by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
If your mind becomes firm like a rock and no longer shakes, in a world where everything is shaking. Your mind will be your greatest friend and suffering will not come your way.
~ Therigatha (verses from earliest collection of Buddhist teaching by female monks in the Buddhist Scriptures)
A central and necessary quality for spiritual progress is equanimity, which means we are calm and at peace when we confront life’s difficult conditions. The practice of equanimity is one of being open to whatever we are experiencing without getting lost in our reactions of love and hate, fear or desire. When we stop being agitated by difficult conditions, we can begin to see beyond our fears and desires. It seems to be the most normal and deeply rooted aspect of life that we cling to all that gives us pleasure and joy and we try to push away everything that gives us pain and suffering. To many people, equanimity can seem to be trying to find a state in which we are numb and unfeeling. Yet practicing equanimity does not mean that we are not feeling all the conditions flowing through our lives but, instead, we are not blindly reacting to them. Without equanimity we often demand that happiness occur in the ways that we think it should, rather than just embracing and dealing with the way things are. Equanimity leads to wisdom, which helps us to see how we are creating suffering and how we can stop doing that.
The practice of meditation is also a practice in equanimity. Whatever we are feeling in meditation, whatever we are experiencing, whatever thoughts or feelings are arising, we are asked to just recognize what we are experiencing and then let it go, and to come back to our practice of looking at the wall. Whether we feel good or bad, whether we are having a profound insight or experience or just feeling restless or worried, it is all not spiritually, what is important. What we are asked to do in meditation is to just be still and not react to this flow of thoughts and feelings. As we practice meditation, we can recognize our restlessness as an underlying characteristic of whatever is grabbing hold of our attention. Whether we are experiencing a worried thought, a mind caught up with plans for the future, or with regrets or anger for the past, it is all accompanied by a restlessness, an inability to be still and be at peace with ourselves and the world. When we meditate, we confront all that is within ourselves that demands to figure out where our life is taking us and trying to control what happens. This keeps us suffering since we can never really know where life is going to take us and we can never be in full control of how our life unfolds. Part of meditation is seeing our doubts, our agitation, our fear and letting them all just arise in the mirror of our minds and then, if we stop clinging, allowing everything to fade away. Equanimity is needed to let our hearts and minds be open to all our passions and fears and then by being open, we can experience the deeper truth that can free us from feeling bound by this flow of powerful thoughts and strong emotions.
The practice of equanimity is learning that we do not need to react to whatever we are feeling and thinking. The ground of suffering lies in our unskillful response to our thoughts and feelings, which is often a blind reaction. It took me quite awhile in my Buddhist practice to understand that I do not need to automatically react to powerful feelings and strong opinions. I began to see how much of my life had been driven by my karma, under the control of powerful emotions and deluded patterns of thoughts. I often heard myself thinking and saying, “I cannot put up with this.” “This is unacceptable.” “I cannot let go of this desire, this fear.” “I cannot stop worrying about this problem, complaining about this person.” I sometimes felt powerless and unable to look at my life without being overwhelmed by feelings of despair or hopelessness. When we cling to something strongly, we can easily be overwhelmed when change comes. Clinging makes our heart and mind fixed and brittle when confronting the change. When I would think of who I was, it was these deluded habits of behavior and patterns of thoughts that I mistakenly saw as my identity.
To find the place of equanimity, I needed to see that I often have conflicting desires. The practice of meditation is the practice of letting go of whatever I am experiencing. I can easily fill my mind in meditation with all my opinions, with a seemingly endless flow of my desires, with my memories of the past and my fears and dreams of the future. Often I leave the place of equanimity by demanding that some aspect of myself or the world that I find unacceptable, be different. And, all the time I am looking elsewhere, the only place I can find peace and contentment is in the present moment, in this very situation I find myself. Anything else means that I am abandoning reality to dream of a different past or an imaginary future. What I need to keep doing is to stop dreaming and stop demanding that my life and the world needs to be different.
To practice equanimity requires spiritual devotion; we need to care deeply about our spiritual life and be willing to focus our minds on the big picture of the Buddhist path rather than the narrow confines of what we are experiencing in the present. By being balanced in our feelings and thoughts, we can cultivate a sense of spaciousness around our experiences. Then when difficult conditions arise, we can be aware of the impermanent nature of what is unfolding and bring our minds back to focusing on being still, on gratitude, on our faith in the Buddhist teaching and path. Devotion is necessary since we have to care more about finding the heart of Buddha instead of the normal worldly response of only focusing on improving our impermanent conditions. When we stop clinging to our desires, we can find the real truth which is open and liberating and is grounded in compassion.
We need to pay attention to when we have a sense of spaciousness and openness in our life. A sense of spaciousness and openness needs to be cultivated as it supports a sense of equanimity. It is helpful to explore what behavior and circumstances seem to facilitate the sense of spaciousness. When we feel content, how do we cultivate that and what behavior seem to help bring contentment into our lives? How do we create these favorable conditions for equanimity rather than creating conditions that lead to worry and anger, fear and suffering? Sometimes the very things that we doing in order to find joy and pleasure, are instead leading us to a place of discontentment and despair. As long as our flow of emotions, desires, passions, and fears are filling our minds, we will not be able to see beyond our present situation and experience the deeper Truth. We need to let go of our habitual pattern of just wishing and dreaming of a different reality, a reality in which I do not hurt, that life was not so difficult, that I was not disturbed and upset. When we suffer, help comes to us when we bow to our suffering and look up in faith and gratitude. Trusting that there is nothing to fear in the unfolding of our lives is a great help in finding equanimity and is an immeasurable gift.
From now on, no matter what problems I have to face,
I am not going to be irritated by them.
I will not regard anything that happens to me as a problem.
I will regard everything as beneficial. 1
Lama Zopa Rinpoche
This teaching by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, is the essence of practicing equanimity, taking everything that we encounter as being beneficial. The misfortune and difficulties we face in life are not beneficial in the practical sense – for instance, I do not seek or want illness and pain. Yet if I approach the difficult health problems and pain that comes into my life with a positive attitude of embracing these difficult conditions as a helpful part of my spiritual path, then the pain and difficulty can become vehicles which help me find a much deeper spiritual place. As a monk, counseling people who come to me with their difficulties, it not uncommon that someone has gone through a difficult illness or other hardship and they are now very grateful for that experience. All the hardship they had gone through had forced them to let go of some of their clinging and some of their frantic attempts to control their circumstances. This resulted in allowing them to find a deeper spiritual place in which they found more peace and real joy. Deepening their spiritual life was of much greater value to them than all the pain and difficulty they went through.
Equanimity is based on not clinging to whatever conditions we are experiencing. By not clinging we are no longer being blinded by the specific details of our life but embracing a wholeness that encompasses everything. Our small human minds can never grasp this wholeness but we can experience the deep connection that we have with all living things and with everything in the world. This is what is meant by the experience that everything is a Buddha. This deep longing which brings us to spiritual life is a longing to be freed from just living for ourselves and to experience our real connection, an experience that takes our limited selves to the place that is open and boundless.
1) Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Transforming Problems Into Happiness (Wisdom Publication, 2001) p.10