Equanimity: Our Greatest Friend

by Shaila Catherine
Dharma talk given to Southern Insight Meditation retreat, at Staveley, New Zealand, October 2006.

I’d like to begin with an early Buddhist poem from the Therigatha:

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.

To have a mind that is our greatest friend, that’s something that most of us want. The mind that doesn’t shake is a description of the mind that is equanimous.

Stay connected and loving with things as they are

Equanimity describes a complete openness to experience, without being lost in reactions of love and hate. It’s a powerful quality in its own right, and it fortifies other qualities. It supports wisdom because when the mind doesn’t shake, we can stay with the truth of things long enough to have a deep insight. Equanimity has a balance that empowers loving-kindness (metta) with patience, so that we care, even in times when the people that we love do self-destructive things. Without equanimity we might demand that happiness occur in the ways that we think it should, rather than stay connected and loving with things as they are. Equanimity endows compassion with courage, so that we have the courage to face the pain in life and to face the cruelty in the world. When we care deeply, we try to help, but we can’t always alleviate pain. Sometimes what we do doesn’t actually help.

You can not control what another person will do

At the time of the Buddha a very wealthy merchant named Anathapindika was a great supporter of the Buddha. He was renowned for his generosity, and not just to the Buddhist monks and other recluses. He provided the initial capitol for many of his relatives to start businesses.

But Anathapindika had a spendthrift relative who squandered the gifts and investments, and repeatedly asked for more. Each time Anathapindika tried to help, but finally he said “No more. That’s it!” The relative continued his spendthrift habits, fell into debt, and in not too long a time, died; his body was discarded in the rubbish heap.

When Anathapindika heard about this, he felt terrible. In grief, he spoke with the Buddha, asking “Should I have given him more money?” The Buddha’s response was that there was nothing more that Anathapindika could do. He did what he could with a pure intention, but he could not control how another person used those resources.

We need equanimity when we’ve done what we can, and there’s nothing more we can do, and we have to experience the results. Equanimity describes a state of balance. Even when things don’t turn out the way we want them to, equanimity imbues the mind with a calm radiance.

Some people say, “I don’t want equanimity” because they think it means indifference, or coldness, or hesitation, or withdrawal. But these are forms of aversion. With equanimity, we accept the world as it is, and connect anyway. An equanimous mind accepts the fact of pain in the world. It understands suffering and cruelty as part of this world that is dominated by ignorance; it engages and responds anyway.

“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain”
—Dolly Parton

You must experience this here in New Zealand. It seems the weather is quite changeable. It seems that if I just walk 500 meters I’ll be in a different weather pattern. When I was living in England, where they also have rapidly changeable weather, I was reminded of equanimity. I liked to meditate outside in the English gardens.

I would be sitting outside, and I’d have shawl or a sweater on, and two or three minutes later the sun would come out from behind the cloud and it would be scorching hot. So I’d strip off my shawl. Two or three minutes later the cloud would come back, and I’d get the shawl and put it on again. I put the shawl on and off like this until I finally realized that there was no way I was going to experience calm if I didn’t have equanimity. These are situations to practice equanimity.

Cultivating Equanimity

Some years ago I talked with my mentor, Christopher Titmuss, about equanimity. He offered a succinct structure for cultivating equanimity through two primary areas. First is the movement between pain and pleasure, and the second is equanimity with future results of our actions. So I want to speak about these two primary areas.

Pleasure and Pain

Did anybody have both pleasure and pain today? There’s always some fluctuation between pleasure and pain. Even if your whole body aches and you’re in agony, there’s still a moment of pleasure when you smell the toast at breakfast; or when you step outside and the warmth of the sun just catches the cheek.

We need equanimity to remain balanced and present in the flow, between pleasure and pain. In the Middle Length Discourses (M. 38) the Buddha said:

On seeing a form with the eye, one does not lust after it if is pleasing and one does not dislike it if it is displeasing. … Having thus abandoned favoring and opposing, whatever feeling one feels, whether painful or pleasant, or neither painful nor pleasant, one does not seek gratification through feeling or remain attached to it. As one does not do so, craving for feeling ceases. With the cessation of craving comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of being; with the cessation of being, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain , grief, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

You might see some garbage, and there’s a reaction against it, see a beautiful flower and there’s a movement toward it. Abide with mindfulness, comprehending things as they actually are. Abandoning both the movements of favoring and opposing, one still feels whatever one feels, whether painful or pleasant. He’s not talking about the cessation of feeling here. He’s not talking about being numb, or dulled. Rather, whatever one feels, one feels it without craving.

