Brahma Vihara: Equanimity & Buddha’s Brain 02-10-2020

Tonight we will practice Equanimity or Upekkha, one of the four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes that awaken the heart. The word equanimity comes from Latin roots meaning “even” and “mind.” As Buddhist scholar Nyanaponika Thera says, “Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind.” This clear and peaceful mental state is free of reactivity—neither longing for what is desirable or avoiding what is aversive. 

Apathy or indifference are considered “near enemies” of equanimity because they appear nonreactive. But they lack equanimity’s warmth of heart and capacity to engage with the world without being unduly troubled by it. The Dalai Lama elaborates, “With equanimity, you can deal with situations with calm and reason while keeping your inner happiness.” 

In their book, Buddha’s Brain, neuroscientists Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius 

note that while the brain’s circuitry continuously drives us to react one way or the other, equanimity serves as a circuit breaker: “Equanimity breaks the chain of suffering by separating the feeling tones of experience from the [mechanism] of craving.” 

Buddhist teacher Kamala Masters describes such an experience while she was in a boat on the Ganges River at dawn. On her left, the sunrise lit ancient towers and temples with an exquisite rosy glow. On her right, funeral pyres burned, and smoke mixed with sounds of wailing. There was “beauty to the left and death to the right, with equanimity opening her heart wide enough to include both.”

When I am upset, I welcome an equanimous response that makes room for me to examine my own reactivity. My Zen teacher Kohin Paley Ellison has cultivated a particularly strong capacity for staying balanced amidst heated emotions. In one of our conversations, I started to describe an inner drama about an unresolved relationship, which was distracting me during meditation. Koshin calmly replied, “I’m not interested in the content of the thoughts. Let’s explore how a restless mind feels and how you can develop a sense of inner peace.” He helped me recognize the unpleasant feeling tone of restlessness that was underlying my mental agitation. I was able to let go of obsessive thinking and to return to sensing the breath. 

All of us have the ability to summon equanimity in a crisis. Last week, I met with a friend who was distressed about the recent suicide of her close assistant at work. I encouraged her to tell me everything that she missed about him and to express the full range of her emotions. Through tears, she admitted to feeling deep grief, impotence, rage and gratitude. She spoke about his lovable qualities, his annoying traits, the worthy projects they developed together, and the legacy that she hoped to carry on in his memory. Gradually, while I was listening without reactivity, my friend found a place of equanimity within herself. She faced the enormously unpleasant reality of her colleague’s sudden death, and she connected with pleasant memories about their friendship.

When we are equanimous, instead of grasping at enjoyable experiences or pushing against disagreeable ones, we create a kind of spacious buffer zone around feeling tones. We learn to see into the transient and imperfect nature of all that arises and passes away. With equanimity, we remain disenchanted—free from the spells cast by pleasure and pain. Hanson explains that we are not dissatisfied with life; because we observe its apparent “charms and alarms” without being knocked off center by either. 

In the spaciousness of meditation retreats, we have opportunities to practice noting our preferences without having to pursue them. One of the fruits of developing equanimity is that it becomes woven into daily life and gradually deepens into profound inner stillness, which characterizes the meditative state of contemplative absorption. Each time we break the link between feeling tones and craving—not chasing what’s pleasant, resisting what’s unpleasant, or ignoring what’s neutral—we are free for a while from the chain of suffering.  

Buddha’s Brain outlines some of the neural factors that are correlated with equanimity: understanding, intention, steadiness of mind, and spacious awareness. 

Meditation practice bolsters the prefrontal cortex, which deals with both understanding and intention. As we meditate, we recognize the fleeting nature of pleasurable and painful experiences. By repeatedly noting “pleasant, pleasant,” and “unpleasant, unpleasant,” we see that rewards are seldom as gratifying as we hoped and that painful episodes are rarely as awful as we expected. Gradually, as we understand that it’s not worth identifying with either pleasure or pain, we set the foundation for equanimity.  

