Insight Meditation Houston

Equanimity and Big Sky 9/16/19

Tonight we will be practicing Equanimity or Upekkha, a Brahma Vihara or Divine Abode that combines clarity and wisdom with fearless open-mindedness. Equanimity implies accepting the reality of life’s high and low points and developing an attitude of inner peace amidst inevitable changes. The process of balancing the mind and liberating ourselves from reactivity and attachments entails relinquishing judgment, desire and aversion. 

Mark Coleman equates equanimity with a “steady heart.” He cites Dada Bhagwan, a spiritual leader from Gujarat, India, who observed that in an equanimous state “attachment does not occur when someone gives flowers, and no abhorrence occurs when someone throws stones.” These standards may seem unrealistically high, but at least we can move in that direction. 

Dharma teacher Howie Cohn jokes, “What is it we practice in daily life? Follow every thought, chase every desire, get rid of everything you don’t like, avoid pain, and try to control experiences and people around you!” Although he exaggerates, we can recognize our tendencies to reject life as it is and to blame others for problems. So often we are attached to the view that something is unfair or should not be happening. We protest when innocent beings are harmed. Coleman reminds us that the universe is neither fair nor just but simply moves in accordance with natural laws.  

Many of us turned to meditation because we are exhausted by habitual patterns of restlessness, impatience, clinging and avoidance. Gradually, we realize that it is impossible to control the eight worldly winds that blow unpredictably through our lives: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, success and failure, and praise and blame.

Amongst these polarities, we long to be steady. Mark Coleman quotes a Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova:

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold. 

Death’s great black wing scrapes the air, 

Misery gnaws to the bone.

Then why do we not despair?

Day by day, from the surrounding woods, 

Cherries blow summer into town;

At night the deep transparent skies

Glitter with new galaxies.

Life contains a mixture of wretchedness and wonder and everything in between. 

We need equanimity to meet the full range of experiences in a balanced way, facing the truth of whatever arises with clarity and acceptance. Once we develop enough steadfastness, we become less enmeshed in inner and outer dramas. 

It takes regular practice to be able to open the heart in a stable, sustained way, while letting go of preferences. Sometimes equanimity is confused with indifference, which is considered its “near enemy.” When we are indifferent, the heart is closed and defended in self-protection, but equanimity stems from an open and compassionate heart. Coleman says, “Far from being aloof, equanimity refers to a connected presence that allows us to meet any experience with grounded balance. It’s the steadiness of heart that helps us not [become] lost in reactivity.”  

He compares equanimity to the way a wise grandmother watches her grandchildren amidst their squeals of delight, angry fights, frustrated tears, and affectionate cuddling. She gazes at the children fondly and occasionally takes appropriate action to help solve problems or to discipline misbehavior. The grandmother sees the big picture, the nature of the world to change. Her grandchildren feel safe in the calm spaciousness of her presence. 

According to Bikkhu Bodhi, “Equanimity is an alive state of being in relationship fully. Stability in the face of what is constantly moving gives us unshakable freedom.” Sometimes that freedom involves accepting inescapable hardships. Even when we do not like what is happening, we can turn our attention towards the truth of our experience. 

Yet equanimity is not the same as passivity. Coleman urges us to respond to tragedy and intense pain by demonstrating our care as much as possible. With balanced, clear thinking, we can discern from moment to moment what responses might be helpful. For example, regarding the ongoing plight of asylum seekers, my responses have ranged from protesting at the border, to signing petitions, to supporting organizations like RAICES, to sending Metta prayers.

Sometimes we need to bring equanimity to our own resistance and judgments. If we cannot meet pain with equanimity, we can practice and learn to accept our own limitations. Coleman counsels us to acknowledge our reaction, bring kind attention to what is difficult, and let a compassionate attitude ease the suffering that arises from our struggle. 

For tonight’s equanimity practice, I will guide you through a version of Jack Kornfield’s “Big Sky” Meditation. 

Sit comfortably.

Gently close your eyes.

Bring your awareness to the play of sound, to the door of the ear, which receives auditory vibrations.

In a relaxed and easy way, begin simply by listening. 

There are soft sounds in the room, distant sounds, the sounds of these words appearing and disappearing, the sound of bells [Bells]

Relax into the space of listening and the space of awareness itself.

The bells arise and vanish. The words appear and disappear.

Listen as well to the silence in between sounds….

As you listen, let yourself begin to sense or imagine that your mind is not limited to the size of your head, that the mind is open and vast like space or sky.

Imagine the sounds you hear—the words, the soft background noises, the silence, and the bells—arising and passing like clouds in the vast open space of mind. 

Relax into spaciousness. In its true state, the mind is transparent, timeless, open like the sky, allowing for everything, containing all things, yet not limited by them.

To know if this is so or not, rest in the space of awareness. Relax into it. Trust it. 

The sounds come easily, appearing and disappearing like clouds. 

The sky remains at ease. [Bells]

As you relax in spacious awareness, just as sounds appear and disappear, notice too how thoughts and images arise. Word thoughts and picture thoughts appear like clouds, arise for a moment, display themselves, and then vanish leaving no trace.

The mind is like space, vast, open, uncompounded, untroubled by what arises and passes, receiving all things as awareness itself—the space that knows—completely at rest, vast and silent. Words appear and disappear; thoughts and images arise like clouds, and then vanish. 

Rest in the space of awareness. Relax into it. Trust it.  [Bells]

Sounds appear and disappear, arising like clouds and passing away. 

Thoughts and images arise in the same vast sky, appearing for a time and dissolving, leaving the sky open, vast and silent. 

Notice too, emotions and feelings that may arise like weather—joy or ease, delight, calm, sadness, fear, frustration, longing, love. Like weather, appearing in the sky, emotions too arise, are felt and known, exist for a time and pass away.

Just as sounds come and go, so too emotions arise for a time like clouds or bubbles. 

Rest in the vast sky of awareness. Trust it. Relax into it. [Bells]

Sounds come and go, thoughts and images appear and disappear; moods and emotions arise like weather for a time and pass away. 

The mind is vast like space, without boundaries, transparent, open, allowing for all things yet not limited by them.

Rest in this innate awareness, silent and vast.

Notice too, that within the vast sky of mind, the space of awareness, while there are sensations of the body, there is no solid body—no head, no limbs or torso—just a field of sensations that float and slowly change in the sky of mind—areas of pulsation and pressure, pleasant and unpleasant, warm and cool, soft and hard, tensing and releasing. 

If you sense the body from the sky of awareness, it is a field of vibration, pulsing, tingling, with space in and around it—nothing solid, a flow of sensations and experience. 

The breath itself moves like a breeze in space—no inside or outside—just the slow dynamic change of sensations and breath floating in the vast space of mind. [Bells]

Sounds come and go, sensations float and slowly change.

The breath moves like a breeze. Thoughts and feelings arise like clouds, appear for a time, and vanish. 

Rest in the vast space of mind—silent, transparent—awareness itself. 

Trust it. It is your own true nature. It is home.

Rest in vastness, open and silent.

Allow compassion to fill the vast space—for all the times you forget who you really are, when you contract to a small self, frightened and worried. Know that this vast awareness of mind and heart is just a breath, a moment away. 

Relax into it. Trust it. 

Hold all the troubles and struggles of your life with loving awareness and equanimity. 

Sense how natural, equanimous awareness spreads out as vast as the sky to receive all that arises and passes with a great heart. 

You sit like a Buddha, wise and loving, and know that this is your home. [Bells]

Even as you open your eyes, allow the sense of spaciousness to be with appearances of sights arising. Remain with the openness, stillness, equanimity, and loving awareness as vast as space.