Where the currents of construing do not flow (Day 94)

‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? ‘I am’ is a construing. ‘I am this’ is a construing. ‘I shall be’ is a construing. ‘I shall not be’… ‘I shall be possessed of form’… ‘I shall not be possessed of form’… ‘I shall be percipient’… ‘I shall not be percipient’… ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient’ is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace. [Dhatuvibhanga Sutta]

The “construing” that the Buddha talks about here is construing that we have some kind of self, or any kind of construing based on the assumption that we have some kind of self. Construing that “I am” is a source of suffering. Construing that “I am this” or “I am like this” or “this is what I am” is a source of suffering. Construing what we will be like, or not be like, in the future is a source of suffering.

The Buddha lived without a sense of self, and he, out of upekkha — the compassionate and loving desire to lead beings to peace — encouraged us to let go of identifying anything as the self, or living in any kind of self-referential way.

This might seem quite puzzling, but actually there are many times when our sense of self is wafer thin. When we’re in any state of “flow” or joyful absorption, we largely lose our sense of self. We simply act spontaneously and unselfconsciously. We get to the point where the practices I was pointing to in yesterday’s post are a way of life. When we’re aware of ourself we’re aware that “stuff just happens.” We simply notice experience, thought, feeling, action — noticing itself — springing into being without “us” having to do anything. Life is spontaneous, and free, and effortless.

This doesn’t imply that we should not take responsibility for ourselves. This is one of the greatest apparent paradoxes of the spiritual path! There is no “you” to take responsibility for yourself, and yet taking responsibility just happens. When I assume there’s a “me” that takes responsibility for myself, I’m back to construing a self. I’ve taken one part of myself (words truly can’t express this, so we end up with these ambiguities) to be “the boss,” the “real me.” But the part or parts of me that takes responsibility is no more “really” me than the parts of me that are resistant to taking responsibility.

What ends up happening, in effect, is that a self-organizing process emerges. It’s like an ecosystem; you don’t have this “thing” called an ecosystem that’s saying “OK, this tree has died, now we need to recycle it. Send in the fungi!” There’s no central control that says “The beetles are getting out of hand, let’s breed some more sparrows to eat them and keep the numbers down.” It all just happens. And the collection of experiences and impulses that we call the self acts this way too. As it happens, the “self” in which the perception of a self is most strong is the “self” in which there’s most conflict and turbulence. And the “self” in which the perception of a self is most weak, or even absent, is the “self” in which there is most peace and joy.

This stuff is hard to communicate. Forgive my rambling.

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long? It was in reference to this that it was said, ‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’

Not only is the awakened mind not busy making assumptions about itself — “construing” a self — it’s, of course, therefore not busy construing things about this self. So we could read that the “sage at peace,” who has let go of the compulsion to be self-referential, not being born, not aging, not dying is something to do with rebirth in some heavenly realm (or, god forbid “going to Nirvana,” as if Nirvana was a place you could go to). But I think it’s both simpler and more profound than this: The sage at peace doesn’t think of him or herself as being anything, or as having any attributes, so the sage at peace doesn’t think about having a self that can age, or die, or be born.

Think about it. How old do you actually feel? You might have associations that aches in the body equate to “old,” but actually that’s just an assumption. Aches are aches, not age. I don’t feel any age! I don’t think I’ve ever done more than make assumptions that feeling one way is “feeling young” and feeling another way is “feeling old.” In essence, I have no age.

The Buddha points to how our experiences constantly changing, ourself (if we had such a thing) is constantly changing too:

Having sensed a feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] , ‘my self’ has perished.

But the sage at peace is not even construing these feelings to be the self. So there isn’t even a self that is being born or dying. Birth and death cannot happen to one who has abandoned the construing of a self.

This, in fact, is why the awakened individual is a “sage at peace.” There’s nothing to have, so nothing to lose.

So one again, the relation of this to upekkha is that upekkha being a wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening, we’re wishing that they experience this freedom from “construing.” We’re wishing that we, and they, experience a complete freedom from being self-referential, and complete freedom from the suffering self-construing brings. We’re wishing them peace.

May all beings cease construing. May all beings find awakening. May all beings dwell in peace.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Lay your burden down (Day 93)

To recap, upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) know the profound peace of awakening. Since lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy, upekkha is kind of lovingkindness on steroids; for beings to attain the deepest peace possible, they have to awaken from the delusion of separate and permanent selfhood, which is a key source of our suffering. It’s losing this sense of separateness and permanence that’s, in fact, the key to awakening. So to be “upekkhaful” (and I may be the first person on the planet to have used that term in writing!) is to desire that beings awaken and find peace.

