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. Continue reading “August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)”→
I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are planning to go on retreat soon, and at some stage in the discussion, there’s often an embarrassed acknowledgement of feeling some anxiety about it. Even for people who have been on retreat before and have some familiarity with the set-up, each retreat is unique, so we never really know what to expect. In some ways, that’s the point of it: to open ourselves to the unknown, to explore new territory, and to experience aspects of ourselves that we may not have come into contact with before. Continue reading “March 2016 full moon – Retreat and pre-retreat practice”→
This December full moon I happen to be assisting James Baraz with a seven-day retreat in the Yarra Valley, outside of Melbourne, Australia. Those of you who are familiar with James’ teaching know that he infuses the traditional mindfulness practices that lead to insight, with the “heart practices” known as the four brahma vihara: kindness/metta, compassion/karuna, joy/mudita and equanimity/upekkha.
Practiced together, all of these techniques help to strengthen what are sometimes referred to as the two “Wings to Awakening,” wisdom and compassion. It’s said that both of these aspects need to be in balance, if we’re going to fly. And in this metaphor, compassion is an umbrella term for all wholesome mind-states – so it includes the four brahma vihara, but also other skilful qualities such as generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, confidence, and so on.
You may have noticed this need for balance in your own meditation practice, as you look back over the months or years, or perhaps decades. At times, it’s as if the wisdom gets ahead of the compassion, and we start to see our experiences with an almost painful clarity. One way this can play out is in seeing our own difficult patterns in glorious technicolour. I think it was the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa who said: “Self-knowledge is not always good news!” And in this phase of practice, we can get quite discouraged at the apparent depth and strength of these difficult patterns. Then, we might need to consciously incline the heart-mind towards compassion and the other brahma vihara, to bring some warmth and kindness into that clear seeing.
At other times, the opposite can be true. The heart opens up wide, and we feel the existential pain of being human so acutely that it seems unbearable. Then we might need to strengthen the vipassana practice, so we can reconnect to the wisdom that everything is impermanent, everything changes and that nothing needs to be identified with. So an important part of our own practice is learning to recognise if we’re off balance in some way, and whether we might need to strengthen one of these two wings: wisdom, or compassion.
Just this week, I had a beautiful experience of seeing and feeling both “wings” being in balance. There have been several times now where I’ve been on retreat when one of the participants or retreat supporters received some kind of difficult news: perhaps the sudden loss of property or financial security; perhaps the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or disease; perhaps the unexpected death of a close friend or family member. It happened again on this retreat, and again, I got to see the fruits of our individual and collective practice. Sitting together in stillness and silence, whether for days, weeks, or sometimes months, the heart and mind open wide to receive what’s difficult, with wisdom and compassion. Wisdom recognises: “It could have been ME who received that news.” Or “It could have been me who WAS that news.” There’s the understanding that this is the human condition. We’re all subject to loss, to aging, to sickness, and to death, and on recognising the universality of these conditions, compassion naturally flourishes.
Compassion is different from grief, because it’s underpinned by equanimity, stability of heart-mind, which I’m starting to think of as like the keel of a yacht. To sail, the yacht has to be responsive to conditions, to wind and waves, but it needs the weight of the keel to keep it from capsizing. In a similar way, equanimity keeps the practice stable, but it is a flexible stability that allows us to respond to the changing conditions of life with as much balance as possible.
Next weekend, I’m going to be exploring equanimity in a couple of day-long workshops in Auckland, then in 2015, I’m looking forward to offering more retreats in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, exploring different ways of practicing the two wings to awakening. You can find more information about these events on the Retreats and Courses page here: https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/
(And if you’re not able to make it to a retreat, James Baraz’s online Awakening Joy course is one very accessible way of engaging with the brahma vihara practices in daily life. More info about that here: http://www.awakeningjoy.info/ )
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.” http://www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.doc
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:
Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His [or her] welcoming and rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he [or she] discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore.
AN 8.6 Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World
Having just landed back in the Blue Mountains, Australia, after two months of travel in the Northern Hemisphere and New Zealand, there’s now some time to catch my breath and reflect on the kaleidoscope of people and places I’ve just visited. Perhaps because conditions were changing so rapidly, it was so clear that whenever there was holding on, there was suffering. And when there was no holding on, no resistance, there was no suffering. Moving through – or with – all of these changes, I’m grateful for the possibility of equanimity; and grateful too, for the rich experiences of these last few weeks.
And to finish, some more thoughts on equanimity from Pema Chodron:
To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity. We train in staying with the soft spot and use our biases as stepping-stones for connecting with the confusion of others. Strong emotions are useful in this regard. Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who suffer the same kind of aggression or craving — who, just like us, get hooked by hope and fear. This is how we come to appreciate that everyone’s in the same boat. We all desperately need more insight into what leads to happiness and what leads to pain.
It’s easy to continue, even after years of practice, to harden into a position of anger and indignation. However, if we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment or rage or whatever it is, a bigger perspective can emerge. In the moment that we choose to abide with the energy instead of acting it out and repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities — love, compassion, joy, and equanimity — evolve from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.
Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty Shambhala 2002 p79-80
What? Yet another act of mass violence? This one very close to home …
I arrived in Boston yesterday morning, just a few hours before Logan airport was closed down due to the marathon bombings. A friend picked me up and took me straight to a local hospital so we could spend time with a mutual friend who was having her first chemotherapy treatment, for recently diagnosed Stage IV cancer.
Leaving Boston later that afternoon, we saw police cars escorting convoys of dozens of empty school buses driving into the city. It was an eerie sight, and we wondered what was going on. Perhaps some kind of disaster-response rehearsal? But it wasn’t a rehearsal, it was the real thing. (Am assuming the buses were needed to take survivors to safety)
A day later and my mind still struggles to take all of this in. It shuttles between aversion and delusion, two of the three “root poisons” in Buddhist thought – i.e. not wanting / resisting, and not knowing / ignoring.
I go on-line, looking for consolation, and come back with this piece by Pema Chodron. Ah, yes, the consolation of no-consolation! Staying with that “queasy feeling” and being able to say “this too, this too,” to Stage IV cancer and bombings and ————- (fill in the blanks).
Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not only hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.
Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love.
Pema Chodron, from The Places That Scare You (Shambhala Publications)