Excerpted from talks given during an 8-week course at CIMC on Equanimity.
As human beings we are subject to continual changes in life. The Taoists spoke about the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys. Joy turns to sorrow. Sorrow turns to joy. No one is exempt. Equanimity is the liberating quality that allows us to keep our hearts open and balanced, quiet and steady, in the midst of all these changes.
We develop equanimity through being mindful of our reactions to what the Buddha described as the eight worldly dhammas [phenomena]. The worldly dhammas are four sets of contrasting conditions that all of us are subject to at one point or another in our lives. The cultivation of equanimity involves looking deeply at our relationship to these eight conditions in life.
The first set of worldly dhammas is praise and blame. In the moment of being praised, can we be aware of our reactions? We may discover that we push praise away automatically, because of discomfort, or that we take it in too much and find ourselves dependent on receiving more. In the moment of being blamed, can we be aware of our reactions? We may discover that our reactions include trying to justify our actions, blaming ourselves, or blaming the person who blamed us. We may immediately think the person is right. We may immediately think the person is wrong.
Of course we will probably feel badly when blamed. The question is: Can we be mindful of feeling badly rather than allowing ourselves to get lost in it? Can we be aware of the reaction instead of caught in the story about it? If it is useful information, can we learn from it? If it is not useful, can we let it go? Can we see that praise and blame are often out of our control?
The second of the worldly dhammas is the arena of gain and loss. What is our relationship to gain? Is gain always positive? What is our relationship to loss? Is loss always negative? When we reflect on past experiences is it ever true that what we thought at the time was a gain was actually a loss and that what we thought was a loss turned out to be a gain? In attaching to having gained something, is there as well the fear that it will be lost? In attaching to having succeeded in something, is there as well the fear of failure?
In any culture there are fixed ideas of what it means to be successful and what it means to fail, of what it means to gain and what it means to lose. When we cling to models of success, we set ourselves up for disappointment. To question these models is to find an inner freedom that emerges out of understanding and is not based on models. In non-attachment we allow for wisdom to emerge. We see that gain and loss are a natural part of the flux of life.
In cultivating equanimity we need to become aware of our relationship to pleasure and pain, the third set of worldly dhammas. What is the result of running after pleasure and pushing away pain? Can we become more aware of the suffering inherent in the pursuit of pleasure and in the avoidance of pain? Is this suffering inherent in these worldly dhammas? Or is it possible to experience pleasure fully without clinging to it and trying to make it last? In the moment of experiencing something painful can we open to the pain without trying to get rid of it?
To experience liberation in relationship to these worldly dhammas, we need to understand their changing nature. Understanding that both pleasure and pain arise and pass away, and seeing that both dhammas are often out of our control, we learn not to cling to either; and in non-clinging there is freedom. We open to pleasure and pain, yet are not overwhelmed by desire or aversion.
The last set of worldly dhammas is fame and disrepute. Do we need to be seen by others when we do something we think worthy? What is our reaction to being misjudged? What is our relationship to status? Being aware of our relationship to fame and disrepute allows us to be free from dependency on the opinions of others.
To learn how to be more equanimous with these conditions, we have to be able to see their insubstantiality. Through being mindful we become more aware of the impermanence of both. We see the conditional nature of fame, and that lasting peace and happiness doesn’t come through being famous. We see that disrepute is temporary, and need not bring lasting unhappiness. The more balanced we can be in relationship to these, the more we free ourselves from having to be seen by others in any particular way. When no longer swayed by changing tides of fame or disrepute, we discover a peace that doesn’t depend on how others see us.
If we can remember more and more to bring mindfulness to these worldly dhammas as they arise in our daily life, we can begin to see the suffering of attachment. We can begin to see the essential emptiness and impermanence of conditions. In meditation practice we may not like what arises, and yet it is the willingness to stay with what is happening that brings liberation. The less attached we are to comfort, the more at ease we are within ourselves and within this world.
Cultivating equanimity doesn’t mean that we have to be passive participants in life. If it’s hot we can open the windows. But in the many times when we cannot change or control our experiences, can we find an inner refuge? This inner refuge is the capacity to be equanimous.