I’ve already talked about one way in which we can “un-self” — by examining the impermanence of everything that we could take to constitute a self. Everything we can become aware of within ourselves — the body, the physical sensations arising from it, our feelings, our thoughts and memories — is changing all the time. So the casual but deep-rooted assumption we have that there is something “essential” that defines us is challenged. And eventually that assumption is dropped. It’s seen to be a myth, and is abandoned, like childhood stories of Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus.

But there are other approaches as well. One of the approaches I’ve stumbled upon which, like many other approaches I’ve stumbled upon, was taught by the Buddha, is to recognize that we don’t own our experiences, or anything else that could be taken to constitute a self.

Here’s the Buddha’s take:

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe argument here is that if our bodies were really our bodies, then we’d be able to control them completely, for example by commanding them not to age. If our feelings were truly our own we’d be able to change our likes and dislikes at whim. If our perceptions were truly ours we’d be able to look at these words and see them as abstract shapes rather than as words. If our “determinations” were our own then it wouldn’t be hard to change our habits: if you wanted to diet, for example, you’d just diet, without any conflict or slip-ups. If our consciousness was truly our own, we could just decide to be happy, and we’d be happy. We could decide not to think, and we wouldn’t think.

Now most people would likely say in response to this that they can’t control themselves entirely, but they do control themselves to some extent, and so they have a self that in some sense — in some important sense — does in fact own its constituents. Aren’t you able to wish that your open hand clench into a fist and then relax back into an open hand again? I’ll come back to that…

For now, just start to notice, as I often do and as I often encourage students to do, the mystery of where your thoughts and actions come from. One of the most striking things is to notice speech and thought. When you’re next in the flow of a conversation with someone, start to hear your own words as if you were an outside observer, listening to yourself. And then notice that you don’t know what words are going to emerge from your mouth before they emerge. There’s no consciousness of a process by which you assemble the words in advance. They just appear. You don’t know what you’re going to say any sooner than the other person you’re talking to. That’s kind of weird. Where does your speech come from? It just appears to you, fully formed, as if you’ve been handed a script. Who is the script writer?

Sure, there are times that you rehearse what you’re going to say. You’re listening to your friend talk and also formulating a response (which means you’re not really listening to them, but let’s leave that for now). But start to notice that you don’t know what you’re going to think before you think it. Where does your thought come from? Again, it just appears to you, fully formed. Thought is just a special case of speech, where you’re speaking to yourself. “You” (the conscious you) doesn’t have any hand in creating your thoughts. “You” (the conscious you) just notices them as they arise. If “you” (the conscious you) did actually generate thoughts, then you’d be able to control what you thought, and not have this strange situation where you’re trying to pay attention to your breathing but instead are bombarded with a constant stream of inner chatter.

Another striking example of how “you” don’t really have control is noticing the body in action. I encourage students to notice the body doing things on its own. So right now you’re reading. You haven’t really noticed how the eyes are sweeping from side to side, moving down the screen. You certainly weren’t issuing conscious commands to your eyes to do this. In fact your eyes are making tiny jittering movements that are completely outside your control. Who is reading?

Or when you’re walking, catch yourself in the act of moving your legs (you were probably thinking about something and only dimly aware that your legs were moving) and notice how you weren’t giving any conscious instruction to the many muscles in your legs, which were nevertheless doing a great job of getting you from point A to point B. Who is walking?

Or when you’re driving, notice how your hands, arms, legs, and head are all smoothly operating in such a way as to control the vehicle. There may in fact be times when you’re lost in thought and are totally unaware you have been driving. Who is driving?

In a sense, “not-you” is reading, walking, driving (and breathing, blinking, swallowing, and twitching the big toe on your left foot). These are completely outside your consciousness, and so aren’t really part of your (conscious) self. And your conscious self is just (sometimes) noticing the actions of these parts of you and — and this is important — thinking that it runs the show. Most times, as soon as you become aware of your reading, driving, walking, blinking, swallowing, toe-twitching, “you” assume that “you” are doing these things. Of course “you” weren’t even aware of them a moment before.

This sense of ownership is a form of clinging, and clinging is a source of suffering. Feeling that you “have” a self, you have something to defend. Your self is perceived as being in conflict with other selves, so there’s aggression. So it’s this sense of ownership that we need to lose in order to experience a deeper sense of peace.

