August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)

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Seven Factors of Awakening

I’ve recently enjoyed leading a couple of longer residential retreats in New Zealand and Australia, exploring the teachings from the Satipatthana Sutta on the Seven Factors of Awakening: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy or rapture, tranquillity, concentration or stability of mind, and equanimity.

When cultivated together and brought into balance with each other, these seven factors provide the optimum conditions for the deepest insights to arise, so they play a very important role in the development of wisdom.  In fact Bhikkhu Anaalayo, in a recent study retreat exploring the Satipatthana Sutta, said that all the various techniques and methods found in that sutta are designed to develop these Seven Factors of Awakening. 

The four relational factors of awakening

During these last two retreats, each afternoon I also offered some guided meditations on all four of the brahma-vihara practices: kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.  These four methods for cultivating different flavours of love are less commonly taught during insight meditation retreats, yet when combined with insight practice, together they create a very holistic path to freedom.  I was happy then, to recently hear another of my teachers, Greg Kramer, refer to these four brahma-vihara practices as “the relational factors of awakening.”

Greg Kramer: The Three Bases of Insight Dialogue

Greg developed the interpersonal meditation practice of Insight Dialogue, a very powerful form of meditation which integrates the mindfulness and tranquility of silent meditation directly into our interactions with other people.  If you aren’t familiar with Insight Dialogue, Greg’s explanation of the three bases of insight dialogue is a good place to start.  (He talks about the relationship between the seven factors of awakening and the brahma vihara practices as relational factors of awakening towards the beginning of the video.)

Equanimity in the transition from retreat to daily-life practice

Thinking of the brahma-vihara practices as “relational factors of awakening” perhaps helps to reduce the common tendency to see them as somehow inferior to insight practice. And one place these two sets of practices overlap very directly is in the factor of equanimity, which appears as the final factor in both lists.

As a brief definition, equanimity is the capacity to stay balanced and even, responsive rather than reactive, no matter what our external circumstances may be.  Although I’ve already written about equanimity here a couple of years ago 1, I’d like to offer a few more thoughts about it now, because it is such a powerful yet often misunderstood quality.  And one place where it is often really needed, is in relation to the experience of coming out of retreat practice back into daily life.

These transitions between intensive silent retreat practice and ordinary life are sometimes challenging, because in that shift from the protection of the retreat container to the relative complexity of daily life, we often encounter different kinds of reactivity.  Equanimity then, can be a very helpful resource to meet that reactivity with kindness, to give it space, and to let it simply subside of its own accord.

Meditation and post-meditation

In the Tibetan tradition, they talk about “meditation, and post-meditation,” which points to the understanding that no matter what circumstances we’re in, we can bring awareness to what’s going on.  Whether we’re on retreat or in daily life, on one level experience is exactly the same: it’s just a sight –  a sound – a smell – a taste – a physical sensation – a thought or an emotion – moment after moment after moment.  And all of those momentary experiences can simply be known, with mindfulness and acceptance: equanimity.

Equanimity as self-acceptance

So in daily life, we practice meeting our experiences with equanimity, moment to moment, just as we do on retreat.  This is not to deny though, that retreat conditions are much more supportive of mindfulness and concentration than the conditions most of us encounter in our ordinary lives.  It’s inevitable then, that as the mindfulness and concentration taper away, we’ll experience some degree of increased reactivity.  And if some self-judgement comes up in response, then cultivating equanimity as a form of self-acceptance could be helpful.  The English monk Ajahn Sucitto describes this kind of equanimity as “even-minded empathy.”

The only way out [of self-judgement] is through a different approach: one of developing equanimity as self-acceptance. Cultivating this is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind.

Noticing expectations and ‘should’ language

One powerful arena to pay attention to in relation to self-judgement, is our inner language.  Practising mindfulness of mind, we can start to recognise some of the many beliefs, assumptions, concepts, and expectations about what’s supposed to happen in our practice, what we should be experiencing, how we should be responding, why things should be different.
This one word “should” is a very significant indicator that we’ve got caught in some form of expectation, and that there’s some form of resistance to our actual experience.  So when we notice this word “should” popping up a lot, see if it’s possible to let it be “could” rather than “should.”

Transforming expectations into aspirations

This is one way of transforming expectations into aspirations – because in letting go of expectations, we’re not trying to avoid having any kind of purpose, direction, or goals in practice.  Instead, it’s to notice what kind of attitude we’re bringing to those goals.
When there’s some form of expectation, this is usually accompanied by a more rigid attitude in the mind.  We often veer between hope and fear, micro-managing our practice to try and attain something, then falling into disappointment and doubt when it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted.
If we’re simply setting an aspiration though, there’s an orientation towards a particular direction, but once we’ve set that aspiration, we let go of attachment to outcome.  Then there’s an openness to whatever actually happens, and this openness is a foretaste of the deeper freedom that equanimity leads us towards.

Instructions and guided meditation on practicing Equanimity for oneself

If you’d like to continue exploring different aspects of equanimity in daily life, you can find some brief instructions and a guided meditation here:

Enjoy your explorations!

2 Ajahn Sucitto “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” p194

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