Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Equanimity

The new issue of Tricycle has an article, "A Perfect Balance," by Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita, on cultivating equanimity. As I read the section by U Pandita, I found myself thinking, "Yeah, it's not quite that easy for most of us."

Before launching into my objections to the article, here are a couple of quotes that provide the Buddha's views on equanimity.

As a solid mass of rock
Is not stirred by the wind,
So a sage is not moved
By praise and blame.
As a deep lake
Is clear and undisturbed,
So a sage becomes clear
Upon hearing the Dharma.
Virtuous people always let go.
They don't prattle about pleasures and desires.
Touched by happiness and then by suffering,
The sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.
---Dhammapada, 81-83

Equanimity is characterized as promoting neutrality toward all beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds (karma) thus: "Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose (if not theirs) is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?" It succeeds when it makes resentment and approval subside, and it fails when it produces the equanimity of unknowing.
---Visuddhimagga, 9.96
With this basic understanding of equanimity in hand, U Pandita offers five ways that each of us can cultivate more equanimity in our lives.

1) Balanced emotion toward all living things
2) Balanced emotion toward all inanimate things
3) Avoiding people who go "crazy"
4) Choosing friends who stay cool
5) Inclining the mind toward balance

(These ideas are from In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita, copyright 1991.)

Numbers 3 and 4 seem pretty easy. We can certainly make wise choices about our friends and the people with whom we surround ourselves. However, the other three items fall into the "easier said than done" category.

Here are some of U Pandita's suggestions for generating more equanimity toward all living beings:

To prepare the ground for equanimity to arise, one should try to cultivate an attitude of nonattachment and equanimity toward the people and animals we love.

One reflection that can develop nonattachment is to regard all beings as the heirs of their own karma. People reap the rewards of good karma and suffer the consequences of unwholesome acts.

You can also gain equanimity about beings by reflecting on ultimate reality. Perhaps you can tell yourself that, ultimately speaking, there is only mind and matter. Where is that person you are so madly in love with? There is only nama and rupa, mind and body, arising and passing away from moment to moment.

Most of U Pandita's advice has a similar tone and content. For the most part, I find this of little use and unrealistic for most Buddhist students.

When I am working on developing equanimity in my own life, I find it crucial to look at the source of the attachment in as much detail as possible. Thinking about the nature of ultimate reality does me little good when a coworker is irritating me to the point that I can't get any work done or I feel like breaking something. Simply telling myself not to be attached to the feelings I am experiencing will not solve the problem, either.

What does work, however, is for me to look at what the person (or his/her actions) represent to me, and most importantly, is there something about the person (or his/her actions) that I see in myself that makes me uncomfortable. Most often, this is where the solution is to be found. As an example, a couple of years ago I had a coworker who I felt was self-obsessed, inconsiderate, childish, rude, and generally unpleasant to be around. He made me crazy on a daily basis. When I looked more closely at the situation, I realized that he was exhibiting exaggerated traits that I disliked in myself. When I began to work with those aspects of myself and got to know them better, he no longer set me off so easily. I had to reclaim my projection, as a therapist might say.

Similarly, when I was a very young man in college, I was crazy in love with a young woman. My self-esteem hinged on everything she did--either she was nice to me and I was a good person, or she was indifferent and I was worthless. I was so attached to her loving me and to our relationship that I completely lost myself for the time we were together. When I finally was able to reclaim my projection of self-worth from that relationship, I was suddenly able to see our time together in a whole new way.

When we become attached to people or things, there are usually deep psychological reasons that must be addressed if we want to release those attachments. It is not a simple matter of choosing not to be attached, or reframing the person, thing, or relationship in terms of ultimate reality. We must dig in the dirt of our souls to uproot the attachment from the place where it originally began to grow. Otherwise, it will simply grow again in a slightly different way from its original roots.

The single best practice for developing equanimity is daily mindfulness. If we start with one attachment we want to rid ourselves of and work each day to be aware of it when it surfaces, we will be well on our way to removing its roots. It won't happen in a week, and maybe not even in a year, but it will happen if we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our motivations. I have found no other way to uproot deeply held attachments.

If you haven't worked on mindfulness before, have a look at some of Pema Chodron's or Lama Surya Das's books. Insight meditation can also be adapted to a daily practice away from the cushion.
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