Equanimity

Note: The following is the text of a dharma talk that I gave on November 1 for the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center in Northfield, MN.

I want to establish at the outset that I am speaking not as a scholar, but as a practitioner, who has some knowledge of these matters based on reading, dharma talks, conversations with teachers and other practitioners, and personal experience. What I am about to say represents my personal conclusions as a result of these inputs. 

It didn’t occur to me until after I agreed to the date for this talk that I would be doing it two days before the election, and it didn’t fully occur to me until after I specified my topic that “Equanimity” might be a hard sell under these circumstances. Still, I’ve come to realize that a dharma talk on equanimity is one of the most useful things I could do in exactly this situation. We have all arrived at this moment from a place of deep feeling, and not all of that feeling has involved loving-kindness or appreciative joy. My Twitter feed, where I spend way too much time, is full of anxiety, anger, disgust, and a desire to see certain people ground into the dirt. We are all deeply invested in outcomes. 

What kind of case can I make, then, for equanimity? I’ll begin by saying that none of the Brahmaviharas needs my intervention, being as they are the four sublime dwelling places for the heart. Their sublimity consists not just in their limning out of the highest possible standard for human life, but in their perfect functionality for bringing about human happiness. Keep in mind that the Buddha announced his project by claiming, “I teach only suffering and the ending of suffering.” 

Each of the Brahmaviharas has a near enemy and a far enemy. The far enemy of equanimity is passionate attachment, while the near enemy is typically described as indifference.  Everyone can easily grasp how the far enemy of equanimity would look. Back when I was on the job market, a friend of mine told me that she’d “stop breathing” if she didn’t get a certain job that had come open. She didn’t, and she didn’t, as far as I know, but her feelings are not hard for the rest of us to understand. It is that feeling that life just couldn’t continue without getting one’s way in something, or the fear that something would go horribly wrong, that gripping pain in one’s soul, that is the far enemy of equanimity. 

The near enemy is harder to distinguish. Indifference is not-caring, an attitude anyone can accomplish for at least something or other. I used to follow baseball as an avid Boston Red Sox fan, back in the day when they hadn’t won the World Series since 1918. When they finally broke their losing streak in 2004 I was ecstatic, and when they won again in 2007 I was pleased and relieved that their previous victory hadn’t been a fluke. Since then, however, I have lost interest; I could even say that I am now indifferent. It’s likely that a lot of my feeling for them was based on their perennial underdog status, although I think I also had a personal investment in them as my parents’ favorite team and because of their association with the area where I grew up. 

Likewise, when I was young I, like many young people, longed to travel. How I envied other people my own age who were world travelers! My first trip to Europe after I graduated from college was like a dream come true. I was positively dazzled the whole time I was there, even through moments of disorientation and physical discomfort. But now, I have to admit, I could take it or leave it. I’m not sure why I feel this way, nor do I believe my lack of interest does me any great credit. It probably has to do with an aversion to discomfort and inconvenience. It certainly helps not to want to travel now that we’re all enduring the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus. 

Equanimity is a different animal altogether from its near enemy. Our English term comes from the Latin for evenness of mind, and it appears that the Pali term means something similar. A person with equanimity will neither go into raptures over a good outcome nor become despondent over the opposite; indeed, a person with equanimity recognizes the transient nature of all things, the fact that with each season there will be yet another turn of the wheel. Indifference is an attitude we take towards particular things, and those who pride themselves on being low maintenance might be alarmed to discover that there are still certain things they care about a great deal. Someone who is indifferent to a great many things may be suffering from depression. None of these permutations has the flavor of equanimity. 

While we are investigating what equanimity is not, I would like to suggest another near enemy, that being spiritual bypassing. This is a term many people in spiritual circles are familiar with, and the phenomenon comes up in most traditions. It goes hand-in-hand with repression. An example might be my friend wanting that job so desperately that she thought she might stop breathing. If she were to identify as a Buddhist, she might tell herself that she didn’t really need that job even though it might be very nice to have, that she was capable of living with whatever outcome the search might take, and that she wasn’t worried about money because money is, after all, just a subset of the Eight Worldly Winds: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, and finally fame and disrepute. If any strong feeling of desire threatened to rise up she would quickly slap it down. In the meantime, she would find a consoling satisfaction in her realization. 

