evenmindedness

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

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Sometimes 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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“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.

In order to strengthen our even-mindedness, we can cultivate lovingkindness while bearing in mind that although we wish happiness for beings, they’re not necessarily going to find it, and when they do it’s not going to last. We can bear in mind their sufferings and develop compassion, wishing that they be free from suffering, and at the same time remember that any freedom from suffering that they experience will be temporary. And we can rejoice in their good qualities and the peace and joy flowing from those qualities, and remember that any peace they may experience is a phenomenon, like every other experience, that arises and passes away.

Non-equanimity is like sitting on the shore, watching waves rising and falling and cheering when the waves rise, mourning when they fall. With equanimity we recognize that the waves are not under our control. They rise, they fall; we watch, with love.

The “love” part of this is important. It’s easy to be fooled by words like equanimity and even-mindedness into thinking that upekkha is an emotionless, detached quality. Rather, it’s a form of love. It’s well-wishing. In upekkha we sincerely love beings and desire that they be well and that they be free from suffering, but we also accept that happiness and suffering are impermanent experiences that arise and fall outside of our control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our love, or that acting is pointless. We act with kindness; we seek to relieve compassion where we can; we encourage and rejoice in the good we see in others. But we don’t get attached to outcomes. When we do get attached to things turning out in a particular way, we may initially wish beings well or wish to relieve their suffering, but we soon become frustrated or despondent. We try to help them and perhaps they don’t want to be helped, and our love turns to aversion. Or we don’t have the skill to assist them, and we feel dejected. We act compassionately to help one person, and recognize that there’s an immeasurable amount of suffering in the world, and our efforts are just a drop in the ocean, and we feel depressed and hopeless.

This is why equanimity is necessary, and why it pervades the other three brahmaviharas. But it’s also cultivated as a quality of even-minded love in its own right, as the fulfillment of love.

In the formal practice, we develop a state of loving equanimity toward ourselves, by wishing ourselves well while bearing in mind that the joy and sorrow we experience is impermanent, and by simply accepting any pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences that may arise.

Then we do the same with a neutral person (someone who we neither like nor dislike), then with a person we find difficult, then with a friend. Finally we expand our awareness into the world around us, where happiness and unhappiness rise and fall like waves on the ocean, and we wish all beings well while accepting the impermanence of their joys and sorrows.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Guided Upekkha Bhavana (Cultivating Evenmindedness) (Day 77)

This is one of the guided meditations that I led recently in a Google+ Hangout.

This particular one is a guide to developing the quality of equanimity (upekkha), or even-mindedness. There’s an introductory talk in which I outline four different uses of the term equanimity, and then I guided the class through an approach to meditation in which we lose our sense of separateness, so that there’s an element of anatta (not-self) brought into the practice before we begin to cultivate lovingkindness.

The practice also brings together mental stillness and non-reactivity, and metta, or lovingkindness. It’s important to remember that “even-mindedness” (or equanimity) is actually “even-minded love” or “equanimous love” and isn’t a state of uncaring.

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

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Cultivating equanimity or evenmindedness (upekkha) (Day 76)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I think of equanimity, as a brahma vihara, as love accompanied by insight.

The fourth of the series of practices we’ve been exploring in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness is evenmindedness, which is more often translated as equanimity. The Pali word for this is upekkha, and in Sanskrit (Pali’s big sister, so to speak) this is upeksha.

The word upekkha actually covers a number of distinct but related qualities, with the common factor being non-reactivity. Here are three ways the Buddha talked about equanimity — and that’s before we talk about the practice of equanimity as a brahmavihara (the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings, beingthe four practices we’re exploring over this 100 days).

