BV-Equanimity and Mountains

In the aftermath of Earth Day, I will compare the brahma vihara or divine abode of equanimity with the silent power and longevity of mountains. With thanks to Pam Lewis for her recent gift, I’ve been reading David Hinton’s English translation of The Mountain Poems of Hsieh (syeh) Ling-yün. This Chinese poet lived from 385 until 433 C.E. and was educated as an aristocrat during turbulent political times when invaders occupied northern China. He spent most of his adult years exiled in remote mountain areas south of the Yangtze River. In that early era, Chinese elites viewed mountains as both natural and sacred sites, where the powers of earth and heaven meet.

Ancient Chinese sages taught that the universal breath of ch’i suffuses the living universe, and that yin and yang are two dynamic aspects of that life force, which is in a continual process of transformation. Although yin and yang may manifest on a mundane level as dichotomies such as hot and cold, dark and light, or female and male; their cosmological manifestations are earth and heaven.

David Hinton explains that mountains were seen as “living and breathing forms emerging from … interactions of yin and yang operating on a cosmic scale.” The poet Hsieh considered rivers and mountains as a unified landscape and as yin and yang manifestations of earth’s ch’i breath-force. His poems initiated a millennial-long tradition of “rivers and mountains” (shan-shui) poetry that celebrates our integral spiritual relationship to wilderness. In the verses, realistic descriptions of landscape are imbued with the philosophy of Taoism and Buddhism, then newly imported from India. By portraying aspects of wilderness as forms of enlightenment, Hsieh reminds us of our basic aesthetic and spiritual connection with the wild.

During our own period of global ecological disruption, climate change, and mass extinction, Hsieh’s poetic engagement with wilderness is an urgent wake-up call for us to live in peace and harmony with nature. I’ll read aloud his poem titled “Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-Chia:”

          Taking a little food, a light walking-stick,

          I wander up to my home in quiet mystery.

          The path along streams winding far away

          Onto ridgetops, no end to this wonder at

          Slow waters silent in their frozen beauty

          And bamboo glistening at heart with frost,

Cascades scattering a confusion of spray

          And broad forests crowding distant cliffs.

          Thinking it’s moonrise I see in the west

          And sunset I’m watching blaze in the east,

I hike on until dark, then linger [at] night

Sheltered away in deep expanses of shadow.

Immune to high importance: that’s renown.

Walk humbly and it’s all promise in beauty,

For in quiet mystery the way runs smooth,

Ascending remote heights beyond compare.

Utter tranquility, the distinction between

Yes, this and no that lost, I embrace primal

Unity; thought and silence woven together,

That deep healing where we venture forth.

Pause and sense the equanimity that this poem transmits about the spaciousness and timelessness of being aware in wilderness. There we can transcend our usual preferences, let our thoughts dissolve into reverent silence, and relax peacefully.

Contrast that serene, expansive state with our habitually tightly focused, busy, pressured way of living. Last week, after I filled out a long, detailed form, Fidelity Bank added me to an account with my siblings, so that I could access tax information on the bank’s website. When I entered the website to set up a username and password, I typed my legal name, birthdate, and social security number.

As soon as I did so, a phone number appeared on the screen with a message: “For security reasons, the website is locked until you call a Fidelity representative and answer verification questions.” I dialed the number, and after waiting on hold, reached a male representative, who assured me, “I’ll be happy to help you, but I have to place you on a brief hold.” Soon afterwards, a dial tone indicated that I’d been cut off. The next time I phoned, a female representative asked me, “Whose names are on this account?”

I provided the full names of my siblings, Amy and Bayard. The next question was, “What are the last four digits of your sister’s social security number?” I had no inkling and flunked the test. The agent refused my offer to prove my blood ties by reciting my siblings’ home addresses, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and children’s names. Apologizing for not unlocking the website, she bid me farewell.  

I texted my sister and, armed with the magic numbers, phoned Fidelity Bank again. A different representative, Michael, thanked me for reporting Amy’s last four social security digits, but informed me that I still had not provided sufficient data to receive a password. When I inquired about what kind of data was still required for verification, Michael responded, “I am not at liberty to divulge that.”

Flabbergasted, I asked, “Michael, do you realize that this exchange is like a Kafka novel?” He admitted that was the case. My last resort was to plead, “Would you phone my sister so that she can vouch for me?” His reply was, “Sorry, but I’m not permitted to make any outbound calls. Is there anything else I can do for you today?” Out of ideas, I thanked Michael for his time and hung up, defeated.

At this point, I took a break for a daily meditation period with Mark and our dog, Amanda. As I sat, I sensed tension in my jaw and constriction in my belly. My fists were clenched, my shoulders were raised, and my mind was crammed with thoughts, replaying frustrating encounters with Fidelity Bank agents. Breathing into my belly, I began to calm down and to let tension ease from my body.

Suddenly, I started to laugh at how caught I’d been in the drama. I recognized I’d been sparring with entry-level bureaucrats who were simply following instructions to protect the security of the bank’s accounts. One of my mistakes was to take their intransigence personally. Another was to be so attached to gaining access to the website’s pages that I refused to take “no” for an answer. I felt grateful for my dharma practice, which freed me from continuing to obsess about the bureaucratic morass. By the end of the meditation sit, my equanimity was restored, and I enjoyed being present with my husband.

A couple of days later, I phoned a different Fidelity Bank agent. Speaking in a tone of calm confidence, I provided him with my sister’s account number and the last four digits of her social security number. To my pleased surprise, he kindly helped me to set up a username and password and then guided me through the website to find the account’s tax forms. With genuine gratitude, my mission was accomplished.

*To help us cultivate equanimity, I’ve adapted one of Diana Winston’s guided meditations:

Sitting comfortably, close your eyes …. See if you can visualize a mountain—solid, strong, and powerful …. Imagine embodying the strength of a mountain. Sense grounding and stability in your posture. Breathe slowly and steadily.

Remind yourself, “Like a mountain, I know how to embody equanimity.”As you connect with the image of the mountain, be aware of any sensations or emotions. Breathe and notice what’s happening inside of you.

Now recall any impediments that make it difficult for you to find equanimity. There may be a minor dissatisfaction or a major concern. Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities or worried about lack of work…. 

As you remember obstacles to equanimity, notice what happens in your body. Gently bring awareness to areas of tightness or tension, contraction, or constriction. Note any aversion in your mind—any thoughts about wanting to change your circumstances. Breathe and observe what is true in this moment. 

Imagine sending supportive phrases to yourself in this situation: Things are as they are. I can be with things as they are.

Repeat the phrases and then check in with what’s happening. Silently affirm to yourself: I can be with reality just as it is. I am as I am. May I accept myself just as I am. May I weather this situation with grace and equanimity.

As you say these words, remember the sense of embodying a mountain:      Things are as they are. I can be with things just as they are.

I may not like these circumstances, and that’s okay.

They may not be what I want, but I can be with them.

I have the capacity to be with life as it is.

Repeat the words that seem most helpful with your current situation. Returning to the image of a strong, stable mountain, remember our human capacity to handle whatever life brings. Sit here with that feeling for a few more breaths ….           Say to yourself, “Whatever I have to deal with, whatever may come, may I meet it with equanimity.