It’s easy to make gentle fun of another person’s rationalizations, but spiritual bypassing can occur even among those at advanced stages of practice. One yogi of my acquaintance found himself out of a job, yet his attainments made it possible for him to shift into a gentle state of bliss that cushioned him from any anxiety. As the months ticked by and the bills piled up he floated through his days in continuous nondual awareness, enjoying a flow state from one moment to the next. At some point a sheer animal terror broke through, and the results were impressive in their awfulness. 

A different kind of spiritual bypassing is demonstrated by the many advanced level dharma teachers and gurus who commit horrific offenses against their own students, charging high fees in order to indulge in luxuries, exploiting their students’ labor, abusing them emotionally and even physically, and of course engaging in predatory sexual behavior, all the while assuming a role of spiritual leadership. One recent example, a teacher in his 70s with a well-regarded book and an extensive community of students, was discovered to have engaged in extramarital relationships with multiple women, some of them sex workers, to whom he had given substantial sums of his students’ money. I met this man at a retreat two years ago, before the scandal broke, and was deeply impressed at the time by his serenity, his wisdom, and his deep kindness. What made this scandal particularly poignant was the emphasis he placed on Buddhist ethics in his teachings, and the focus of his meditation manual on samadhi, the unification of mind that brings with it the divine abiding of equanimity. 

There was a lengthy period of discussion on public forums after that story broke, as those who knew and had worked with him tried to make sense of it all. Was he a complete fraud? Were any of his attainments real? And for that matter, of what use was his meditation advice if it produced such results? His own explanation was that he considered his private life to be his own business, which he compartmentalized. The truth, as far as I’ve come to see it, is that he had engaged in a pattern of spiritual bypassing, which allowed him to claim that even while indulging his appetites he was still able to walk into his sangha and relay his valuable insights to his students. 

I need not belabor the point that this type of thing is not equanimity. The trouble is that equanimity may be one of the Divine Abidings, and yet anyone who aspires to such an exalted dwelling will still be a human being. The meditation teacher just referenced ultimately recognized that he had unresolved issues from his early life to deal with. Acknowledging that the problem of uneven development is not unique to one or a few unscrupulous or misguided gurus, leaders in the meditation world have been discussing formulas that address all facets of our inner and outer life; one of the most influential is Ken Wilber’s phrasing of wake up, clean up, and grow up, to which some people add, show up. 

Looking at any of the Brahmaviharas gives us cause to wonder at our human condition, in both senses of the word “wonder”: to wonder what it really is to be human, and to regard life as a human with a sort of awe or wonder. I am reminded of the words of the Elizabethan poet Fulke Grenville (1554-1628):

O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law; to another bound; 
Vainly begotten, and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound. 

Greville’s context in this expression of dualism is Protestantism. The law under which we are born is the law of sin, characterized by the instinctive drives toward sex and violence, with the goals of earthly survival at all costs or, failing that, the survival of one’s family or tribe at the expense of everyone else. For Christians, the savior Christ in one perfect action cuts through the duality and sanctifies humans under the law of divine love, by which we are healed of our sickness and made sound. 

For Buddhists, the duality is brought about by the illusion of permanence and an enduring self, which results inevitably in the sickness of dukkha. We may be poisoned by greed, hatred, and delusion, but each of us, even the severely cognitively impaired, carries within the dignity of Buddha nature, just as the Christian god created humans in his own image, no matter how besmirched by sin. For Buddhists, it is not the action of a savior but the three jewels of Buddha, dharma, and sangha that bring us to realization. The Four Divine Abidings are the expression of this realization: universal love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. I like to describe them as follows: the first, metta, wishes for good things to everyone; the second, karuna, shows compassion for those who experience bad fortune; the third, mudita, expresses joy for those who experience good fortune; and the fourth, upekkha, acknowledges the fact that all are subject to forces beyond anyone’s control. Equanimity is thus the embrace in which all are held, the happy and the unhappy alike. 

