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Calm, Clear Mind

Often, we cling to joy and run from sorrow, but the practice of upekkha—"equanimity"—can help us embrace every experience.

By Anne Cushman

My three-year-old son, Skye, started preschool a few weeks ago—the same week, coincidentally, that my editor at Yoga Journal began gently reminding me that my article on upekkha, or "equanimity," was overdue.

The transition to preschool was a tough one for both me and Skye. He's a quirky, sensitive child who's uncomfortable in groups—the sort of kid who loves nature walks and loathes birthday parties, who prefers dismantling a music box with a screwdriver to kicking a soccer ball around the backyard. Skye gamely made it through the first day of school, but the second morning, he burst into tears as I dropped him off. He had thought that going to school was a one-shot deal, and he was devastated to learn that it was likely to go on day after day for the next 20-odd years. ("Don't even tell him about work," sighed my editor.)

I drove away in a smog of guilt and anxiety, and spent the morning pacing around my office, trying to conjure up insights into equanimity while fighting off images of Skye brushing tears out of his eyes as he waved good-bye. Feeling about as equanimous as Sylvia Plath on acid, I picked up a Buddhist text for inspiration and landed on the classic phrase for cultivating upekkha: "All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them."

I have to admit that this phrase was not immediately comforting.

Radiant Calm

In buddhist philosophy, upekkha—a Pali word that literally means "balance"—is the culmination of the four brahmaviharas, the inner realms of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In the words of vipassana teacher Sharon Salzberg, upekkha is "a spacious stillness of the mind, a radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives."

Through observance of the first three brahmaviharas, we offer love, compassion, and joy to other people and ourselves. We contact our deepest wishes that all beings be joyful and free of suffering, and we do our utmost to make that happen.

Through the counterbalancing insights of upekkha, we recognize that despite our intentions and efforts, our wishes might not come true. Upekkha acknowledges that most of life is beyond our control; it's the karmic flowering of causes and conditions larger than ourselves. Upekkha reminds us that we all churn through the full range of human experience: pain and pleasure, praise and blame, gain and loss. It teaches us to let go of our attachment to things being a certain way for ourselves and for other people—even as, paradoxically, we continue to strive for the best.

Equanimity on the Mat

Every time we step onto our yoga mat, we have a potent opportunity to cultivate this kind of equanimity. The moment we turn our attention inward, we often notice that we're swimming in a surging sea of sensations, emotions, and thoughts—some pleasant and some not so pleasant. Through conscious, calming breath and movement, we can find an island of peace and stability amidst the raging surf. From that vantage point, we can begin to study the way we relate to our experiences: the way we push away the distasteful ones and clutch at the alluring ones, the way we strain to control the uncontrollable.

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Reader Comments

fleur

What a great article! Love the conclusion - we all have such wisdom when we are in little packages :)
I often think yoga is about refinding all the wisdom we are born with before fear and pain make us doubt ourselves, in our bodies and our souls. Bet the author's son does a beautiful shoulderstand too! x

Kim Tierney

That was beautifully said. Thank you.

janet

We need some calm in our lives.
I remeber those days when my daughter went to kindergarten. I was crying my eyes out when she left me. Now that she is in high school, I am now teaching her and my son how to be calm from yoga. They both enjoy it as well as I do -

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