Tonight I will share some teachings by my Zen teacher Koshin Paley Ellison, from a Compassionate Care retreat at the Garrison Institute. I have adapted some of his words about equanimity.
Equanimity means to be in harmony with reality. Representatives from countries all around the world have been participating in urgent discussions about climate change. It is increasingly clear that human activity is contributing to greater numbers and more intense severity of tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and droughts. Refugees are fleeing war zones and areas where natural resources have been depleted. When the planet is not in a state of equanimity, neither are its inhabitants.
On a more personal level, I feel motivated to practice equanimity, which means to be in harmony with the moment. 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.”
In my own experience, I know how hard it is to stay present without reactivity, when I feel hurt or embarrassed. In monthly Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) classes at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, Koshin notes whenever my six classmates and I are making facial expressions, gestures, or comments that are not mindful and compassionate. I no longer take his observations personally, and I am learning to let go of my habit of trying to explain or justify the behavior that is being critiqued. One of my biggest lessons is the recognition that I tend to perceive any criticism from an authority figure as an echo of my father’s negative judgments about what I did or said as a child. The less I allow my self to be triggered in old, conditioned ways, the more I can maintain equanimity as an adult, when I face either criticism or praise.
At the Garrison Institute retreat, Koshin retold a Zen tale of a student pleading with his Master, “I’m riddled with sickness. Please absolve me of all my sins and suffering.” When the Master replies, “Show me your suffering,” the student recognizes, “I can’t find it anywhere.” The Master responds, “See. You are absolved. Simply take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.” This advice is not so simple to follow in daily life.
Zen Master Dogen taught, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no attachment to preferences. If you would clearly see the truth, discard all of your opinions…. If you remain in duality, you will never know unity.”
How challenging it is to relinquish our attachment to preferences. We have so many ideas about ways we would like to change reality to fit our wishes. It is seldom that we flow with life without resistance.
Hospice caregivers sometimes remind patients to say four phrases before they die:
“Please forgive me.”
“I forgive you.”
“I love you.”
When I consider that I could die at any moment, I am reminded that now is the time to express forgiveness, gratitude and love to people who are in my life to teach me lessons—some more challenging than others.
Now close your eyes and reflect for a few moments about how you find stillness and equanimity in chaotic moments.
Open your eyes and feel free to tell us some of the ways you create stillness and equanimity in your life.
My own list is as follows:
Connecting to my breathing
Sensing my feet touching the ground
Following morning routines
Slowly performing Qigong movements
Listening to music
Walking in nature
Listening & communicating authentically with my husband or a dear friend
Sitting at the bedside of hospice patients
Lying down on a Body Buddy mat
Close your eyes again and reflect briefly upon ways that you resist reality and prevent equanimity.
Open your eyes and, if you feel comfortable, share with a partner what gets in the way of living with equanimity.
Let us close with a moment of Equanimity practice, repeating the following phrases in silence:
May I accept the comings and goings of life.
May I be open and balanced and peaceful.
Once you establish a measure of equanimity, bring to mind someone who especially could benefit from your practice now:
May you accept the comings and goings of life.
May you be open and balanced and peaceful.