How do we as humans express equanimity in our lives? Some people say that a truly equanimous person feels the same under all circumstances, whether they are being tortured or are experiencing bliss. I know someone who had an attainment that was so powerful that he no longer has thoughts flowing through his mind; in addition, he claims that his feelings for his own children are no different from his feelings for anyone else. Other people say that equanimity does not demand such absolute impartiality.

For clarity I turn again to a Christian comparison, in the case of a dispute between 16th-century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam and his humanist colleague and friend, John Colet, the founder and dean of St. Paul’s School. The dispute concerns Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he asks God to “take this cup away from me,” but then concludes, “not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The final phrase reflects equanimity, as does the phrase “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. The dispute between the humanists concerns what comes before: is Jesus experiencing the fear of torture and death in asking that the cup be withdrawn? Erasmus argues that as fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus experiences everything that other humans do, while Colet claims that as God incarnate Jesus cannot feel anything so base as fear, and so these words must refer to something else, such as concern for the Jews who are about to commit the sin of murdering him. Erasmus countered by saying that if Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is to be efficacious for humans it has to mean something, in human terms. 

In the case of Equanimity as the fourth Divine Abiding, can humans embody Buddha nature so perfectly that they are impervious to any of the afflictive emotions, or are they subject to these things but able to bear up under them? I am of the view that Equanimity embraces all of human life. It is not an impossible, transcendent ideal, but rather a refuge that is available to everyone, even those without meditative attainments. When we aspire to what is beyond ourselves, we run the risks of spiritual bypassing and repression and all that follows. What does Equanimity look like when considered in human terms? It means that we are willing to be afraid, grief-stricken, and even angry without identifying with the fear, grief, or anger. It is likely that as a person advances in practice, such emotions will occur much less often than before, but they will still appear. What decreases dramatically is the involvement of the ego. 

What I’d like to do for the remainder of this talk is go through specific human emotions and experiences and examine them through the lens of equanimity. 

I’ll begin with fear. The emotion of fear is the mind’s way of protecting an animal from danger, and as such, it is functional. It can, however, become paralyzing, especially when it metastasizes into anxiety, a chronic state of mind that is a response to ongoing stress. Ordinarily, fear allows an animal to spring into action to avoid a threat, the well-known “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Once the threat is over, the animal shakes itself and then goes about its business. Humans, with our capacity for embedding memories, usually aren’t so lucky, and may need time to recover. Some don’t recover, and find themselves suffering from PTSD. 

It would seem that equanimity is at odds with lingering fear of this type, since fear is linked to one’s desire to extend one’s life as an individual. In cases where the fear takes the form of a social anxiety, what is at stake is not one’s life but rather one’s status in the eyes of others, which uninstructed worldlings especially are desperately averse to losing. Yet I’m prepared to suggest that even a phobia might be held in equanimity, as long as a person does not identify with it. 

I can cite an example from my own life. I have two phobias, both of which are the result of traumatic experiences. The first is a fear of driving on highways, which developed after I wiped out going 80 mph on the Massachusetts Turnpike at the age of 19. I thought I was going to die, and ever since, I have responded to highway driving as if I were facing a situation of mortal peril. Needless to say, I have found this aversion to be a serious limitation, and as a result I have worked hard to overcome it. 

The other phobia dates back to my teens as well, when I wanted to pursue a career as a professional violinist. I went to summer music camps, took lessons with a high-powered teacher, and crafted an identity around being a musician. Unfortunately, I developed a case of stage fright that manifested as a tremor in my right hand, which caused my bow to skip on the strings. I did my best to work around it, but it not only continued to plague me but it caused me horrendous embarrassment and frustration. 

