BV-Equanimity – Sharon Salzberg

On the eve of election day, equanimity practice seems like the best way to prepare our hearts and minds. Tonight’s dharma talk contains excerpts from an online article by Sharon Salzberg called “Calm in the Midst of Chaos” (published in Lion’s Roar, October, 2020).

She asks, “How do we navigate the overall unruliness of life, so filled as it is with urgencies—tasks left undone, friends who need help, health problems, financial pressures, family crises, community crises, [and] world crises? How do we sustain ourselves, our sanity, our open hearts and clear vision in the face of these ongoing challenges? In Buddhist psychology, the answer is equanimity.” It is important to distinguish equanimity from its near enemy, indifference, which lacks warmth of heart and which may mask fear. Equanimity has a steady strength that is not passive.

The Pali word for equanimity is upekkha, which means wise balance. As intense as our feelings may be, we can choose not to deny them or to treat them like an enemy. When we establish inner balance, we can recognize and be present with emotions without identifying with them or being overwhelmed by them. If we give them space to move and shift, wisdom can prevail, freeing us from reactivity. With equanimity, we can feel the full intensity of emotions like anger while choosing a skillful way to respond.

Sharon’s friend, Andrés González of the Holistic Life Foundation told her the story of eight-year-old Janaisa, one of the girls in his after-school mindfulness meditation program. She had a history of getting into fights with her peers: “Boys or girls, it didn’t matter, they would make fun of her and she’d knock them out.” But then one day in the gym, when another girl made a disparaging remark about her, Janaisa grabbed her and slammed her against the wall. Andrés recalled, “She…looked at the girl and then dropped her, saying, ‘You’d better be glad I meditate.’” At the age of eight, Janaisa was learning that she had options to channel her anger in less destructive ways.

Sometimes we maintain an appearance of having everything under control by staying in a state of tension so high that our emotional equilibrium is fragile. Yet true balance doesn’t require great effort. In a balanced state, we are peaceful and at ease, so we can respond appropriately to changes as they arise.

For Sharon, a gyroscope is a symbol of equanimity: the ability to find calm and steadiness under stress. A gyroscope is a device with a spinning wheel or disk in which the axis of rotation is free to change orientation. Although constantly in motion, the device is stable, adjusting to whatever comes its way. It’s used in navigation systems to maintain a steady direction. If someone tries to knock it over, a gyroscope gracefully rights itself.

Like a gyroscope, we can be agile and responsive instead of reactive. The balance of the device comes from its strong core—its central, stable energy. Similarly, a sense of meaning in our lives provides a core that raises our aspirations, strengthens us in hardship, and reminds us what we care about regardless of changing situations.

Sharon says, “Discovering or rediscovering a sense of purpose begins with identifying and examining our most deeply held values. When we align our actions with those values or concerns that have centering power in our lives—those we’re most devoted to, that form the passionate core of what we care about—our actions are empowered, whatever the challenge. When we have a sense of what we are supposed to be doing and [then] we go out and do it, we forge a center and reinforce the core strength we can return to and rely on again and again.”

Like a gyroscope, we can find balance in both our core and perimeter. Defining a perimeter around us means we do not feel responsible for everything. We don’t need to exaggerate life’s difficulties by telling ourselves, “This situation will never end,” or “I must solve this problem right now.” Instead, we can remember the gyroscope’s equilibrium and connect with the sensation of breathing in that very moment. Then we can act and appreciate what comes next.

Recently, I saw a documentary film about an elephant rescue camp in Botswana. The camp provides a protective oasis in Africa, where former rangelands have been converted into palm oil plantations, and where poachers murder thousands of elephants, chopping off their tusks to sell the ivory. Despite this dire situation, the camp’s guards maintain equanimity as they focus on caring for rescued animals. After a mother elephant died, they adopted her six-month-old baby named Naledi. With compassion and patience, they took turns cuddling and playing with the orphan, sleeping next to her, and feeding her milk from a bottle until she gained enough strength to rejoin her herd. The film of Naledi’s story inspires people around the globe to protest the ivory trade and to donate funds for the protection of remaining elephants. Her caregivers’ steady core values of being kind to animals resonate far and wide.

Equanimity involves receiving pain, pleasure, joy and sorrow with an open heart, recognizing and finding peace with what is true. Equanimity has a spacious quality that, in Sharon’s words, “can relate to any feeling, any occurrence, any arising, and still be free.”

Now let’s prepare for a guided practice of equanimity:

Sit in a comfortable position with eyes closed.

Bring a gentle attention to your breath.

Take a moment to reflect upon the benefits of a balanced mind and the gift of bringing a peaceful heart to the world around you.

Then silently repeat these phrases to yourself:

Breathing in, I am calm my body.

Breathing out, I calm my mind.

May I be balanced.

May I be at peace.

Stay with these phrases until you feel quiet in your body and mind.

Then expand the sense of tranquility into a spacious equanimity.

In silence, recite the following phrases to yourself:

May I learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May I be open and balanced and peaceful.

Once you’ve established a sense of peace and equanimity, visualize or have a felt sense of someone you love, and repeat the same simple phrases for that person’s benefit:

May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Gradually, as equanimity grows, you may expand the meditation to include a neutral person, whom you don’t know well, perhaps someone who is in our virtual sangha now. Remembering that everyone benefits from inner peace, recite the phrases for this neutral person:

May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

With growing equanimity, expand the meditation to include a person whom you find difficult, perhaps someone with whom you have conflicting views or unresolved issues. Recalling the image of the spinning gyroscope, righting itself when it is knocked over, sense your wish to be free of reactivity towards this person. Repeat the equanimity phrases for the benefit of both yourself and the person who causes you difficulty.

May we learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May we be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Finally, expanding the perimeter of your attention to include everyone in our sangha, all who live in Houston, in Texas, in the USA, in the hemisphere, in the entire world—those of every race, ethnicity, culture and belief system, those who are young and old, rich and poor, healthy and ill—, all animals, and all sentient beings on our planet. Repeat the equanimity phrases for the benefit of all life everywhere.

May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.