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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

Caring Without Clinging

As we consciously cultivate equanimity in our yoga practice, we may start to refine our ability to do so in the rest of our life as well. We may learn to keep fighting for blue whales or clean air without collapsing in despair when our efforts seem futile. We may learn to get up every morning and work on the screenplay we've always dreamed of writing, not driven by fantasies of our appearance on Oprah when the film is a blockbuster or crippled by the scathing reviews blaring in our own heads.

I once called up my sister—a fellow writer—in a funk because I'd spent three months working on a novel that I had suddenly realized was going nowhere. "I feel like all this effort has been wasted," I sighed. "Well, in the end, everything's wasted," she told me. "Or nothing is. It just depends how you look at it."

The world is full of losses we can't stop and joys we can't keep. We may pour our whole heart into helping our teenager get off drugs, then watch him spiral back into addiction. We may spend 10 years fighting to save a coastal wetland, then watch it get signed over to developers. At its highest level, upekkha can help us stay centered in the midst of all of these experiences—to savor life's joys without clinging to them and to open to life's sorrows without pushing them away.

In Buddhist literature, upekkha is often compared with the attitude of a mother who lets go of controlling her children as they grow up—continuing to support them and wish them well but recognizing that their choices are theirs to make, good or bad. This image particularly spoke to me that first week of preschool, when I got a tiny taste of how hard such a task could be.

As I rolled out my yoga mat and surrendered into a forward bend, I tuned in to the tides of love and worry surging through me: the ferocious mother-bear longing for my child to be forever protected from fear and sorrow and rejection and the humiliation of big kids pushing him off the slide; my yearning to make the magic set of decisions that would ensure his happiness forever. But as I smoothed out my ragged breath and returned to some semblance of equanimity, I remembered that all I could do in this situation was give my very best. I could love Skye, nurture him, protect him, make the best choices I could for him. But I could not control the unfolding of his life.

As life challenges go, of course, sending a child to preschool is rather minuscule. Skye and I were facing just a few hours of separation anxiety, not one of the infinite horrors that can strike anyone at any moment. When it comes to equanimity, I'm still using training wheels.

But it's through such small moments that we train our capacity for letting go—and begin to come to terms with the fact that in the end, we can't control anything but the intention we bring to our actions.

This is not a particularly cuddly insight. It's not comforting like a warm blanket; it feels more like a free fall off a cliff. But when we open up to the terrifying truth that we can't manipulate much of any experience worth having, we also open up to the incredible beauty and preciousness of every fragile, uncontrollable moment. All of our fantasized security is revealed to be an illusion, but in the midst of the free fall into emptiness, it's possible to be at peace.

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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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