More Pleasant Experiences?

Every day moments and experiences change, not just the weather. When we’re sitting with a pain, we may be feeling sharpness, stabbing. But then there’s a tingling within that sharp sensation, and when you look just at the tingling, the tingling is sort of pleasant. Then there’s a throbbing, and the throbbing has a pulse to it, a warmth. It’s all part of what we get with the body and the mind. It’s part of life, and for the most part life is beyond what we can control or predict.

The simple fact is that in life there is pleasure, and there is pain, and there are experiences that are neither pleasurable nor painful. The question isn’t how can we get more pleasant experiences. People who haven’t trained their minds seek an accumulation of pleasant experiences. But you’ve already had a lot of pleasant experiences, haven’t you? Did it really make you happy? No, it was just a pleasant experience. It came, it went.

So are we going to be tossed back and forth, pushed and pulled, between pleasure and pain? Can we stay steady with the simple fact that feelings shift? Equanimity is this quality of mind that is balanced and present with any of the three kinds of feeling as they change. The mind when it is equanimous is free of the habit of grasping and lusting, of aversion and pushing away, and of indifference.

In an untrained mind, when pleasure arises, the mind grasps after it, tries to make it stay. The movement of lust and greed is stimulated. When an unpleasant feeling arises, aversion, anger, blame, withdrawal, fear—some form of pushing away occurs. An untrained mind tends to dull when encountering a feeling not distinctly pleasant nor unpleasant. There can be a floating, numb, indistinct quality almost like confusion, that brings uncertainty as to what is actually present. The perception is not exciting enough to pay attention to, basically, because it’s not quite pleasant and it’s not quite unpleasant. These three states of mind fall into the general categories of what are called the three poisons—greed, hate and delusion.

An ancient Buddhist text (Anguttara Nikaya VI, 55) says:

Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms, so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas, whether desirable or undesirable, will never stir one of steady nature, whose mind is firm and free.

I like this image of a mountain that’s not moved by storms because sometimes we can feel an inner storm occurring, and we can’t quite scramble around for the teachings. “Now what was I supposed to do in relationship to this one?” Just think mountain, imagining the storm blowing through, but the mountain doesn’t shake.

How do we develop equanimity?

Probably the best way of working with equanimity is to embrace our obstacles, to open to our challenges, whatever they may be. Obstacles test our balance and poise in life. We learn from life’s situations so that we don’t try to avoid, control, manipulate and contain every experience, but allow the possibility of just being with something, as it is, equanimously.

Travel also supports equanimity. There are things you do in this country that are a little different than what I am accustomed to, even though we’re not from radically different cultures. Sometimes my first thought is “You’re doing it wrong!” and then I remember “No, this is just different.” I remind myself to notice how this way works. It’s a good opportunity for the mind to free itself from reactivity, attachment, and to practice equanimity.

How many people here have been to India? If you didn’t practice equanimity, you would have been on the first plane out.

When I landed in India, I needed local clothes. I bought material and went to the tailor’s shop. The tailor took measurements, and said to come back next week. When I returned to the shop, it was not ready, but the tailor said “Come back tomorrow.” Well, those of you who have been to India know that when I went back the next day, it wasn’t ready. I would visit the tailor, and each day he said to “Come back tomorrow.” I finally realized that tomorrow does not always mean the same thing in Indian English as it does in American English. This is a simple example of the daily opportunities we have to practice equanimity.

I understand that you have quite a good health care system in New Zealand, but sometimes you have to wait a long time for surgery—another opportunity to practice equanimity. But some situations will require persistent action, other situations will invite patience and equanimity. We need wisdom to know the difference. When there is nothing to do but wait, is waiting going to be a time when anxiety, worry, blame, and anger build, or is it going to be a time for peaceful equanimous waiting?

