Talking Dharma - Talking Equanimity
Equanimity is, according to the Buddha, the experience of the awakened mind. It does not contain any aspect of worrying that can be found in both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. It is way beyond what we understand to be happiness, delight or joy. The experience of equanimity is undisturbed by the ever changing circumstances of life. This thing we call mind remains at peace as events change from hot to cold, from sweet to sour, from easy to difficult. It could be said to be the neutrality of the Buddha’s middle way approach but that neutrality can be ever so subtle to discern because of the existence of the conditioned self-biased mind.
The actuality of equanimity remains steady throughout all experiences. Although there is still the awareness present that the mind has a tendency to be drawn towards the pleasant and to move away from the unpleasant, as it has no attachment to a need to act upon those things it therefore remains at peace with itself and simply responds as is appropriate to the experience.
What is missing from the experience of equanimity is the personal preference aspect that would normally dictate what action should be taken based on one’s conditioning factors. Equanimity is the willingness to be open to all experience, as it is, with no separation between pleasant and unpleasant in order that peace of mind can be established and maintained as the central and defining balance of life in which you are no longer pushed this way and that by the coercive distractions of want and not want.
Equanimity has the capacity to experience and accept extremes without the drama of worrying rising to the surface and throwing you off balance. It takes an interest in whatever is happening simply because it is happening. Contrary to the criticisms of those who do not know this experience, it is not about indifference, coldness, a lack of emotion, boredom or hesitation. Equanimity is an expression of calmness and contentment with the way things are, as they are, in any moment of existence.
An effective way of exploring this in a practical way so that you can begin to understand what equanimity is, could be to try exploring it from the perspective of what you eat. Eating is such a necessary thing to ensure the possibility of our next moment of life that it is possibly the easiest thing to experiment with. Whatever your favourite meal is, the next time you cook it or eat it, begin to explore it from the perspective of trying to understand equanimity.
Think of your favourite curry. Think of all those different amazing flavours, each unique and exquisitely clear and separate from each other. There is the sweetness of cooked tomatoes, the aroma of fresh basil, the soft texture of an aubergine that is ready to melt on the tongue and then there is the heat of the little green chilli and all of the other ingredients. If you are paying attention each smell and taste can be discerned with acute precision and clarity. When blended together within the creation process of the perfect curry what arises is a unique blend that is appreciated for its combined qualities. When equanimity is present the experience of wanting another mouthful is absent. The curry will be fully experienced with equanimity rather than pleasure. Try it for yourself with whatever your personal favourite dish is. See if you can experience that balance around taste and the unique moment.
The difficulty for many people with this subject is that society conditions us to go in search of this thing called happiness. As far as am I aware it is actually a given right within the American constitution. More often than not that search for happiness is an external exploration as if some thing, or some body out there can make us happy. We want the joy, the delight, the passionate involvement with our lives. We love the excitement of our experiences. With this in mind it is understandable that as a concept, equanimity does not sound that appealing. But I can say that those I have worked with in this area, once they have taken up the challenge to let go a bit of the cyclic and habitual behaviour, have found, often to their surprise, that once the experience of balance, contentment or even peace of mind has been realized even slightly they experience something of what equanimity is all about and that makes a significant change in their approach to the Dharma journey.
Every experience of liking something has its opposite. The fickleness of personal preference gives rise to worry. The deeply balanced state of equanimity provides the opportunity for a sustained investigation of our physical, emotional and psychological moment by moment experience. Arising out of this opportunity is a combination of concentrated stability, penetrative exploration and conscious awareness that can literally shake us out of the habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that prevent breaking through into actuality.
The authentic Dharma practitioner thrives on unpredictability. They test and refine inner qualities. Every situation becomes an opportunity to abandon judgment and opinions and to simply pay full attention to what is actually happening. Situations that would normally be considered at least inconvenient become a fertile ground for practice where they can learn how gracefully they can compromise in a negotiation, how the mind can remain at peace when you have just driven round the car park three times looing for a space and manifestation of one hasn’t yet happened. It’s when that six hour delay for your flight becomes an opportunity for meditative reflection rather than worry. All of life’s inconveniences can become opportunities for the development of equanimity. Rather than shifting the blame onto an institution, system, or person, one can simply choose to be at peace within the experience of inconvenience.
We hear the word equality used quite a lot within western culture. Often, in the impossible pursuit of equality, what happens is that laws are created that attempt to create a balance, but often result in things such as ‘positive discrimination.’ Because of the unique nature of the human conditioning process, equality will always be an idealistic fantasy that can never be realised, so all attempts to realize it will set up the conditions for disappointment which will result in worrying. Being afforded legal rights of equality in anything does not result in equality in actuality.
So, even on an everyday practical level the pursuit of equality is as ineffective as the pursuit of happiness because both will set up the conditions for the mind to worry because neither can be realized within the human experience. On an everyday practical level it is possible to realize equanimity in the form of moving towards creating a society where nobody is discriminated against on the basis of their skin pigmentation, their gender or sexual orientation, their age, their size, their religious belief system, or physical, emotional or psychological differences. This has little to do with justice or a sense of fairness. Life is neither just nor fair and to believe that it is will again set up the conditions for worry. Life is simply the result of preceding causes and conditions and what you think say and do yourself in this moment will determine the quality of your mind state experience in the next.
If we understand the Dharma correctly then it becomes clear that the development of equanimity is an essential practice to help loosen the attachment to the belief that we are a separate self-biased mind which is the fundamental confusion that prevents the break through experience of clarity. So, how do we begin to develop equanimity on a practical everyday level? Our starting point, as always, is to pay attention to what we think say and do to ensure that we are living up to our commitment to do the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourselves, others and the world around us. When we are living within the integrity of that undertaking how could it even be possible to discriminate against another human being for any reason? Another possible way of exploring this is within the broader ‘golden rule’ concept. You would not wish to be discriminated against for any reason so how is it appropriate if you discriminate against another?
According to the Buddha neither the unhelpful experience of unpleasantness or the unhelpful pursuit of pleasure is conducive to the experience of equanimity. Equanimity, according to the Buddha is the experience of contentment and peace of mind. Equanimity as a lived experience is incomparable with happiness, joy or even bliss. The mind remains undisturbed as events change from light to dark. This neutral experience is so subtle that at times it can be very difficult to discern. It is when personal preferences no longer dictate what is being experienced. There is no like or don’t like happening within the experience. It is a willingness to accept experience as it is without the label of pleasure or pain and points to a deep sense of balance in which the mind is not pushed or pulled in the direction of want and not want that is based in the confusion of the self-biased mind.
Contrary to popular misconception the neutrality of equanimity is not cold, unemotional, uncaring indifference Neither is it boring and dull. It is a vibrant acceptance of the way things actually are that takes a keen interest in things as they arise and fall because in its fullest sense it is compassionate awareness doing the observing. It is the perfect expression of the middle way approach that finds the calmness, tranquillity, contentment and the experience of a mind that is at peace with itself, others and the world around it. It takes life as it comes and responds as is appropriate to the experience and as always the only thing that is ever appropriate is compassion.
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