I talked a while back about how I didn’t think suffering or dissatisfaction should be included in the Marks of Existence since in could be brought to an end. I think now that I was wrong; and that Awakening/Realization is not the cessation of dissatisfaction, but the cessation of suffering from dissatisfaction. So, what’s the difference?
The cessation of dissatisfaction means that it no longer exists at all; we do not feel it at all; it has no presence in our lives. I truly do not believe that state can exist in the world of compound things – our world. On the other hand, the cessation of suffering from dissatisfaction means that we feel it, but it doesn’t change the state of balance with which we approach our life and our reality. This state of balance is called equanimity.
You may recognize this from the Four Immeasurables, where we say at the end, “May all beings abide in equanimity, unfazed by bias, attachment or anger.” I truly believe that this concept, hidden within the multiple lists and teachings of Buddhism is the heart - the key - to living an Awakened life. So what is it exactly?
Equanimity is the state of balance between the buffeting winds of emotion. It is the state in which we feel everything that is present in the moment, but are still able to make skillful decisions on the way forward without being affected by them; able to evaluate them rationally and respond to their causes rather than reacting with emotional outbursts of our own. Cartoonists like to depict gurus sitting at the very peak of a steeply conical mountain. While they’re doing that to show the difficulty of getting to them, this says to me that these wise ones are balanced at a tipping point, buffeted by winds and snows but unmoved by any outside force. This is equanimity.
We know that no moment is wholly one thing or another; they are multiple feelings and causes and realities all appearing at the same instant. Sometimes meditation teachers will say to concentrate on the good things in a moment. This is almost useless. When the horrible things of a moment are affecting us strongly there is no way that we can focus on the few good parts of it. Telling someone to do that is just pointing out to them that they can’t do what’s necessary to be happy.
Sometimes Buddhist teachers will say to experience the moment whole and complete as it is – I’ve said this multiple times myself. What we mean by that is to open ourselves to the entirety of the moment without placing on it our own judgements and rankings. We can accept both the good and the bad without saying, “but the bad is so much worse than the good”. There is good, there is bad; happy, sad; anger, joy; even apathy and motivation. They simply are. The state of equanimity is the path within all these emotions where we can walk among them and decide which needs our focus to make the coming moments better. Sometimes, what needs to be focused on is the sadness – having a good cry or mourning someone who has passed so that, by being expressed, in the world that sadness can begin to disperse; but, even while expressing that sadness, recognizing that happiness also exists in that same moment.
This has happened to me multiple times when I’ve attended the funeral of a person I loved on an absolutely beautiful day in a beautiful setting. Why do you think cemeteries are such lovely, park-like settings? While I cry for my loss, at the same time I recognize the warmth of the sun, the cooling breeze, the peaceful view. These other things do not wipe away my grief, but they exist alongside it so that I have balance within myself between grief and joy, sorrow and peace. This is equanimity. But how is this different from apathy? Simple really.
Apathy is giving in to the feeling that things are as they are and there is nothing you can do about it. It leads to floating along with no direction, no guide, no plan. Equanimity is accepting that things are as the are in this moment, but knowing that my actions in this moment will affect what happens – in the world and to me – in the coming moments. It is feeling sadness and the joy and deciding to move forward with the joy rather than the grief. I’ll make no promises about this being an easy task, however.
You think I’m joking when I say about our zazen time, “that’s why we call it practice”; but I really mean it. Sitting on our cushion we are not forced to make an immediate decision about which path to follow; we can let all emotions exist as we sit between them balanced on our cushion. Do you think May Lou Retton jumped up on the balance beam and performed a perfect flip the first time? No, of course not; she had to practice; she had to fall off just from standing there; then fall off trying to walk; then fall off doing a handstand; etc.; etc. Zazen allows us to be in the center of our emotions and fall off over and over again without hurting either ourselves or others. What happens on the cushion stays on the cushion – but what we learn on the cushion stays with us all our days.
So how do we know we’re acting from equanimity not reacting from emotional pressure? We look at the potential results of our actions and thoughts. If you are condemning the police for teargas but not the anarchist for frozen bottles of water, you are not coming from a place of equanimity. If you are condemning the protestor for breaking a window but not the police for pepper spraying a person standing peacefully in the street, you are not coming from a place of equanimity. If you rejoice in the misfortune of others, or feel that they deserve it; you are not coming from a place of equanimity. If you feel you have a right to what you have but others don’t have a right to what they need, you are not coming from a place of equanimity – but so what?
If you are not coming from a place of equanimity you are in danger of hurting others; but also yourself. Without equanimity you are never really going to be at peace with yourself or your life. This is what some call “loving yourself”. You are going to be blown about by the winds of emotion and give in to depression when bad things happen; but you’re also not going to be able to feel the fullness of joy when good things happen – because joy is only increased by a pinch of sorrow like sugar is sweeter with a pinch of salt. And don’t think that this state can only be found through Buddhist practice; don’t believe that we have the Truth while others teach false ways.
What we call equanimity is what is also felt in the salvation of Allah or Jesus; the knowledge of the Torah; the love and protection of Krishna and Shiva; the peaceful presence of the Kami spirits of nature; the balance that comes from the Great Spirit. However it is reached, the result is the same – a place of balance and bliss from which we can act for good in the world.
May you abide in equanimity; unfazed by bias, attachment or anger.