On the first Monday of each month, our Insight Meditation Houston sangha has a tradition of practicing a guided meditation to open the heart. Over the past months we have practiced the four Brahma Viharas: Metta or Lovingkindness, Karuna or Compassion, Mudita or Sympathetic Joy, and Upekkha or Equanimity. Tonight I’m adapting a Dharma talk about Equanimity given by Donald Rothberg during the month-long retreat I attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in March of 2015.
According to its Latin roots, equanimity signifies “equal mind” and stems from the word “animus” or “soul.” Qualities of equanimity are wisdom, a caring heart, and responsiveness. The Buddha referred to equanimity in this way: “As a solid mass of rock….as a deep lake undisturbed….The sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.”
Upekkha entails seeing with patience, balance and clear vision, and standing in the middle of whatever is happening, while being centered. In Buddhist philosophy, equanimity plays an important role as the last of the Brahma Viharas, the Jhanas, the Paramis, and the Seven Factors of Awakening. Its so-called “near enemies” include indifference, numbness, resignation and complacency, which can sometimes be mistaken for equanimity, but which lack its heartfelt quality.
In the speech he gave in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I want to do God’s will. I’ve seen the Promised Land. I’m happy tonight. I don’t fear any man.”
Our meditation practice spirals through the full range of human experience from agony to ecstasy to deep and sublime peace. As Mark Twain commented, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
In many ways, equanimity helps us stay steady amidst the 10,000 joys and sorrows of our experiences. First, equanimity has a quality of evenness, so that we maintain perspective without being reactive. Regardless of our circumstances, we can note, “This is happening. I can be present with it.”
Secondly, equanimity has an unshakable quality that allows us to see everything as an opportunity for learning. We notice the so-called “eight wordly winds” or changing conditions: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, and fame and disrepute. With equanimity, we become aware of self-judgment and stories that we tell ourselves when our situations change for the good or for the bad.
Donald recalls a story about Larry Rosenberg, founder of Insight Meditation Cambridge in Massachusetts, who comes from a Zen background. Years ago, nobody signed up to attend a Zen meditation retreat that he was offering. Larry’s Zen master asked him to teach the entire retreat anyway; Larry learned not to fall into “comparing mind” about which teacher attracts the most students to retreats. He practiced noting narratives and interpretations that rocked his balance.
Thirdly, equanimity entails understanding the Buddhist principles of impermanence, suffering, freedom, causes and conditions, and the arising of a sense of solid self. Joanna Macy, a long-time meditator and a committed social activist, states, “I am just a part of this great story in the web of life.”
Fourthly, equanimity builds on faith and confidence that come from ongoing practice. A deep intuitive knowing arises about what we need to do next. Before his house was bombed in 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a moment of fear, which dissipated as soon as he connected with his religious faith. He felt Jesus assuring him, “I will never leave you. Stand up for righteousness.”
Fifthly, mature equanimity has warmth and responsiveness. It blends clear, objective, impersonal Vipassana practice with heartfelt, personal Metta practice. Equanimity combines wisdom and compassion, the two wings of the Dharma bird. This combination is evident in a poem that Gary Snyder wrote after Taliban zealots destroyed huge, venerable, ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan: “Ah yes, impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion slide.” Mindfulness of reacting does not react.
Equanimity incorporates Lovingkindness, Compassion and Sympathetic Joy, with patience and devotion. Deep responsiveness leads to wise action and caring involvement in the world.
Now I’ll guide you through one form of equanimity practice:
Reflect on the value of an open, peaceful mind.
Notice any indifference or apathy that arise and let them go.
Image or sense the presence of a dear one.
Repeat the following phrases:
May you accept the comings and goings of life.
May you be open and balanced and peaceful.
Bring to mind a benefactor, and repeat the same phrases for this person who has given you love and support.
Now visualizing or sensing the presence of everyone in our Insight Meditation Houston sangha, possibly including neutral people whom you do not know, difficult ones who may bother you, and good friends who share your values:
May we accept the comings and goings of life.
May we all be open, balanced and peaceful.
Extending our good wishes for all beings everywhere:
May all beings everywhere be open, balanced and peaceful.