But, you are still objecting, you can desire to move my arm, and your arm moves — thus! Surely that demonstrates ownership. Well, not really! Where did the thought “I’m going to move my arm” come from? It came from “down there” in the not-self. You didn’t create the thought consciously. It just appeared to you. Its having appeared to you, you claimed ownership of it, but you didn’t in fact create it. Then the thought having appeared, it is heard “down there” in the not-self — those parts of “you” that aren’t really you because you can’t control them or even really know them. And the “not-you” that is “down there” then initiates a series of actions that raise the arm. You certainly don’t say “OK, I’m going to contract the deltoid at such-and-such a rate and applying such-and-such a force at the same time as I relax the pectoralis major, and at the same time I’m going to relax the triceps and contract the biceps…” It all just happens.

And sometimes it doesn’t. If someone say, shows you their pet tarantula and tells you it’s perfectly safe to touch it, you may find that you’re telling your arm to move but “down there” the “not you” decides that it’s very much not, thank you very much, going to comply. Or you can be hypnotized not to be able to move your arm: “down there” has received an instruction from someone else not to move, and it’s not going to listen to “you” (which is to say, other parts of “down there”).

So what we take to be conscious control is simply unconscious control coming from “not you” and passing through a kind of “conscious space” in the mind as it’s relayed back to some other part of “not you.” As the perception of intentions (“I am going to lift my arm”) passes through this conscious space, some part of “not you” says “Hey, I did that” and a sense of ownership emerges.

If you’re just reading this account, it may make no sense. You’re busy answering the question “who walks?” with “Me, you dummy.” It’s actually scary to let go of this idea that we own ourselves, just as it’s scary for kids not to believe in Santa Claus even if their parents have told them that Santa Claus is a myth. (I’ve been there.) But if you start to actually observe what I’ve been describing, it all becomes very real. By listening to your words appear, by noticing how thoughts just arise, by catching your body in the act of moving, you can trick yourself into letting go of your automatic habit of claiming ownership of your thoughts, words, and actions. There’s a profound letting go, and you notice that thoughts, words, and actions are simply arising, without ownership. And this is tremendously liberating.

The sense of ownership that we carry around with us requires a tremendous amount of energy. It’s a burden. As the Buddha said,

Taking up the burden in the world is stressful.
Casting off the burden is bliss.
Having cast off the heavy burden
and not taking on another,
pulling up craving, along with its root,
one is free from hunger, totally awakened.

We pull up the “root” of craving, which is this sense of “owning” a self.

So, what’s the relevance of this to upekkha? Upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) experience the supreme peace of awakening. One way to experience awakening for ourselves is to let go of clinging to a sense of “ownership” of our thoughts, words, and actions: “casting off the burden is bliss.” But we also compassionately (or upekkhafully) desire this peace for others. We desire that we and others lay down the burden of self. What I’ve outlined above is a way to un-self — to realize that this burden is an unnecessary one.

May all beings be free. May all beings lay their burdens down. May all beings know peace.

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

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Looking into the heart’s depths (Day 92)

Homme et MéditationThe four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are a progressive series of skillful qualities and the meditations in which we cultivate them.

So here’s my “yes, but” guide to how these four brahmavihāras of lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), joyful appreciation (muditā), and the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening (upekkhā) are related to each other.


So we start with the most fundamental brahmavihāra, which is lovingkindness. Lovingkindness grows from an awareness that our deepest desire is to be happy, and a humble recognition that happiness is often quite hard to find. So often we’re excited about something new in our lives — a new car, a new phone, a new relationship — and expect to be happy, and yet find that the course of our lives is bumpy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Happiness comes, happiness goes, and we often don’t seem to have much control of it.

Reflecting on this sense of inconstancy, fragility, and unpredictability can lead to a sense of feeling vulnerable. And although this feeling is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s very real and very healthy, because it’s recognizing our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining happiness that allows us to recognize that others, too, have the same desire and the same difficulty. Desiring happiness and finding happiness to be elusive are fundamental and universal human experiences. Seeing this in others allows us to resonate with them; more and more we naturally want to do nothing to obstruct their happiness, and do what we can to help them be happy.

So basically, in lovingkindness, we wish others well and wish that they be happy.


Yes, we wish that beings be happy, but still beings suffer. It’s when lovingkindness and an awareness of others’ suffering come together than compassion arises. That in fact is the very definition of compassion.

So we become aware of others’ suffering, and wish that they be free from that suffering. And as we train in compassion, increasingly we act in ways that help beings to avoid suffering.

