Cultivate equanimity in the face of life’s ups and downs, and find deeper access to joy.
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 could be upeksha, the fourth of the brahmaviharas.
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.
How to be calm within
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.