BV-Equanimity & Letting Go

Tonight, I will speak about “Equanimity and Letting Go” and then lead a guided meditation to practice the brahma vihara or divine abode of upekkha or equanimity.

Before each birthday on March 28, I reflect upon how I have lived the last precious year of my existence on this planet, and I set an intention to be more conscious and loving in my thoughts, words, and deeds for the coming months.

This year, on March 25, I had a surprise pre-birthday gift. Jack Kornfield invited those of us who are major donors of Spirit Rock Meditation Center to dialogue with him in his private zoom room. Because I hadn’t communicated directly with my dear Vipassana teacher since before the pandemic, I was happy to have an opportunity to catch up with him.

Although he is afflicted with a constant tremor from a type of palsy, Jack’s equanimous capacity to listen from the heart has deepened. He listened attentively as I told him about being able to forgive my 97-year-old father before he slipped into psychotic dementia. After many years of counseling me during month-long retreats, Jack knows how hard it has been for me to reconcile with my perfectionistic father. As I spoke about bringing equanimity and compassion from hospice chaplaincy training to my visits with Dad in his current child-like state, Jack responded with such tender support that I was tearful. 

For the benefit of me and the whole group in our zoom reunion, Jack shared some insights from many years of hospice work. His suggestion for caregivers accompanying loved ones who are nearing death, is to transmit lovingkindness while pairing their breathing with the breaths of the dying person. As the spirit is leaving the body, the caregiver can send wishes for a safe passage into divine light. Jack says, “The body knows how to die.” Indeed, people who return from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) often report, “That was just my body dying—not my essence.”

Jack’s main recommendation for caregivers is to “become an ocean of love, a peaceful field of loving awareness to support dear ones who are letting go and facing the Great Mystery of death.” He muses that dying is silent like a falling star. Instead of being scared about the end of life, we can trust in surrendering to timeless awareness and the spaciousness that holds everything. Be at the still point of the turning world. Just like spring coming after the winter, everything renews itself. We are all part of a great dance of life, death, and rebirth into a new form of energy.

Jack’s dharma talk focused on daily awakenings. He reminded us that “we get lost in the small body of fear, the illusion of separateness.” At any moment we can go from restless distraction to calm and clear awareness of present reality. As he says, “The point of making music is to come into harmony here and now.” He recalls his beloved teacher, the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, as a reflection of “still, flowing water.” Jack quotes Mary Oliver’s poetic line: “I was a bride married to amazement” and cautioned us, “Don’t wait until you die to say, ‘That was an amazing incarnation!’”

Suzuki Roshi taught, “You are perfect just as you are, and there’s still room for improvement!” The Zen way of enlightenment is sudden realization and then steady ongoing practice. In a traditional story, the Buddha meets an angry farmer who accuses him of laziness because he avoids the hard work of ploughing and harvesting. The Buddha responds with equanimity:

          I also plough and harvest.

          Faith is the seed.

          Clarity is the yoke.

          Right effort is the ox.

          The harvest bears the fruit of freedom.

Jack counsels us to plant good seeds of faith, trust, and mindfulness, so that forgiveness and compassion grow and flourish in our lives. Just as farmers deal with pests, gophers, droughts, and floods, all of us will encounter obstacles to creating thriving gardens. All love relationships have shadows, and true lovers learn to tend to whatever obstacles arise.

The bee gathers nectar from flowers without marring their beauty. The rainwater jar is filled drop by drop. In our practice, we can learn to be just as steady through changing conditions, acting well, without attachment to the fruits of the action. It’s never too late.  Jack’s advice is to “turn towards suffering—a perfect place to practice.” When conditions are difficult, instead of shying away, we can ask, “What can I learn from this situation?”

According to Jack, “Meditation makes space for loving awareness. It is an act of love. There’s a freedom that no one can take from you.” He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: “Consciousness is like a field of all kinds of seed. The seed that you water will grow. If you water the seeds of kindness, they will grow.” The Buddha’s philosophy was, “Let the wise one wander bringing blessings to many and harm to none.”

Now let us practice the brahma vihara of equanimity or upekkha in the ancient Pali language of the Buddha’s teachings. Noah Levine’s book Against the Stream includes a guided equanimity meditation, which I have adapted:

Please close your eyes and sit in a comfortable posture.

Reflect on both the joy and the sorrow that exist in the world.

Be conscious of your heart’s longing for truth and well-being.

With each breath, breathe into the heart’s center, acknowledging your intention to create positive change along with the reality of your inability to control others.

Repeat to yourself the following phrases:

All beings are responsible for their own actions.

Suffering or happiness is created by one’s relationship to experiences—not by the experiences themselves.

The freedom and happiness of others is dependent on their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

Relax into harmonizing the heart’s deepest desire to help others with the mind’s wise acknowledgment of human limitations and powerlessness.

Breathe gently into the area of the heart.

Visualize or have a felt sense of the presence of someone you know who is going through a rough time.  Direct the equanimity phrases towards that person.

All beings are responsible for their own actions.

Suffering or happiness is created by one’s relationship to experiences—not by the experiences themselves.

The freedom and happiness of others is dependent on their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

Letting go of the image or felt sense of the person towards whom you are directing equanimity phrases.

Sense the steady beat of your heart and the rhythm of your breathing.

Now visualize or sense a challenging situation that you are facing in your own life. While practicing to maintain balance and stability, repeat the equanimity phrases on your own behalf:

All beings are responsible for their own actions.

Suffering or happiness is created by one’s relationship to experiences—not by the experiences themselves.

The freedom and happiness of others is dependent on their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

Finally, let go of the image or felt sense of the difficult situation.

Return to the sensations in your heart.

Sense breath arising and passing away in your body.

Remembering the impermanence of all things, slowly open your eyes and reconnect with the sangha or community of meditators around you.