Equanimity


The third of the brahma-viharas, or “Four Sublime Abodes”, that I’ll be taking up here is upeksha, a Sanskrit word that is usually translated as equanimity (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 144; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 394), but which might also be translated as evenmindedness (Conze, 1964, p. 315), impartiality (Conze, 1967, p. 302) or equipoise (Yoshida, 1994, p. 70). Generally speaking, upeksha (upekkha in Pali) is a state wherein the mind is in equilibrium, having transcended all distinctions – suffering and joy alike (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 394). We will be well-served, however, by digging just a little deeper into some of the more specific uses of the word.




Conze (1967) discusses aspects of upeksha ranging from those transient states fortuitously experienced throughout the course of our days, or perhaps more routinely by the adept in the course of deep meditation, to those enduring traits of the buddhas and arhats. With respect to the former, upeksha can refer simply enough to the feeling of neutrality toward sensations or objects of consciousness that are experienced as neither attractive nor aversive. It can also refer to the “attitude of serene unconcern” (p. 89) characteristic of the third of the four primary stages of meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit, jhana in Pali) – a stage in which all arising phenomena are received with the same calm state of mind (not merely those to which we are otherwise karmically predisposed to receive without reactivity). With respect to the latter, trait-like aspects (independent of circumstance or meditative absorption), upeksha “denotes the final stage of ‘worldly’ wisdom, just before the Path is reached, when evenmindedness towards all conditioned things is achieved” (p. 89). Thus, upeksha comes to be an enduring quality embodied by buddhas and arhats who remain mindful and unmoved at all times. And this brings us to upeksha’s inclusion in the brahma-viharas, those states of mind that should be cultivated in order to aid in the liberation of others (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 46). Cultivation, after all, is what takes us from upeksha the state-like quality that appears fortuitously or only within the context of meditative absorption, to upeksha the trait-like quality – unshakeable and omnipresent. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is our repeated exposure via the practice of meditation to the more state-like quality of equanimity that allows us, over time, to actualize it with greater regularity and eventually embody it as a buddha does.



As we work toward the cultivation of equanimity, however, we need to be wary of its near enemy (remember those?) lurking in the shadows – indifference. Please see the first post in this series, The Four Sublime Abodes (and the Enemies Close at Hand) for more on the near enemies. Unlike equanimity, its near enemy, indifference, is either “not preceded by intelligent reflection” or it results from one having “close[d] one’s mind to the sufferings and joys of others” (Conze, 1967, p. 89). Stated in this way, it would seem rather easy for us to recognize when we’re exhibiting indifference rather than equanimity. Ah, but is it?




Isn’t it sometimes the case over the course of our information-saturated days that we find ourselves tuning out stories relating the hardships of others for the simple fact that we’ve grown sick to death of hearing bad news? At such times the life and death struggles of our neighbors might seem just plain boring to us, our compassion-fatigue having made us indifferent to their sufferings. In order to protect our fragile egos from feelings of anxiety or helplessness we might then affect an unmoved demeanor, as if, in our “advanced wisdom”, we recognize that this is just the way of the world and we’ve grown to accept it. In such a way indifference might masquerade as equanimity. On the other hand, perhaps a wiser and more compassionate course of action would be to choose wisely the nature of or otherwise limit the volume of our information bombardment – without limiting it so much that we end up becoming uninformed, mind you. Perhaps then we would be able to maintain the energy necessary to act wisely and compassionately; and then, after having acted as wisely and compassionately as our capabilities allow, we might abide in a state of calm equanimity as to the outcome, knowing that we’ve done all that we could.



Just as equanimity is something that we can cultivate over time, allowing us to move from a more fleeting, state-like manifestation of equanimity to a more enduring, trait-like manifestation, so it is that with practice we can arrive at a state of equanimity with respect to hardships in our lives that have us behaving in every way but non-reactively. Of course, this became especially apparent to me during the course of wrestling with all of the tumultuous “self-changing” realities of bringing a marriage to a close and adjusting to its aftermath: loss of companionship, meaning, financial security, structure, sense of future, etc. Please see The Bardo Realm of Grief for further exposition of what I mean by “self-changing”.



Perhaps the first step towards arriving at equanimity (becoming equanimous) is to recognize that whatever negative emotions we are experiencing are the result of our clinging tightly to relationships, things, circumstances, and ideas that can no longer be, and being fearful of whatever relationships (or lack thereof), things, circumstances, and ideas will or might take their place. This is, of course, samsara. Now, we would probably not be fully human if we had the ability to instantly move on after the death or departure of someone dear to us, but an ability to recognize that this is simply the nature of this worldly existence might help us remain open to whatever might next arise in our lives.



There is possibility in whatever hardship might transpire. In contemplating the possibility of being alone for the rest of my life, I came to realize the beauty of solitude and the creative potential that dwells therein. In contemplating the possibility of having to sell the house that I’d lived in even prior to my marriage in order to satisfy whatever legal judgment might be handed down, I came to recognize the freedom that the simplicity of an apartment-dwelling lifestyle might allow. In contemplating my feelings of “stuckness” at having to remain on my then-present career path in order to maintain the financial stability required for the positive disposition of future transactions, I realized the spaciousness of not having to expend energy toward making an occupational change. In contemplating how the perfect storm of all negative outcomes might have me losing all at once my marriage, my house, and my job, I came to know the exhilaration of having to set off into the unknown – like an explorer embarking upon a grand and glorious journey. Isn’t that what life is, after all, a grand and glorious journey?

Okay, only one of the "Four Sublime Abodes" remains - that of metta, or loving-kindness. Recall that its near enemy is attachment. Ah, now this might take some time for a newly romantically involved Buddhist to wrap his head around, so please bear with me! 




  
References


Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

  

Image Credits
 

Head of Buddha In Tree

by Kittikun Atsawintarangkul:

 

The Children – Victims of Adult Vices

by Lvova Anastasiya:



Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

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