We can bring a quality of poise and composure to the task

Sometimes the big obstacles, the big difficulties, are a little bit easier to deal with. They call forth a deep wisdom from within us. I was privileged to be the family member present when my grandmother died. I remember very clearly being in the hospital with her and holding her hand—just being present. It didn’t take any effort to be present with her. I didn’t have to try; the profundity of the situation called forth a quality of equanimous presence.

But a couple of weeks later, my task was to clean out her refrigerator. For some reason, that was a more emotionally volatile task. It was painful to sort through all of the stuff that’s left behind. Whatever the challenge is, whether it is intense and profound, or as mundane as cleaning out a refrigerator, we can bring a quality of poise and composure to the task.

Equanimity with results of our actions

Mindfulness practice naturally develops equanimity because when we’re mindful, we’re experiencing things without judgment or distortion. Concentration practice also develops equanimity because when our minds are concentrated, we develop a calm presence with things as they change. In a concentrated mind, thoughts, feelings, and experiences may arise, but they just roll off. We don’t become engaged in a movement of desire or aversion, for and against, favoring and opposing.

Contemplation of cause and effect supports equanimity. This is the approach of wisdom. We see how things arise due to causes, how the effect has been determined by the cause, not by our wishes, and how desire and aversion complicate matters.

Essentially, life develops equanimity as we open more and more to our day to day experiences, present for both the things that we like and those things that we don’t like. In our daily lives, relationships, work situation, and on retreat, we cultivate the willingness to be equally close to all things.

Practical explorations of equanimity

What would it take to enjoy the hour-long sittings? The full hour long sitting is a little bit more than what you usually do on a Vipassana retreat. Somehow the custom of the nice neat forty-five minute meditation period has become the habit. We get used to it, and it becomes comfortable. Then you come on this retreat, look at the schedule and think—“Is she nuts?!”

The last retreat that I sat was with PaAuk Sayadaw, a Burmese teacher. When I looked at the schedule I thought—“Is he nuts?!” The minimum sitting period was an hour and a half. So consider yourselves lucky that it’s only an hour here. It gives you a good opportunity to play with things that are difficult to do in shorter sittings. If we get used to sitting for forty-five minutes, those first forty-five minutes may not be so challenging, but those last fifteen will be the chance to practice equanimity.

It’s totally fine to move postures–mindful standing, mindful sitting, mindful walking, and mindful reclining. Wakefulness does not depend upon the legs being folded in a particular manner. But before you move, consider if you actually need to move. Will a change in posture increase the alertness or would just a little bit more effort, diligence, relaxation or interest in present moment sensations be enough to stabilize the attention?

You can develop equanimity by sitting just a little bit longer than you are comfortable sitting. When you hear the bell marking the end of the scheduled sitting period, and your mind calls out “Oh, thank God,” experience the relief of the thought “Oh, thank God,” and then settle back. The bell is just an experience of hearing; it does not compel you to get up. Wait. Stay seated. Remain composed until the intention arises consciously within yourself to stand up. Then stand mindfully and enter into the next movement consciously. Don’t be swept away by the energy of the group. Make a choice to move or remain still.

Itches and insects

Itches are fabulous opportunities for equanimity practice. Nobody has died of an itch. So take the opportunity to feel it. Feel the intention arise to scratch, but let the intention pass. Wait for three intentions to scratch before you allow the hand to move.

One time I taught a retreat on a farm. It was summer, and the windows were open in the meditation hall. The flies must have thought it would be lovely to join the meditation retreat. There were so many flies—dozens landing on each person—a perfect opportunity for equanimity practice. We felt each little foot step, and the unusual sensations of the flies drawing moisture from between our lips. It’s not a painful sensation, yet many beginners were overwhelmed with the impulse to swat.

In meditation practice you welcome opportunities like that—experiences that won’t hurt you, yet challenge you to keep the mind steady and unswayed by desire and aversion. Equanimity practice trains attention in the face of pleasant, unpleasant, or fluctuating experiences.

Situations of inconvenience

When your car breaks down, you can fret and worry about being late, but the fact is simple—it broke down. Maybe the room is a little too cold or a little too hot for your comfort. Equanimity is a good option.

