The fourth of the Four Immeasurables, along with mudita, is often quite challenging, is ultimately the foundation and nourishment needed to expand the other three (friendliness, compassion and joy) 'immeasurably!'
A lot of people I know avoid reading the paper first thing in the morning—being confronted with all of the injustices and bad deeds in the world is an unsettling way to start the day. It’s difficult to read about the latest corporate finance scam, the obscenity of human trafficking, or yet another sexual abuse scandal and keep your peace of mind, and it’s even harder to know how to respond. The conflict feels even more immediate when you witness an unjust act firsthand, or are yourself the recipient of one, whether it’s having your wallet stolen, your car broken into, or any sort of hurtful behavior directed your way. The Buddha's response to this problem is upekkha, or equanimity, the fourth of the immeasurables, also known as the brahmaviharas. This state of mind allows us to respond to the non-virtuous deeds of others, and indeed, to all of life’s fluctuations, in such a way that we are, as Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey describes it, the opposite of the way James Bond likes his martini: Stirred but not shaken. When we cultivate equanimity, we’re moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better, but our deep inner serenity is not completely over-turned.
Sometimes translated as indifference, upekkha is not a bland state of neutrality. In fact it means we care, and care deeply about all beings evenly! The Buddhist tradition’s understanding of upekkha or equanimity is one of balance. A balanced heart is not an unfeeling heart. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging after it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence. Insight Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg speaks of equanimity as a “spacious stillness of mind,” within which we can remain connected to others and all that is happening around us, while remaining free of our conditioned habit of grasping at what is pleasant and pushing away what is unpleasant.
One way to experience equanimity is to experiment with mindfulness meditation. Rather than fixing one-pointed attention on a single object such as the breath or a mantra, mindfulness meditation involves the moment-to-moment awareness of changing objects of perception. Mindfulness is like a flood light, shining awareness on the whole field of experience including sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away in the dynamic, ever-changing flux that characterizes the human experience of body and mind. Mindfulness allows you to see the nature of the unfolding process without getting caught in reactivity, or into being overly identified with it as ‘self,’ and this insight changes your relationship to the mind-body. The waves keep coming, but you don’t drown in them nor get swept away by them. Or as Swami Satchidanada often said, “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf!” This ability to remain balanced amidst ever-changing conditions is the balancing act of equanimity.
There’s an old story that illustrates the wisdom of this state of mind. A farmer's most valuable asset is the one horse he owns. One day it runs away. All the townspeople commiserate with him, "Oh, what terrible luck! You've fallen into poverty now, with no way to pull the plow or move your goods!" The farmer merely responds, "I don't know if it's unfortunate or not; all I know is that my horse is gone."
A few days later, the horse returns, and following it are 6 more horses, both stallions and mares. The townspeople say "Oh! You've struck it rich! Now you have 7 horses to your name!" Again, the farmer says, "I don't know if I'm fortunate or not; all that I can say is that I now have 7 horses in my stable."
A few days later, while the farmer's son is trying to break in one of the wild stallions, he's thrown from the horse and breaks his leg and shoulder. All the townspeople bemoan his fate: "Oh, how terrible! Your son has been so badly injured, he'll not be able to help you with the harvest. What a misfortune!” The farmer responds, “I don't know if its a misfortune or not; what I know is that my son has been injured.”
Less than a week later, the army sweeps through town, conscripting all of the young men to fight in a war... all except for the farmer's son who is unable to fight because of his injury.
The fact is, you can’t know what changes your life will bring, or what the ultimate consequences will be. Equanimity allows for the mystery of things; the unknowable, uncontrollable nature of things to be just as they are. In this radical acceptance lies the seeds of peace and freedom – right there in the midst of whatever pleasant or unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go.
Cultivating the qualities of kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joy (mudita) open your heart to others. Equanimity balances the giving of your heart’s love with the recognition and acceptance that things are the way they are. However much you may care for someone, however much you may do for others, however much you would like to control or wish that things were other than they are, equanimity reminds you that all beings everywhere are responsible for their own actions, and for the consequences of their actions.
Without this recognition, it’s easy to fall into compassion fatigue, helper-burnout, and even despair. Equanimity allows you to open your heart and offer as much love, kindness, compassion, and rejoicing as you can, while letting go of your expectations and attachment to results. Equanimity endows the other three Brahma-Viharas with kshanti – patience, persistence, and forbearance. So you can keep your heart open even if the kindness, compassion and appreciative joy you offer to others is not returned. It is equanimity that brings immeasurability or boundlessness to the other three Brahma-Viharas.
If you practice asana, your practice can offer a good opportunity to become better at recognizing where, when, and how you get caught in or swept away by reactivity, and to observe your attachment to results. You might even observe an attachment to results in your motivation to practice in the first place! The desire to feel good and avoid the unpleasant might very well condition your whole experience of practice. But fixating on the results can cause you to miss key aspects of the process. As you continue in your asana practice, at some point it’s likely that factors outside your control—anatomical realities, injury, aging or illness – will affect your practice. When they do, you have a chance to practice equanimity by letting go of your attachment to the results you had been seeking. Equanimity gives you the energy to persist, regardless of the outcome, because you are connected to the integrity of the effort itself. Equanimity allows me to feel inspired by the beauty of the backbends modeled by younger, more bendy practitioners knowing my back will never be able to accomplish them, while enjoying practicing the backbend I can do today.