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This is the third of a three-part series on the brahmaviharas, which show us the way to a kinder, more compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. Read Part I: Love in Full Bloomand Part II: I’m So Happy for You.
A lot of people I know avoid reading the paper first thing in the morning—being confronted with all of the injustices and bad deeds in the world is an unsettling way to start the day. It’s difficult to read about the latest corporate finance scam or the obscenity of human trafficking and keep your peace of mind, and it’s even harder to know how to respond. The conflict feels even more immediate when you witness an unjust act firsthand, or are yourself the recipient of one, whether it’s having your wallet stolen, your car broken into, or any sort of hurtful behavior directed your way. The answer to this problem is upeksha, the fourth of the brahmaviharas.
This state of mind, taught in both yoga and Buddhism, allows us to respond to the nonvirtuous deeds of others, and indeed, to all of life’s fluctuations, in such a way that we are, as Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey describes it, the opposite of the way James Bond likes his martini: stirred but not shaken. When we cultivate equanimity, we’re moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better, but our deep inner serenity is not disturbed. Sometimes translated by commentators on the Yoga Sutra as “indifference” in the face of the nonvirtuous, immoral, or harmful deeds of others, upeksha is better understood as “equanimity,” a state of even-minded openness that allows for a balanced, clear response to all situations, rather than a response borne of reactivity or emotion. Upeksha is not indifference to the suffering of others, nor is it a bland state of neutrality. In fact, it means we care, and care deeply, about all beings evenly!
This understanding of upeksha as equanimity stresses the importance of balance. A balanced heart is not an unfeeling heart. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging at it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence. Insight meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg speaks of equanimity as a “spacious stillness of mind,” within which we can remain connected to others and all that happens around us, while remaining free of our conditioned habit of grasping at the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant.
One way to experience equanimity is to experiment with mindfulness meditation. Rather than fixing attention on a single object such as the breath or a mantra, mindfulness meditation involves the moment-to-moment awareness of changing objects of perception. Mindfulness is like a floodlight, shining awareness on the whole field of experience, including sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away in the dynamic, ever-changing flux that characterizes the human experience of body and mind. Mindfulness allows you to see the nature of the unfolding process without getting caught in reactivity, without identifying with your sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This insight changes your relationship to the mind-body. The waves keep coming, but you don’t get swept away by them. Or as Swami Satchidananda often said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!” This ability to remain balanced amidst ever-changing conditions is the balance of equanimity.
There’s an old story that illustrates the wisdom of this state of mind. A farmer’s most valuable asset is the one horse he owns. One day it runs away. All the townspeople commiserate with him, “Oh, what terrible luck! You’ve fallen into poverty now, with no way to pull the plow or move your goods!” The farmer merely responds, “I don’t know if it’s unfortunate or not; all I know is that my horse is gone.”
A few days later, the horse returns, and following it are six more horses, both stallions and mares. The townspeople say “Oh! You’ve struck it rich! Now you have seven horses to your name!” Again, the farmer says, “I don’t know if I’m fortunate or not; all that I can say is that I now have seven horses in my stable.”
A few days later, while the farmer’s son is trying to break in one of the wild stallions, he’s thrown from the horse and breaks his leg and shoulder. All the townspeople bemoan his fate: “Oh, how terrible! Your son has been so badly injured, he’ll not be able to help you with the harvest. What a misfortune!” The farmer responds, “I don’t know if it’s a misfortune or not; what I know is that my son has been injured.”
Less than a week later, the army sweeps through town, conscripting all the young men to fight in a war…all except for the farmer’s son, who is unable to fight because of his injury.
The fact is, you can’t know what changes your life will bring or what the ultimate consequences will be. Equanimity allows for the mystery of things: the unknowable, uncontrollable nature of things to be just as they are. In this radical acceptance lies peace and freedom—right there in the midst of whatever pleasant or unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go. Cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, and joy opens your heart to others. Equanimity balances the giving of your heart’s love with the recognition and acceptance that things are the way they are. However much you may care for someone, however much you may do for others, however much you would like to control things or you wish that they were other than they are, equanimity reminds you that all beings everywhere are responsible for their own actions, and for the consequences of their actions.