We actually need a bit of upekkha — in the sense of closely watching (the root meaning of upekkhā) our feelings in a non-reactive way — as we cultivate both lovingkindness and compassion. We have to be prepared to accept things not being the way we ideally would want them to be, because we’re wanting beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, and yet so often they’re not happy and keep encountering suffering.

Joyful Appreciation

Yes, we wish beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, but they keep doing things that destroy their own happiness and cause them suffering. Well, don’t we all?

So we need to appreciate, rejoice in, and support the things beings do that actually do lead to peace and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s skillful actions, words, and thoughts that lead to true peace and joy. Skillfulness is that which genuinely leads to happiness and freedom from unnecessary suffering.

So we rejoice in and encourage the development of qualities like courage, patience, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and persistence. And we rejoice in the peace and joy that they bring.

We need even more upekkhā here, so that we don’t blame beings for not “obediently” being skillful! We want them to be happy and not to suffer, and yet they keep doing things that cause themselves and others to suffer. So this has to be handled with patience and forgiveness.

The Desire That Beings Experience the Peace of Awakening

Yes, we rejoice in the skillful, but it’s not possible for beings to become completely free from suffering by acting, thinking, and speaking skillfully. There are deep roots to our unskillful behavior. Unskillfulness is rooted in fundamental views we have about ourselves — false views — about our imagined separateness and permanence. And to uproot our unskillfulness (and the suffering it causes) we have to radically change the way we see ourselves and lose those false views.

In particular we have to cultivate a radical appreciation of impermanence (anicca) , so that we see that there is nothing for our “self” to cling to. In fact we come to see that there is no permanent or separate self to do any clinging in the first place. We can also appreciate that our experiences — even our actions — are not truly ours and are not us (anattā). We can’t hold onto them. We don’t really create them. This is hard to appreciate (your mind is probably rebelling at the concept) but I’ll explain this in a future post. We also develop a radical equanimity, which recognizes that it’s not our experiences that bring us happiness, but the way we relate to our experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha).

These kinds of reflections lead to a profound shift in our perspectives, which we call “insight.” And it’s this insight that leads to irrevocable peace.

So in upekkhā bhāvana meditation we’re wishing the peace of awakening for ourselves and others. We recognize that if — to go back to mettā and karunā (lovingkindness and compassion) — we wish beings to be happy and free from suffering, then we ultimately need to do what we can to get ourselves and others to the point of spiritual awakening.

Upekkhā is often described as the consummation or pinnacle of the earlier brahmavihāras, and as a loving state it’s in no way cold or detached. When we penetrate deeply into lovingkindness we find a passionate desire to bring beings (ourselves included) to full awakening, or bodhi.

Upekkhā is the fulfillment of the other brahmavihāras. It’s their perfection. It’s the deepest form of love. How much more love could we have for beings than to wish for them to be totally free from the three toxins or greed, hatred, and delusion, and the suffering that they cause.

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“May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)

handThis meditation is a recording of a Hangout I did on Google+ with members of Wildmind’s community. It’s an upekkha bhavana meditation, which is not really the “cultivation of equanimity” at all — or at least so I believe. To me, upekkhā is not equanimity. It doesn’t even mean equanimity in its etymological root, but something more like “closely watching.” Upekkhā is when we wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening through accepting impermanence, or the arising and passing of things, or that everything changes (the exact words don’t matter much).

We are of course seeking the peace of awakening ourselves, and so at the beginning of this sit I encourage you to notice the constantly changing nature of your experience. We notice and accept that everything is changing, and this can lead to a profound sense of letting go in which we realize that there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact no one to do any holding on.

And this change is experienced in a loving and compassionate way, since this is, after all, an extension of the mettā (lovingkindness) practice.

I suggested then dropping in the following phrases:

  • May I accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May I find awakening.
  • May I dwell in peace.

These phrases are optional, but they can sharpen and clarify our desire for the peace of awakening, or bodhi.

And then we with the peace of awakening for all beings, starting with a neutral person (someone we don’t have a friendship or conflict with), then a friend, and then someone we do have difficulty with. Lastly, we extend our upekkha to all beings:

  • May all beings accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

In the discussion at the end of the sit I discuss how upekkhā is not equanimity, but is the desire that all beings be liberated, and is exactly the same as the mahākaruṇā (great compassion) of the Mahāyāna. I suspect that the Mahāyāna may have used the term mahākaruṇā to distinguish this desire that all beings be liberated from karuṇā as a brahmavihāra, which is a simpler desire that all beings be free from suffering.


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Five remembrances for deep peace (Day 90)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In 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 Lovingkindness

One 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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Words of equanimity; wordless equanimity (Day 84)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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