Shaila Catherine’s ‘Focused and Fearless’ (4)

Tonight we’ll continue with our exploration of ideas in Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity.  Equanimity is the theme of the fourth chapter, which opens with an amusing quotation by Dolly Parton: “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

According to the Buddha, equanimity is one of the highest kinds of happiness, transcending both the coarseness of unpleasant feelings and the agitation of pleasure.  Superior to transitory delight or joy, equanimity implies the ability to remain undisturbed during changing events.  Regardless of circumstances that may be hot or cold, bitter or sweet, and easy or difficult, an equanimous person maintains equilibrium.

Equanimity counters our habitual tendency to move away from what we dislike and to hold on to what we like.  Since personal preference no longer dictates the direction of our attention, we’re not pushed and pulled between poles of desire and aversion.  With equanimity, we are interested in whatever is occurring simply because it is happening.

The so-called “near enemy” of equanimity is indifference, which keeps us aloof and removed from life.  Equanimity does not entail boredom, coldness or hesitation, but rather a heartfelt appreciation of all life with its 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.

This morning I awoke with a dream that seems relevant to this theme:

Mark and I are waltzing to a beautiful recording of music in the house where I grew up.  As he leads me in dance steps, we flow so gracefully in a counterclockwise direction that I relax completely in his arms.  I wish that our harmonious spinning movements would last forever.  When the music stops, I exclaim, “Play it again!”  I tell him how much I’ve been enjoying dancing together and invite him to join me in recreating our steps.  However, when the music resumes, we stumble and hesitate as we think rationally about our movements.  The more I try to guide how we’re moving, the more awkward our dancing becomes.  I realize that I must stop trying to prolong a pleasurable experience, and that I can focus instead on gratitude for the grace that still fills moments that Mark and I share after so many years of marriage.  We take a break from dancing to rest. 

My dream contains a lesson about letting go of clinging to what’s pleasant, so that I can return to a state of balanced contentment with life just as it is.

The dream prepared me for a surprising event when Mark and I took a morning walk.  We were chatting as we crossed Richmond Avenue to continue walking along Mandell Street.  All of a sudden, we realized that our feet were sinking into the wet cement of a freshly laid new sidewalk.  Mark and I extricated ourselves, leaving behind incriminating footprints.  We apologized in Spanish to the Latino workmen pouring cement further down the block: “Lo siento!”  Mark was irritated because there was no warning sign to indicate fresh cement, and his new black Mephisto walking shoes were covered with hardening grey cement.

Still remembering my dream message, I stayed cool and spotted a man standing on the other side of the street in front of his home.  I waved to him and asked, “Could you help us out?  We need to wash wet cement off our shoes.”  He grinned and replied, “Come inside.  You’re lucky that my car broke down, so I’m out here waiting for an auto mechanic to arrive.”  Our new friend escorted us to a flowing fountain in the courtyard of his apartment complex and wished us well as we departed, dripping but clean.  Afterwards, I pointed out to Mark that we never would have met such a kind neighbor if we hadn’t stepped in wet cement.  He thought I was being obnoxiously equanimous, but agreed that our mishap had turned out fine.

If we practice developing equanimity in minor events like that, we’ll be better prepared for handling major upheavals that occur in our lives.  Today we may have been among the fortunate people who did not receive a diagnosis of cancer, learn that a friend or family member has died, or have a car accident.  None of us were on board the Malaysian jet that disappeared mysteriously over the Indian Ocean this week.  However, even news of other people’s tragedies makes us acutely aware of the impermanent nature of life.

When we understand that events occur due to causes and conditions, we don’t struggle against the reality of our circumstances.  No matter how much we might wish to change irrevocable natural laws, it is the nature of all physical forms to decay and die.  We do equanimity practice so that the mind can stay calm and composed even while the body is affected by accidents, illness and dying.

Last week a newcomer to our IMH sangha, Benjamin Beja gave me a copy of his book The Thirteen Personalities about a near-death experience he had after eating contaminated street food during a visit to Rwanda, Africa.  Benjamin was fortunate to be nursed back to health by a female shaman, whose teachings motivated him to transform his life.   One passage from the book relates to the theme of equanimity:

I was left thinking about how all meaning comes from stories, some external, some that we tell ourselves, others that we tell the world and finally others that are a mix between what happens outside and the process of internalizing and filtering information.

I thought about all the stimuli that comes at us from outside: all the advertising, the news, billboards, magazines, internet, TV, movies, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—the stimuli and information we get from cereal boxes.  Then there are the stimuli from friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc.  Now I understand why so much of my energy was stuck in my head.  Much of that information was like sound that came together in my head and ended up creating a lot of noise—noise like radio static that’s hard to make sense of. 

I thought about all the noise that enters into our minds every day.  How do all those stimuli impact my behavior?  How much am I doing because I want to do it, and how much because I’m trying to meet the expectations that all those stimuli create in me? 

On his journey towards healing, the author faced thirteen aspects of himself and learned to calm his overactive mind.  In the guise of a Gardener sitting still and contemplating an ancient tree, he mastered the art of not doing.  He returned from Rwanda with newfound wisdom, compassion and equanimity.

Now let us practice equanimity, known as Upekkha in the Pali language of the Buddha’s era:

As we practice equanimity, in the way Jack Kornfield taught me, we repeat phrases for ourselves until we feel stable enough to send them to others….

Now 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 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.

Remember that all created things rise and pass away: joys, sorrows, pleasant and painful events, people, buildings, animals, nations, and whole civilizations.  Let yourself rest amidst all that is impermanent.

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 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.

Let yourself visualize other people in your life, and, one by one, imagine them surrounded with peace.

Continue as best you can, breathing easily, patiently repeating the phrases no matter what arises.

Gradually, as equanimity grows, you can expand the meditation to include, in turn, a benefactor who has cared for you, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally all beings everywhere….

As we reflect on each person, it is traditional to acknowledge that all beings are heirs to their own karma and receive the fruits of their actions.

We can care deeply for them, but we cannot live their lives for them.

If you are especially preoccupied about someone’s suffering, you may free your heart by visualizing that person and adding the following phrase to the equanimity practice:

Your happiness and suffering depend on your actions and not on my wishes for you.

It takes deep wisdom to maintain compassion for those who are suffering, while remembering that we cannot control their destiny.

Return to the essential phrases of equanimity practice:

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