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