I struggled with these phobias for decades, entering into therapy, reading self-help books, and working at desensitization. I also took an impressive array of drugs. Most importantly, however, I saw myself as a victim, and bewailed my suffering. My mental health was affected as I was drawn into an image of myself as a person who was crippled by my own mind. I eventually undertook my meditation practice in the hopes of conquering these demons for good. 

What happened instead is that I more or less kept the phobias but dropped the sob stories. To this day, if I had to drive on I35 I’d be able to do it, but my muscles would tighten, my blood pressure would increase, and my breathing would become shallow. I can also say that if I were to attempt to play a scale on my violin in front of this group rather than giving a dharma talk, I would start shaking all over the instrument. Yet I am grateful for both of these handicaps because without them I would never have begun my meditation practice. My phobias are glitches in my equipment, not having anything essential to do with me. Of course, at the moment I’m not called upon either to drive any distance or to play the violin, although before the coronavirus I would try to get up to the Twin Cities now and then. But on the whole, I have developed some degree of equanimity around the fear. 

Next comes anger. Being equanimous with anger is difficult to imagine as a possibility, since almost nothing is more irrational and compelling than a towering rage. I can recall being in the throes of fury from time to time and feeling that absolutely nothing could pull me out of it. Later on I would realize how pointless my anger had been, but at the time whatever reasoning power I possessed was thoroughly disabled. Even worse is the fact that anger generates hatred and ill-will towards other people, and can lead to harm and even violence. One of the most common triggers to anger is a real or imagined slight to one’s self-esteem. A person cuts me off in traffic: how dare they treat me in this way! Someone criticizes me, maybe even constructively: how could they not see me as the paragon I know I am! Sometimes anger is triggered when someone hurts or insults a loved one, as for example when another parent disinvited my then 5th-grade son from her son’s birthday party. I was furious. 

Like fear, anger is also a survival mechanism. If someone shows contempt for me or my family and I do nothing about it, others looking on might think I’m a pushover and feel free to harm or even kill me. Anger also kicks in at the moment of a threat and gives an animal the necessary energy to mount a counter-attack. I remember years ago when I was on that European trip I mentioned earlier, I was walking with my mother after dark back to our hotel when a man jumped out in front of us out of nowhere. I pushed my mother out of the way and stepped up to him with raised fists, ready to kill him with my bare hands. He laughed and withdrew, and that was that. 

My response was a pure lightning-bolt of animal energy, a force of nature coming out of the same place in the brain that drives my toy poodle to charge at another dog many times his size, barking fiercely. Of a different ilk is anger that festers and hardens into rumination and resentment. Rehearsing conversations in one’s mind, lying awake at night, plotting revenge—these experiences are the very essence of dukkha. Yet equanimity can hold even this kind of anger in its generous embrace, recognizing that yes, we have “let ourselves go there.” One of my favorite memories is of a grad school buddy with whom I’d have lunch once a week. Inevitably we’d start telling each other stories of our previous week, silly arguments we’d had with our boyfriends, ridiculous moments of our clownish egos rising up, and then we’d laugh uproariously. We weren’t proud of these moments nor were we ashamed of them; they were simply testimonials to our shared humanity. 

Onward to sexual desire. This is an instinct that comes in for a lot of disapproval in most religious traditions, including Buddhism, even though none of us would even be here without it. Desire of any sort is one of the three poisons, and sexual desire in particular is apt to be compulsively enmeshed with the ego. Lust can be described as the drive for sex unaccompanied by the niceties of love or even interest in another person. Passionate erotic love may seem to be a more positive force, yet it is typically grounded in illusion and leads inevitably to heartbreak. Both lust and sexual love are enemies of a composed and unified mind. 

Still, it is important to remember that the god of love is a very dangerous god indeed, and to insult him by treating him lightly is to court disaster. I refer back to the senior meditation teacher with his multiple ongoing, secret affairs, which caused him to lose his wife, his retreat center, and his reputation, not to mention making him an object of ridicule on account of his advanced age. Repression of sexual desire has a way of biting a person in the backside. What, then, are humans to do?