Maybe your family wants to do one thing, and you want to do another. In the compromise you never quite get what you want. When we have to be present with things that are not the way we think they should be, we have a chance to develop equanimity rather than blame society, blame an institution, blame the system, or blame a person. I once lived in a community that would make rules about everything. Should the toilet seat covers be left up or down? What kind of food was permitted? Could personal decorations be posted in public hallways? When would the cleaning occur? Who was a welcome visitor? How would the community rooms be used? Where was exercise and yoga permitted? Although there were only about ten or twelve people living together, we almost needed a law librarian to keep track of all our policies. Why was it so difficult for people to just rest with the experience of inconvenience, and find a sense of inner balance with that?

Waiting is an opportunity for equanimity, whether we’re waiting for an appointment, an e-mail, or for the bell to ring. Illnesses and accidents invite equanimity and patience. Can we stay steady in the face of accidents or tragedies?

When Flattered

We also need equanimity when we’re praised, flattered, and things are going our way. If we don’t have equanimity when we’re praised, we’ll be suckers to con artists, or vulnerable to advertisements, salesmen and politicians.

Equanimity permits us to experience life without being hooked by either desire or aversion. It’s a quality that allows us to be independent in the world. Equanimity is described by the Buddha as the highest form of happiness.

Equanimity is the fourth of the traditional Brahma Vihara practices—loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. It is a way of cultivating equanimity by contemplating equanimity in relationship to many kinds of beings, perhaps reciting phrases such as the traditional contemplation:

All beings are the heirs of their own karma, their actions. Their happiness or unhappiness depend upon their actions, and not on my wishes for them.

This contemplation requires reflecting on cause and effect. We often shorten it to Things are as they are, or May I accept things as they are. Regardless of how we describe it, equanimity matures when we contact things, whether pleasant or painful, with a mind that is balanced. When we understand that things arise due to causes and conditions, we stop struggling to control the results. All sorts of factors collide to create the end result. Even in meditation we might notice the tendency to try to control experience.

“You can only do the practice. You can not make it work”
—Sharon Salzberg

It’s helpful to watch for those little attempts to control, the demanding energy of imperative that thinks, It’s got to be this way. It’s got to be like this. Do you impose ultimatums upon your meditation experience such as If I don’t get calm by evening, I will leave the retreat. It is important to feel that compelling energy. It’s not going to feel nice, but feel it anyway. Drop into the experience; feel where you are standing; feel your feet on the ground. And where are you standing emotionally? Is it sparking anger, demand, fear? Is there desire or aversion obscuring attention? Become aware of your own presence in that experience. If the experience is riddled with self-interest, you will feel off-balance. Equanimity allows us to abide beyond our preferences. When we abide beyond our preferences, we have another angle through which to experience the selflessness, or at least the selfishlessness.

The Third Zen Patriarch said:

The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely far apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

Equanimity is a conditioned state

Equanimity is a very lovely way of experiencing phenomena. In fact, it’s so lovely it can easily be confused with freedom. Several years ago I was doing a four-month Brahma Vihara retreat. Equanimity was profound and deep. For many days mindfulness was remarkably continuous and effortless; neither desire nor aversion arose. Eventually I wondered, “perhaps I’m free of desire and aversion” and something to that effect in an interview. My teacher Christopher Titmuss, very kindly said, “Shaila, equanimity is a conditioned state.” This clarity did not dismiss the significance of a sustained absence of reactivity or the value of saturating consciousness with deep equanimity. But my desire had taken a simple absence of reactivity into a fantasy, a thought, a hope, that it was something more than it is.

I and mine still operate even in very deep states of equanimity by creating the position of being the one who is equanimous. The very sense of being the one who is free from desire and aversion revealed the limitations of equanimity. Equanimity must be seen for what it is—a beautiful factor of mind; but it is not freedom. It is a conditioned state.

The Buddha described equanimity as the conditioned state that most resembles the liberated mind. It’s a pseudo-freedom, or the semblance of freedom. It only feels like liberation. As one colleague says, “As long as there is an I, there is still work to be done.”