Aside from fostering understanding, we can strengthen the intention to cultivate equanimity, reminding ourselves of how much we want freedom from craving and the suffering it brings. We can recall the intention to be aware of the feeling tone and to be spacious around it without reacting to it. To keep that intention in mind, Hanson suggests posting at home or at work, in a place where we’ll see it regularly, the word “equanimity” or the image of a tranquil landscape.

As right understanding and intention help the mind grow steadier, the neuroscientists recommend deepening equanimity by paying particular attention to neutral feeling tones. Normally, the brain is inclined to seek rewards or to scan for threats. Pleasant or unpleasant feeling tones, however, activate the brain to think and respond more than neutral tones do. Since the brain does not naturally engage with neutral stimuli, we must make a conscious effort to notice less obvious aspects of experience. With repeated practice, we can learn to bring sustained attention to what feels neutral. The back part of the prefrontal cortex is connected with this steadiness of mind. Eventually, the neutral feeling tone can become what meditation teacher Christina Feldman calls “a doorway to the eventless”—a portal into the ground of being. 

Once steadiness of mind is established, spacious awareness becomes an obvious factor of equanimity. Hanson explains that expansive states of consciousness are associated with stable and far-reaching gamma-wave synchronization of billions of neurons, firing together 30-80 times a second, across large areas of the brain. Researchers have detected this unusual brainwave pattern in Tibetan monks who are equanimous meditation masters. 

Hanson describes this spacious meditative state in which the contents of the mind—including feeling tones—come and go in boundless space, which is unaffected by their passing: “Thoughts are just thoughts, sounds are just sounds, [and] situations are just situations….”  Forest monk Ajahn Sumedho affirms, “Trust in awareness, in being awake, rather than in transient and unstable conditions.” 

Eventually, the factors that contribute to equanimity—wise understanding, right intention, mental stability and spacious awareness—culminate in tranquility or inner peace, which can be sustained in difficult circumstances. Hanson uses the example of the legendary 49ers football star, Joe Montana, who seemed to be calmest when games became wild and desperate. Another equanimous model is Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian saint, who died in 1950. Despite the pain of developing cancer in his arm, he remained serene and loving throughout his illness. A witness reported that, at one point, Maharshi looked at his arm with a compassionate smile, and said simply, “Poor arm.” Free of reactivity, he could abide in equanimity.

Let’s practice an adapted form of Hanson and Mendius’ guided meditation called “A Taste of Equanimity.” 

Sit comfortably in a relaxed posture and close your eyes. 

Take a few minutes to steady your mind by focusing on the sensations of breathing, wherever they seem most obvious—belly, chest or below the nostrils. 

Become increasingly mindful of the changing feeling tones—pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—of your experience. 

Sense a growing impartiality toward whatever arises, an easy, relaxed and undisturbed presence. 

Accept and be at peace with whatever is arising. Let your mind become increasingly steady, quiet and collected. 

Be aware of sounds. Hear without being caught by what is heard…. 

Be aware of sensations. Sense without being caught by what is sensed…. 

Be aware of thoughts. Think without being caught by what is thought….

Notice how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feeling tones come and go. 

They are constantly changing and not a dependable basis for happiness. 

Be aware of passing thoughts and feelings without identifying with them.

No one needs to own them. 

Let thoughts and feelings arise and pass away without reacting to them. As disengagement grows, there is less tilting towards pleasure and less pulling back from pain. The mind is becoming less attached to preferences. 

Rest in awareness, free from reactions. 

Abide with equanimity, breath after breath.

At ease, settle into deeper and deeper layers of equanimity. 

You may touch a sense of sublime freedom, contentment, and peace…. 

Slowly open your eyes. Bring visual impressions into equanimity practice.

Without being affected by preferences, notice whatever your gaze contacts, be it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. 

Stretch the body as the meditation comes to an end. 

Explore the possibility of having no preferences for body sensations, be they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. 

In daily life, resolve to notice what it is like to bring more equanimity to relationships and situations.