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When something was important, the Buddha made sure it was repeated over and over again throughout his 45 years of teaching. Upekkha, or equanimity—the practice of a balanced heart and mind—is one of those things.
Equanimity is a heart practice that cultivates a state of mind that does not allow one to be caught in the worldly winds of praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute.
Equanimity keeps us still in the midst of chaos, and is known to be the balancing factor in our faith, our wisdom, and our energy. It protects the heart from going into envy, the excitement of joy from becoming agitated, compassion from sliding into pity. Equanimity is a practice of a fierce heart. It allows us to go directly into the fire. Equanimity is not afraid; it does not back down. It stays present to whatever is arising without judging or reacting.
Creating tender boundaries
Equanimity is meant to be known and practiced while being engaged in “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows” of being in relationship with other humans. In applying the concept to our interactions with others, I often think of equanimity as love + clear boundaries + tenderness without attachment.
Boundaries. A lot of us get caught up when we hear the word. We think of cruelty, of kicking someone out. But when you apply love and tenderness, boundaries can create an environment of social harmony because they let us know we’re all playing by the same rules.
I once worked in a community center that modeled radical hospitality–our commitment to creating an inclusive space for everyone who came through our doors. We were in lower Manhattan, near the site of the World Trade Center and just two blocks from Zuccotti Park, the encampment of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Our guests included Occupiers, folks who worked on Wall Street, tourists, people who were experiencing homelessness, high-school students and multi-faith leaders who would all converge in this 2000 square foot space at lunchtime. For this collective to co-exist, we had to come to agreements that allowed us to treat the space–and one another—with respect. When people weren’t able to do so, my boss would say: “I’m not kicking you out of my heart, but I’m kicking you out of the space today!”
Holding what is yours
The classic phrases of the Equanimity Meditation practice say that “all Beings are the owners of their karma; their happiness and unhappiness depends upon their actions, not on my wishes for them.” This suggests, “I care about you, but I’m not in control of the unfolding of events. I can’t make it all better for you.” It means that I can walk you to the front door of an AA meeting, for example, but I can’t go in and find recovery for you.
So many of us who work as health-care providers, educators, social workers, and in other healing and caretaking roles are conditioned and even trained to hold the hearts and suffering of others, when they’re simply not ours to hold. Equanimity helps us to know what belongs to you and what belongs to me. (And also what belongs to our ancestors, as we often carry their burdens on top of our own.) I can walk alongside you, but I don’t have to carry all of the baggage.
A commitment to the health of our community
As our global community navigates this time of transition—this is a place of, “done with that, but not quite ready for this”—we might be exploring how to emerge with grace as we heal from the impact of a period of collective trauma.
Finding a sense of equipose between our own mental health and our commitment to the health of our extended communities can feel like a balancing act. Equanimity allows us the space to find a sacred pause and to respond instead of react. It’s as if we’re able to slow down the world around us and to see the space in between—a space where we can bring in patience, generosity, and compassion for ourselves and for others.
Equanimity as a meditation practice
The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. This includes the physical body, breath and what Buddhists call the “sense doors” of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. So in our formal meditation practice, it’s imperative to take time setting the body up for success so as we incline the heart and mind towards the subject of our meditation, the felt sense of the body can guide the way.
I will often take a standing posture for this particular meditation because of the strength, stillness, and power it provokes. One of the four classic postures (sitting, walking, and lying down are the other three), standing can also bring brightness to a sleepy or restless body. If standing isn’t accessible, holding the energy or quality of standing will offer the same benefit.
Feel the qualities of a mountain—strong roots, pelvic bone heavy, collarbones wide, crown of your head reaching towards the sky, while holding a softness and a tenderness throughout the rest of your body. Soft knees, soft belly, strong back.
Place hands over belly. Feel your belly expand into the palms of the hands as you breathe the breath in; feel your belly reach back towards the spine as you breathe the breath out. Keep exploring the breath this way, or allow your hands to release, fingertips reaching towards the earth, and exhale as if through the bottoms of the feet.
Feel into the stillness, the density, and the softness of the body, as gravity pulls the body towards the earth. Allow the earth to support you, as the breath might bring some movement or swaying to your practice.
In the silence of your practice, random thoughts, imagery, or planning might arise. Notice where these thoughts pull your attention.
Take a breath in. Without judging or manipulating the breath in any way, we begin to know our breath in its natural form. As you breathe the breath in, know that this breath is like this. As you breathe the breath out, know that this breath is like this.
And when the next round of thoughts arise—maybe there’s boredom or agitation—notice where they pull your attention. Know that it’s okay to open your eyes to bring some brightness to your practice and begin again. Soft knees, soft belly, strong back.
As you continue this dance of noticing where the mind wanders, feel into the body’s response to this thought: Is there a tightening in the shoulders, energy moving through the legs, sweating in the palms of the hands? Is the breath short and rigid?
Bring yourself to the present moment. What’s happening right now is that my body is remembering something that has already happened, and is in the past. What’s happening right now is that I can feel gravity grounding this body as it stands or rests on the earth. I am breathing this breath in, and I am breathing this breath out.
Allow this connection to the stillness of the body, or movement of the breath to be the anchor that brings you back to your practice when the mind begins to wander. As you continue to explore this practice, see if you can find the body coming closer to its center so you’re not living on the edges. Find a softness, and the capacity to stay.
Leslie Booker brings her heart to the intersection of dharma, embodied wisdom, and liberation. She is a co-founder of the Yoga Service Council and the Meditation Working Group of Occupy Wall Street. In 2020, she graduated from Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s teacher training and was voted by her peers as one of the 12 Powerful Women of the Mindfulness Movement. Connect with her @therealbookerproject.
From Summer 2022