We concluded our Cultivating The Heart series with the topic of equanimity. Our work over these classes examined the Four Immeasurable Qualities of the Heart or the Brahmavihāras. The first three, compassion, lovingkindness, and joy, are states that we can cultivate and incline our minds towards. But this isn’t to the exclusion of unpleasant qualities – the true practice of meditation is feeling what we are feeling while we are feeling it. When we are sad or grieving or frustrated or furious, it is helpful to be able to identify this so our words and actions reflect who we are and not the state that we are in.
Equanimity is often thought of as a synonym for balance, or even peace. As it turns out, there are actually two Pali words that are usually translated as equanimity. The first, Upekkha reflects a “seeing with patience,” an awareness that includes some wisdom. Sounds a bit like mindfulness, no? The other word, Tatramajjhattata, literally means “to stand in the middle of all this.” The practice of equanimity is just as much about being with whatever is happening as about balancing it all out.
And thank goodness! The day of this evening workshop, I taught seven straight classes to 7th through 11th graders, coached two sports and stayed up too late the night before. But through it all, I could find brief periods to notice and allow my experience.
Equanimity reflects a fairness and even-mindedness of the mind/heart that can be cultivated with mindfulness and meditation. Releasing the effort to make things a certain way, we instead “become aware of the waves and rest seated in the midst of them.” Below are two practices you can try to arrive at this awareness:
I shared some books that I’ve found helpful in this exploration. The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski and The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by David Whyte. Among Ostaseski’s invitations are to “Find a place of rest in the midst of things” and “Welcome everything, push away nothing.” Whyte addresses the question of finding balance by reminding us that it isn’t just about “work/life” balance but is instead a delicate dance of our vocations, our relationships and our selves. When we try to compartmentalize things that aren’t going right, they infect the other arenas in life. Our task instead is to integrate these three marriages because they just can’t be separated.
“When you look at a tree during a storm, you see that its branches and leaves are swaying back and forth violently in the strong wind. You have the impression that the tree will not be able to withstand the storm. Like the tree, you feel vulnerable. You can break at any time. But if you direct your attention down to the trunk of the tree, you see things differently. You see that the tree is solid and deeply rooted in the ground. If you focus your attention on the trunk of the tree, you realize that because the tree is firmly rooted in the soil, it cannot be blown away.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear
Equanimity is not about ignoring what’s happening or being indifferent to it. Jack Kornfield describes how we can appear serene by standing stoically and may even find a bit of peace or relief as we withdraw or seclude. Indifference, he adds, is based on fear, “True equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things.”
One traditional meditation comes directly from Jack Kornfield’s book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace. Find Jack’s version here or listen below to cultivate the qualities of equanimity.
In this practice, we offer phrases that include
- May I be balanced and at peace.
- May I have true equanimity.
- May I learn to see the arising an passing of all things with equanimity and balance.
- May I bring compassion and equanimity to the events of the world.
- May I find balance and equanimity and peace amidst it all.
As we continue through the meditation, we bring loved ones, strangers, even difficult people to our imagination, offering these wishes to them as well. We do this with a deep self-compassion as we remember, Your happiness and suffering depend on your actions and not on my wishes for you.
The practice of meditation can lead us to an experience of equanimity. But it requires work. I think to the three refugees in Buddhist tradition: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. By practicing regularly with love (Buddha), learning and inquiring (Dharma) and gathering in community (Sangha), we can deepen and reinforce a practice that can be a lifelong companion.