are likely to use the word in everyday conversation. The adjective, equanimous, is even worse! Even the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, “even-minded” and “even-mindedness,” don’t convey any sense of love, or kindness, either. But upekkha is a form of love.

The word in Pali or Sanskrit is from a root īkś, which means “to look upon,” along with a prefix upa-, which can mean many things, but which almost always connotes a sense of closeness, as in upaṭṭhāna (attending) and upakiṇṇa (covered over). So although upekkha is usually taken to have a distant quality, it’s actually quite intimate. It means “looking over” but in the sense of being close up. Perhaps we should render upekkha as something more like “equanimous love” or “even-minded love.”

Upatissa, the author of the first century meditation manual I’ve been sharing with you as we explore the “immeasurable” meditations of loving-kindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and now even-minded love, describes upekkha like this:

As parents are neither too attentive nor yet inattentive towards any one of their children, but regard them equally and maintain an even mind towards them, so through equanimity one maintains an even mind towards all beings. Thus should equanimity be known.

The fact that Upatissa talks about parenting reminds us of the warm, intimate nature of upekkha. It’s warm, intimate, and wise, not cold and distant.

Any parent who has more than one child is familiar with the scenario he describes! The other day my daughter asked me: “Who do you love more, daddy? Me or my brother.” And then she cleverly added, “It’s OK if it’s not me.” I think she assumed that her addition would pave the way for me to tell her the “truth” that she wanted to hear (or feared hearing) — although the truth is that of course it’s simply not possible for me to quantify and compare the love I have for each of my children.

My kids are in full on dispute with each other at the moment. My four-year-old son is going in for a tonsillectomy tomorrow. He’s terrified of the prospect, naturally, and this is leading to him acting out in various ways, like having temper tantrums and meltdowns, and this has led to him doing things like hitting his six-year-old sister. This in turn has led her to “punishing” him by trying to exacerbate his anxiety — reminding him of his operation at every available opportunity, and sometimes going into graphic detail about how sore his throat will be afterwards, asking what kind of knife the surgeon will use, etc. And that leads him to get revenge by breaking her stuff. It’s a classic tale of spiraling vengeance!

So in the midst of any particular situation of conflict — he’s just broken her special bracelet, or she’s slyly reminded him of his operation by “helpfully” reminding him that he’ll get to have ice cream afterward — there’s no possibility of taking sides. I realize that both are suffering, and I want both to be happy. My son hurts his sister and I realize that both are having a hard time. Yes, he needs to be told that he can’t act this way, but fundamentally he also needs sympathy and to be helped in dealing with his anxiety. My daughter torments her brother and again she has to be encouraged to act less like a tiny torturer and more like a helpful big sister, but she also needs support because she’s suffering from having to cope with his anxiety and the behavior that springs from it.

So I can’t take sides. I don’t mean that I “shouldn’t” take sides. I’m incapable of taking sides. I can’t say “this child deserves happiness more than the other.” That just makes no sense.

So if you really, deeply, recognize that all beings want to be happy, and that they want to be free from suffering — when you realize that each being’s happiness and suffering is as real to them as it is for you and for any other being — there can be no sense of welcoming one person being happy at another’s expense. There is sympathy for all.

The thought may have crossed your mind — and it certainly crossed mine — OK, so Bodhipaksa says he can do this with his children, but his children are still his children, and is it even possible to have this kind of even-minded love for strangers, or for people we’re not related to, like other people’s children? Don’t we have an inbuilt bias, because after all we have a great history of affection and of relatedness with those we’re close to — friends, family — that we don’t share with strangers? It’s a good question. But when one of my kids is involved in an altercation with a child from another family — and this happens almost on a daily basis — I don’t see my own children’s happiness as being any different from, or important than, any other child’s. So in sorting out any dispute I try to maintain an awareness that the kids on both sides are suffering and want happiness. Sure, I’m going to put effort into protecting, feeding, and clothing my own children and not with the neighbors’ kids — but that’s a separate issue. That’s to do with the nature of the relationship we have, and the resources available to me. It doesn’t mean that I think my children’s happiness is more important to them than the neighbors’ kids’ happiness is to them.

This quality of even-minded love is inherent in all the other practices. It’s very similar to the final stage of the lovingkindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation practices, where we cease focusing on individual relationships and simply imbue the mind with those loving qualities, so that any being the mind touches, whether it’s because we encounter them in our lives or because we meet them in our thoughts, is touched by a loving quality. In the final stage of these practices there is a quality of even-mindedness, where we let go of our likes and dislikes. Happiness is desired by all, and suffering is something that all wish to avoid. Our likes and dislikes, our social connectedness or lack thereof, can obscure this truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. And so the practice of equanimity is to see past these obscurations in order to recognize this truth.

So upekkha is love. It’s even-minded love, where we maintain an even mind towards all beings as we wish them well. It’s not a cold or distant state. It’s simply where we drop our biases and value all beings’ happiness and wellbeing.

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

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