Equanimity: Evenness of mind
Last month I wrote a bit about equanimity, and how the possibility of not holding on to changing experiences can offer a sense of ease, even in the middle of difficult circumstances. So this quality of equanimity can be a kind of refuge, but – at least in my own experience – it doesn’t always arise spontaneously just when you most need it! Sometimes, it has to be actively cultivated.
In the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahma-vihara, (the meditative practices that develop skilful states of heart and mind,) we start by cultivating kindness or good will, then compassion, then appreciative joy, and lastly, equanimity. Equanimity is recognised as the pinnacle of these practices, and it can be the most challenging to develop because of its subtlety. It’s not a quality that is valued much these days, and as Ajahn Sucitto has described, outside of contemplative circles it’s not really understood at all. In his book “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods,” he says:
“True enough, the Pali word upekkha can mean ‘neutral’ in terms of feeling; it can give the impression that one is indifferent and doesn’t care – a nonchalant, laissez-faire attitude. But this is stupid equanimity; there’s nothing furthering in it. Nonchalance carries delusion that does not fully acknowledge the feeling or the consequence of mind states. It’s an escape in which one gets vague and fuzzy; it’s a defence, a not wanting to feel …”
When practiced in this way, we’re cultivating a form of deluded escapism rather than genuine refuge. And over time, this false equanamity can become a kind of default setting that the Buddhist psychologist John Welwood refers to as “spiritual bypassing.” He writes:
“Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks … Meditation is also frequently used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those in denial about their personal feelings or wounds, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward coldness, disengagement, or interpersonal distance. They are at a loss when it comes to relating directly to their feelings or to expressing themselves personally in a transparent way. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or primal need for love.”
The coldness, disengagement and interpersonal distance that John Welwood describes here can be seen as the “near enemies” of equanimity. To be able to distinguish them from the real thing, we need to tune in to the body very carefully and sense the energy that’s present in these different states. For me, one of the key ways of recognising the difference is its energetic quality. With true equanimity, there’s a subtle vibration and warmth, an alive energy, that’s missing from the near enemies. When I’m disconnected and trying to pretend that it’s equanimity, if I’m honest and pay careful attention I can feel an underlying sense of flatness, coolness, and dismissiveness.
One of the benefits of cultivating equanimity in formal meditation is that as we recite the traditional phrases to develop non-reactivity, we can keep tuning in to the body and learn how to distinguish between genuine evenness of mind, and a false kind of calmness that we might be using to suppress unpleasant emotions.
So the next time you find yourself reacting strongly to a difficult experience – or to something difficult happening to someone else – you could try sitting in formal meditation, then bring the situation to mind. Choose one of the equanimity phrases below and keep slowly reciting it over and over, as you tune in to any physical sensations in your body. Over time, you may find that the emotional reactivity subsides, leaving behind a much calmer state of well-being. Because this state is quite subtle, it may take some getting used to at first, but as the mindfulness gets more refined, it becomes easier to recognise the characteristics of true equanimity more clearly.
If, however, the emotional reactivity doesn’t subside and the intellect starts getting involved in a lot of thinking about the experience, this could be a sign that there’s an underlying painful emotion that’s being suppressed. Again, try to bring the awareness back into the body, and gently feel into any difficult emotions or mind-states that might be present, such as anger, shame, grief, hatred, etc. If any of these are present, then it could be helpful to switch to compassion practice for a while, and more specifically, to self-compassion practice as I described in July’s post. It may take some time, but eventually, once the painful emotions have released, it will probably be easier to return to the equanimity practice and find a deeper, more genuine balance of heart-mind.
Here then, are a few equanimity phrases to experiment with: