BV-Equanimity-Sharon Salzberg

This talk about equanimity draws on an online article by Sharon Salzberg called “Calm in the Midst of Chaos,” published in Lion’s Roar in October of 2020.

One of the fruits of meditation practice is equanimity, when the heart and mind become steady, peaceful and balanced. Sharon likens an equanimous mind to an unshakable mountain or to supple bamboo that can bend without breaking. In a spacious state of ease, we can rest and stop struggling. Then, from a centered, equanimous place, we can make wise decisions and act compassionately in the world.   

When life feels chaotic, though, we often lose any semblance of equanimity. Instead, we react with anxiety and strive to maintain control of our circumstances. The more tightly we hold on to what feels safe and predictable, the less open we are to fresh perspectives and creative approaches.

Recently, I had a lesson about the importance of equanimity. When I checked in to receive a Covid-19 vaccination at Methodist Hospital, an officer directed me to the end of a line of about forty people, all wearing masks and standing nervously a safe distance apart. As I waited my turn, I read a music therapy journal, until a woman right in front of me dominated the attention of all within hearing distance. She made one call after another on her cell phone to complain loudly about how inconvenient it was for her to wait. Seemingly unaware of how her behavior was impacting people around her, the woman left the line repeatedly to ask hospital personnel how much longer she would be delayed. Their inability to give her a clear answer only added to her frustration and did nothing to speed up the process. By the time we reached the vaccination booths, the woman looked exhausted. Despite my compassion for her angst, I was not the only one who felt relieved to be out of her orbit. She demonstrated how a lack of equanimity can worsen an already tense situation.

Sharon writes, “We can affect things around us—that’s the whole point of taking action—but it’s not helpful to think we’re going to be in absolute control. That’s not going to happen, not even for a moment. We don’t wield control over who is going to get sick, who is going to get better, or the inevitable ups and downs of [life]. We cannot immediately direct everybody and everything in this world to our liking.”

No matter how noble a cause we pursue, when we are attached to a particular outcome, we suffer. We can make our best effort to realize our goals but must learn let go of expectations and disappointments. Sharon warns that otherwise our fearful fantasies and shattered dreams will be endless. Equanimity balances willingness to do what is possible with wise understanding that our individual contribution is part of a greater whole, which is beyond our control.

To illustrate how futile it is to attempt to control our destiny, Sharon asks us to imagine looking in a mirror and declaring, “I’ve thought about it really carefully. I’ve weighed all the pros and cons, and I’ve decided I’m not going to die.” Even though we recognize the absurdity of denying death and claiming immortality, we often act as if we are in charge of how our future turns out. We seek distractions so that we don’t have to confront the uncertainty that all human beings bear because we do not know precisely when we will take our last breath.

On Zen retreats, at the end of each day of practice, a teacher chants in a deep, solemn voice: “Let me respectfully remind you. Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunities are lost. On this night, the days of our life are decreased by one. Each of us must strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed. Do not squander your life.” None of us has any guarantee that we will still be alive tomorrow. Awareness about the ever-present possibility of dying is one of the prime motivators to practice diligently to liberate the mind. Acceptance of mortality is a factor in establishing equanimity.

With equanimity, we open up to a full spectrum of joy and sorrow. As Sharon says, “It’s hard for us to allow our own or someone else’s pain fully if we are afraid it will steal our possibility for joy. It’s hard to allow joy its full expression if we have used it to avoid confronting the reality of pain.”

Environmental activist Joanna Macy speaks about the pain of witnessing the rampant destruction of wildlife and natural habitats: “[That pain] doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it. But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”

For decades, I have contributed to World Wildlife Fund’s program to protect monarch butterflies so that they can continue their inspirational and increasingly perilous migrations between Canada and Mexico. Years ago, Mark and I had the delight of visiting a reserve in Michoacán, where kaleidoscopes of black and orange butterflies swirled around us, some perching lightly on our shoulders and hands. A few days ago, I was dismayed to read that over the past twenty years, 90% of these butterflies have disappeared. That night I dreamed that I had an interview with a huge monarch butterfly. I felt great compassion and admiration for this vulnerable and courageous sentient being.

Equanimity holds a wide range of emotions. In Sharon’s words, “Peace is not about moving away from or transcending all the pain….: [W]e cradle both the immense sorrow and the wondrousness of life at the same time. Being able to be fully present with both is the gift equanimity gives us—spacious stillness, radiant calm.”

Now I’ll guide you through a form of equanimity practice:

Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

Breathe gently into the area of your heart.

Reflect on the value of an open, peaceful mind.

Notice any indifference or apathy that arise and let them go. 

Visualize or sense the presence of someone you love.

Repeat the following phrases:

 May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

 Remember the joys and sorrows that this beloved person is experiencing. 

Repeat the equanimity phrases:

May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

 With a deep exhalation, let go of the image or felt sense of this dear one.

Return to the sensation of breathing softly in the area of the heart.

 Bring to mind a benefactor who has given you care and support. Recall that they too experience joys and sorrows. Repeat the same phrases for the benefit of this benefactor.

May you accept the comings and goings of life.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.

With an exhalation, let go of the image of the benefactor, and return to sensing the breath moving gently around the heart.

Now visualize or sense the presence of everyone in our Insight Meditation Houston sangha, including neutral people whom you do not know well. Remember that everyone has a measure of joy and sorrow. Repeat the equanimity phrases for the benefit of the sangha.

May we accept the comings and goings of life.

May we all be open, balanced and peaceful.

Exhaling fully, let go of the vision of the sangha. Return to the sensation of breathing in the area of the heart.

Now bring to mind a person who is difficult for you to accept… Reflect upon the joys and sorrows in this person’s life. Repeat the equanimity phrases for the benefit of both of you.

May we accept the comings and goings of life.

May we be open and balanced and peaceful.

 With a deep exhalation, let go of the image of this person who has caused you difficulty.  Return to the sensation of breathing gently into the area of the heart.

Finally, extending our good wishes for the equanimity of all beings everywhere:

May all beings everywhere be open, balanced and peaceful.

 Exhaling, letting go of this expansive vision. At your own rhythm, slowly open your eyes.