  • The word upekkha can point to a quality of not being thrown mentally off balance by our experience. Usually we have a tendency to react with aversion when something unpleasant happens. “Who used the last of the coffee!” And we can get rather giddy when something enjoyable happens, which may seem nice at the time, but it’s very unpleasant when the giddiness ends; witness how you feel when the new iPhone you’re so excited about gets its first scratch. So in developing everyday evenmindedness, we’re more mindful. We notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences arising, and we have a certain attitude of standing back, observing, and not getting too emotionally caught up. We can simply remember that it’s better for us to have equanimity than it is to get worked up, and, as the Buddha put it instead of a fixation on the agreeable, disagreeable, or neutral experience, “equanimity takes its stance.”
  • Upekkha can refer to a factor of jhana, meaning a deep meditative state of stillness and absorption. Equanimity arises as a factor in the third level of jhana. In the first jhana we’re more or less absorbed in the meditation practice, although there’s still some thinking going on. In the second level of jhana our attention is more stabilized in the body, the thinking stops, and we more strongly experience pleasurable bodily feelings that are called rapture. In the third jhana we move our focus to the emotion of joy, which is very stable, and equanimity arises: “Then there is the case where a monk, with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses joy [sukha] with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a joyful [again, sukha] abiding.'” So this is a deep stillness of mind, in which there is no thought, and joy is firmly established. And then in the fourth jhana, we cease paying attention to the experience of joy, and our equanimity becomes “purified” and even more intensely still. This is a state of deep peace, which is even more satisfying than the joy that was previously experienced.
  • Then there’s upekkha as a synonym for the awakened state. This is where non-reactivity is permanently established (more or less).

These three are covered in one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Niramisa Sutta:

“Now, O monks, what is worldly equanimity? There are these five cords of sensual desire … [things] that are wished for and desired, agreeable and endearing, associated with sense desire and alluring. It is the equanimity that arises with regard to these five cords of sense desire which is called ‘worldly equanimity.’

“Now, what is unworldy equanimity? With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of gladness and sadness, a monk enters upon and abides in the fourth meditative absorption, which has neither pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called ‘unworldly equanimity.’

“And what is the still greater unworldly equanimity? When a taint-free monk looks upon his mind that is freed of greed, freed of hatred and freed of delusion, then there arises equanimity. This is called a ‘still greater unworldly equanimity.’

But strangely, that list of three types of equanimity doesn’t include any mention of the Brahmavihara.

  • So fourthly, there’s equanimity or evenmindnedness as the fourth brahmavihara.

Evenmindedness as a brahmavihara shares the quality of non-reactivity that the other three senses of upekkha have. But it’s a brahmavihara, so it’s also a loving state. The equanimity of not-reacting to pleasant or unpleasant experiences may or may not be loving. The equanimity of jhana is joyful, but may or may not be loving. Equanimity as a brahmavihara is both non-reactive and is, by definition, loving. The equanimity of enlightenment I can’t speak about from experience, but the later Mahayana tradition emphasized compassion — an obviously loving quality — as an aspect of the enlightened experience, along with wisdom. In the earlier tradition it seems that the emphasis was more on equanimity, but unfortunately that term doesn’t sound very loving, even though it is an aspect of love!

There is an element of insight involved in the brahmavihara of upekkha. This can be love plus an awareness of impermanence, or love plus an awareness of non-self, or love along with an awareness of the intrinsically unsatisfactory nature of our experiences. And it’s this combination of love and insight that I see as characterizing evenmindnedness as a brahmavihara. Equanimity is love plus insight.

So the way I see it is that equanimity as the brahmavihara and equanimity as awakening are really the same thing, it’s just that the insight has sunk in to different degrees. In the brahmavihara we’re letting insight sink in, and in awakening it’s sunk in all the way, so that insight has fully transformed us.

  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that they and every experience they have is impermanent.
  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that our love is not our love and that there is really no separation between “ourselves” and “the world,”
  • And we love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that
    letting go ever more deeply into love and compassion is the way to peace, not clinging to craving and aversion.

So we work with these understandings in the brahmavihara of equanimity, and eventually they cause a deep change within us, and those understandings become permanent. At that point we’re experiencing upekkha — equanimity, evenmindedness — not as a practice but as an ongoing part of the way we are. At that point we’re awakened.

So we’ll be exploring there various aspects of equanimity — not just upekkha as a brahmavihara but also evenmindnedness as a positive quality in everyday life — over the remainder of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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