BV-Equanimity & Finding Better Balance (re Christiane Wolf)

For tonight’s brahma vihara talk and practice of equanimity, I am drawing on Christiane Wolf’s recent article about “Finding a Better Balance” from the Buddhist publication, Lion’s Roar. Christiane is a German medical doctor who now teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in L.A. She is training as an insight meditation teacher with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.

 “Desiderata,” an early 20th century poem by Max Ehrmann, starts with an invitation to be equanimous: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” During the restrictions of the pandemic, we may feel cut off from the noise and haste that used to characterize so much of our lives. For some, silence can provide a peaceful refuge, while for others, silent periods are filled with personal concerns or worries about social, economic, political and environmental uncertainties.

Equanimity, or Upekkha in the Pali language, is the capacity to accept things as they are in the present moment—whether they’re challenging, boring, exciting, disappointing, painful, or just as we want them to be. Upekkha is a compound word, which can be translated as “calmly observing” or “viewing with patience and wisdom.”

Equanimity brings calm and balance to times of joy and sorrow, protecting us from emotional reactivity. It allows us to rest in a bigger perspective and builds trust that the universe is unfolding as it should.

In the midst of hurricane season, we might compare upekkha to the eye of a storm. With a calm center, we can hold steady while knowing that everything is constantly changing and mostly out of our control. Equanimity is also like a mature oak tree, firmly rooted in the earth while different seasons and weather patterns arise and pass away. The tree is anchored so securely that it is stable but not rigid, even in mighty storms.

What helps us withstand the inevitable storms of life? The Buddha taught about the importance of accepting the ebb and flow of “eight worldly winds.” All human beings encounter pleasure and pain, praise and blame, success and failure, and gain and loss. Most of us would prefer to experience only one side of the winds, the side we consider positive, but the more aware we become of shifts in these winds, the more we can maintain our balance amidst them.

Upekkha supports the other brahma viharas. Without equanimity, we would be overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, and we would turn away or close our compassionate hearts. Without an equanimous mind, we might cling to enjoyable experiences, and we could not celebrate wholeheartedly the joy and well-being of others. Upekkha is vast enough to hold all aspects of life in a caring embrace.

Equanimity does not entail gritting our teeth to bear adversity. Rather, it involves caring deeply in a relaxed and balanced state. An equanimous mind develops by accepting in an embodied way that we don’t have complete control over life’s joys and sorrows.

Christiane says that equanimity is sometimes referred to as the “grandparent feeling.” Grandparents often have the same love for their grandchildren that they had for their own children, but often with more ease and perspective around expectations and difficulties. Right now, my sister Lindsay is showering attention on her grandson Wyatt, who at 2 years old is adjusting to his newborn sister’s arrival. The exhausted parents appreciate having an equanimous grandmotherly presence in the house.

Christiane points out how mindfulness and equanimity are connected. As we meditate, mindful attention helps us observe without reactivity the flow of thoughts, emotions, body sensations. With repeated practice, insights arise about the complex, often impersonal causal chains of experiences that make up our lives. These insights give us greater perspective and lead to increasing equanimity. We can trust that ongoing practice of mindfulness and insight meditation will lead naturally to being more equanimous—a state of mind that is good for us and for everyone we encounter.

To cultivate equanimity, Christiane suggests a reflection called “Stay Open, Invite Perspective:”

Reflect upon a situation in your life that you initially viewed as negative, but which then led to a much better situation you couldn’t have foreseen at the time. For example, perhaps a painful breakup made it possible to find your true love, or a rejection after a job interview ultimately led to better employment. Bring a broader perspective to a current situation where you have been focusing on the negative side. Pause a moment for reflection about more positive possibilities.

*Examples? Staying at home during the pandemic allows me to appreciate simple moments with Mark and our dog.

One of the biggest tests of equanimity is when someone we love is suffering. Often, we take on their suffering as our own. Christiane notes that we may feel guilty that we cannot help more, or we might believe we should share their pain, out of a sense of solidarity.

The following exercise, which was inspired by the psychologist Kristin Neff, helps us find balance when a loved one is suffering. She reminds us that we cannot make someone else happy. All we can do is work with our own thoughts, emotions, and reactions and then make our own decisions.

Sit in a comfortable and stable position. Close your eyes and bring to mind a dear one who is suffering physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Visualize their face or sense their felt presence…. Repeat the following sentences gently to yourself.

“It is not in my power to end your suffering, although I would like to, if I could.”

“Everyone is on their own life’s journey.”

“Moments like this are hard to endure, and I will try to help where I can.”

Sense spaciousness opening up in your heart and direct the following phrases to yourself:

 May I accept the comings and goings of life.

May I be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Now transmit these same equanimous phrases to your loved one:

May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Letting go of the image or felt sense of this dear person, breathe into the area of the heart.

Bring to mind a benefactor who has given you love and support during times of hardship. With gratitude, transmit equanimity phrases for the wellbeing of this benefactor:

May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

Exhale and let go of the image or felt sense of the benefactor. Breathe gently into the area of the heart.

Bring to mind a neutral person whom you have seen in passing or met only briefly. Recall that everyone shares our wish to be free from anxiety and worry. With an image or felt sense of that neutral person, transmit phrases for their equanimity:

May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Exhale and let go of the image or felt sense of the neutral person. Breathe gently into the area of the heart.

Bring to mind a person who is difficult for you to include in your heart. Remember that just like you, this person wants to be free from stress and angst. With an image or felt sense of this person who is challenging for you to accept, sense your interconnection and offer equanimity phrases for both of you:

May we accept the comings and goings of life.

May we be open, balanced and peaceful.

Exhale and let go of the image or felt sense of the person whom you find difficult. Breathe gently into the area of the heart.

Visualizing or sensing the presence of everyone in our Insight Meditation Houston sangha, be aware that all of us are affected by the pandemic, by personal challenges, by financial inequities, by racial injustice and by political divisiveness. We all need to find “what peace there may be in silence.” Let the equanimity phrases benefit all of us in this spiritual community:

May we accept the comings and goings of life.

May we all be open, balanced and peaceful.

 Extending our good wishes for all beings everywhere:

May all beings everywhere be open, balanced and peaceful.

 So be it.