Without this recognition, it’s easy to fall into compassion fatigue, helper-burnout, and even despair. Equanimity allows you to open your heart and offer love, kindness, compassion, and rejoicing, while letting go of your expectations and attachment to results. Equanimity endows the other three brahmaviharas with kshanti: patience, persistence, and forbearance. So, you can keep your heart open, even if the kindness, compassion and appreciative joy you offer to others is not returned. And when you are confronted with the nonvirtuous deeds of others, equanimity allows you to feel compassion for the suffering that underlies their actions as well as for the suffering their actions cause others. It is equanimity that brings immeasurability or boundlessness to the other three brahmaviharas.
Comfort With What Is
Your asana practice offers a good opportunity to become better at recognizing where, when, and how you get caught in or swept away by reactivity, and to observe your attachment to results. You might even observe an attachment to results in your motivation to practice in the first place! The desire to feel good and avoid the unpleasant might very well condition your whole experience of practice. But fixating on the results can cause you to miss key aspects of the process. As you continue in your asana practice, at some point it’s likely that factors outside your control—anatomical realities, injury, aging, or illness—will affect your practice. When they do, you have a chance to practice equanimity by letting go of your attachment to the results you had been seeking. Equanimity gives you the energy to persist, regardless of the outcome, because you are connected to the integrity of the effort itself. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that this attitude of focusing on the action without attachment to the outcome is yoga: “Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” Similarly, Patanjali tells us in chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutra, verses 12 through 16, that abhyasa, continuous applied effort, coupled with vairagya, the willingness to observe experience without getting caught in reactivity to it, will lead to freedom from suffering.
Sitting With Equanimity
For a formal practice to cultivate equanimity, begin with some calming breaths or a mantra meditation. Once you feel calm, reflect on your desire for happiness and freedom from suffering, both for yourself and for others. Contemplate your desire to serve the needs of others and to be compassionately engaged in the world. Acknowledge both the joy and the suffering that exist throughout the world—the good deeds and the evil ones. As you continue to breathe into your heart’s center, acknowledge the necessity of balancing your desire to make positive change in the world with the reality that you cannot control the actions of others.
Bring to mind the image of someone for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. With this person in your mind’s eye, repeat the following phrases to yourself, coordinating with the outbreath if you like:
All beings like yourself are responsible for their own actions.
Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.
Although I wish only the best for you, I know that your happiness or unhappiness depends on your actions, not on my wishes for you.
May you not be caught in reactivity.
Feel free to use other similar, appropriate phrases of your own devising. After a few minutes, shift your attention to your benefactors, including teachers, friends, family and the unseen workers who keep the societal infrastructure working. Silently repeat the phrases to yourself as you contemplate these benefactors.
After several minutes, begin to reflect on your loved ones, directing the phrases to them, followed by the difficult people in your life. While feeling kindness, compassion, and joy for those we love comes more easily than it does for those with whom we have difficulty, it is often the opposite with equanimity. It’s a lot easier to accept that those we dislike are responsible for their own happiness than it is for those we care for deeply, because we feel more attachment to them. Whatever your experience, simply note any reactivity and see if you can be equanimous with your reactivity! Broaden your reach after a few minutes to include all beings everywhere throughout the world, and then finally contemplate equanimity in regard to yourself, noticing how taking responsibility for your own happiness and unhappiness can feel the hardest of all.
All beings, including myself, are responsible for their own actions.
Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.
Although I wish only the best for myself, I know that my happiness or unhappiness depends on my actions, not my wishes for myself.
May I not be caught in reactivity.
When you cultivate metta (the friendly quality of kind regard), karuna (the compassionate response to the suffering of others), and mudita (the delight in the happiness and success of others), it is equanimity that ultimately allows you to truly expand your capacity to experience this kind of boundless love for those beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, opening to the infinite capacity of your heart to embrace all beings.
Frank Jude Boccio is a teacher of yoga and Zen Buddhism and the author of Mindfulness Yoga.