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Calm, Clear Mind

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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.

In fact, we may start to recognize that the desire to generate good feelings and avoid bad ones is a powerful—if largely unconscious—motivator for our practice. After all, that’s often what lures us to our mat: We are stressed out and want to be relaxed; we are sluggish and want to be energized; we are flabby and want to be fit; we are ill and want to be healthy. We want the thrill of balancing in Handstand and the buzz of a deep backbend; we want to be loved, and we fantasize that will happen if we look like the model on the cover of our favorite yoga video. With its inevitable emphasis on working toward an ideal by correcting what is “wrong” and striving for what is “right,” even the best yoga instruction may insidiously support this fixation on results.

But as we move through our yoga practice, it soon becomes obvious how much we can’t control, in our bodies and in our lives. If we’re handicapped by strength, flexibility, and youthful good health, it may take us a little longer to learn that vital lesson. It may seem, at first, that our efforts always bear the intended fruits: The harder we push, the sleeker we get; the more Sun Salutations we do, the more glorious our Downward Dog becomes. But sooner or later, we all hit a wall.

After all, many factors influence the state of our bodies, most of which we can’t control: a virus lingering on a doorknob, a bus hurtling through a red light, the slender physique of our Asian grandmother or the stocky one of our Russian grandfather. Our back might go out as we’re picking up a sack of groceries; we might tear our knee cartilage meditating; we might get pregnant with twins.

And when such things happen, we have the opportunity—like it or not—to practice the fine art of equanimity: to continue to get on our mat and do our practice, while relaxing our attachment to the particular rewards that enticed us there in the first place.

If our practice has been soaked with ambition, a shift of attitude away from such striving can be terrifying. We may wonder, “If I am equanimous, will I ever make any progress? Won’t I just lounge around on my mat like a cat by a fire?”

But practicing upekkha doesn’t mean that we stop putting our full effort into our practice and our life. (In fact, for me, equanimity is most possible when I know I have given my all in a situation—when I have put myself wholeheartedly into my backbend, my parenting, my marriage.) It simply means our effort is fueled not by obsession with the outcome but by the integrity of the effort itself.

In the practice of hatha yoga, equanimity is about paying exquisite attention to the motivations that color all of our actions. It’s about arching into a gentle backbend again and again, even if we know that our own particular body will never achieve the spectacular drop-back of the model featured on our yoga calendar. It’s about learning to greet with equal interest whatever experiences emerge—whether the sensual satisfaction of a silky forward bend or the pain and frustration of a cranky knee—knowing that good or bad, one thing is certain: This too shall pass.

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.

After my yoga practice, I sped back to the preschool, eager to pick up Skye. I spotted him sitting at the edge of the schoolyard, silently studying the other children as they dangled off play structures and chased one another, squealing, around the playground. He looked content but a little bemused, like an anthropologist researching the behaviors of a tribe he finds fascinating but can’t quite comprehend.

“What did you do in school?” I asked him as I scooped him up in my arms.

He gave me a radiant smile. “I just stood there and watched,” he said.

“But was it fun?” I persisted.

He thought for a moment. “It’s OK to go to school,” he said solemnly. “But it’s OK to go home now too.”

“Hmm,” I thought as we walked back toward the car. “Sounds deceptively like…equanimity.”

YJ contributing editor Anne Cushman is West Coast editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and author of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India.