One way of looking at sexual desire is as a form of energy, along the same lines as anger. Energy can be channeled to good ends; in fact, long before Freud formulated his psychological theories, the medieval troubadours claimed that nothing good can come about unless it has its wellspring in love. The love of a man for a virtuous woman was regarded as the beginning of his own evolution as a virtuous man, the civilizing influence that turned his power as a warrior from ruthlessness and rapacity to the service of protecting the weak. 

This type of energy has an added element of vulnerability, because it is by necessity rooted in a relationship with another. Experiencing one’s vulnerability can be deeply painful and unsettling, but it is absolutely necessary to the process of understanding and, ultimately, detaching from one’s ego. Believing oneself to be immune to the pain that comes from involvement with other human beings is a form of what Christian spiritual writers call spiritual pride. If people are willing to learn love’s lessons, they can begin to recognize and cherish what is vulnerable and beautiful in all beings, which is, in fact, the practice of metta

The craving for money, status, and/or power is so common that we scarcely notice it in ourselves, although it is usually obvious when we see it in others. I spent my career in the academic world where, as a colleague once pointed out to me, the rewards are primarily at the level of the ego. Academics often tend to see themselves as deserving respect that they deny to others. Even those of us who try to resist such posturing find ourselves on the receiving end of other people’s attitudes toward us. Among academics, as is true for all professions, there is a lifelong experience akin to white privilege, which gains us deference we hardly even see because it is a part of our everyday experience. 

In spite of these obvious benefits, academics are painfully aware of gradations in status among our own kind. People value their colleagues on the basis of their accomplishments, not just the number of  publications but the quality of the journals and presses that publish our work. There is the daily reminder of who counts and who does not in the politics of faculty meetings, where some people are listened to with respect while others are ignored. Wounded egos harden into lifelong antagonisms that play out with every issue that comes up, again and again. New faculty are soon instructed by members of warring factions as to where their bread is likely to be buttered. All of these problems in one’s home institution are carried into the larger academic community, where colleagues in similar fields vie with one another over whose interpretations of what we study are of superior merit. Younger scholars set out to establish their reputations by toppling older, established scholars from their pedestals, all the while shoving their own peers out of the way in an effort to be noticed. 

This kind of pettiness turns academic life, which to outsiders looks like paradise, into living hell-realms to those going through it. I can’t say that these problems are anything like the hell that the multitudes of poor in our country endure, but they are a nasty source of dukkha nonetheless. Most of us strive to overcome these conditions by moving up to the top of the heap, but aside from the uncertainty of outcomes, there is the problem that even those who occupy the top ranks are in relentless competition with one another. 

The only means of getting off the wheel is to cultivate equanimity and the other Divine Abidings. We usually do this as an absolute last resort, as if the most precious jewel of all is only a booby prize left over when we fail to get what we really want. Even then, the threat of the near enemy of spiritual bypassing looms over our efforts. It may help us mortals to realize the extent of the threat that professional status-seeking poses to human happiness when we see the extent to which even highly-realized dharma teachers fall prey to it. Recognition of our weakness, acknowledgement that we are all in the same boat, and gentle humor at our own expense go a long way to alleviating such misery. So does forgiveness of self and others. Finally, as long as we are human beings in this world, we will be working with these temptations. 

I now arrive at my conclusion, which is that equanimity is yet another example of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way. We cannot transcend our humanity, but neither can we allow ourselves to wallow in the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. As we anticipate the election that is about to take place on Tuesday, we will continue to experience the negative emotions that are embroiling our powerful country, and unfortunately, the aftermath will not solve all our problems no matter how the election turns out. Around a month ago I was researching real estate in Winnipeg, but the truth is, no one can escape living in this world, surrounded by others of our kind, and facing what is going on with our own minds and bodies. I wish you well in the days and weeks ahead. 

Thank you. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s