Equanimity, known as upekkha in Pali, may not be commonly used in casual conversation, but in many ways it is actually the secret ingredient in mindfulness. It does not mean indifference, which is actually the near enemy of equanimity. It does not mean apathy, giving up, not caring, or being cold or distant. Equanimity means balance, and it’s the balance that is born of wisdom.
Mindfulness means a capacity or quality of awareness where our perception of what’s happening in the moment is not distorted by bias, old fears, projection into the future, anything that may arise, holding on, or pushing away. The quality of awareness for true mindfulness needs to have balance. So in that context, equanimity means the balance that leads to wisdom. It’s only through mindfulness, with its secret component of equanimity, that we have the right relationship to our experience to see more deeply into it, to understand it more fully, and to develop insight.
In the context of the brahma-viharas, [the four qualities of the heart or “sublime attitudes” the Buddha taught], equanimity is the brahma-vihara that really means perspective. It’s the balance that infuses [the other three brahma-viharas]—lovingkindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy—with wisdom and helps each of those qualities from falling into their near enemy.
It’s so easy for lovingkindness to become attachment, for example, when we are struggling with our own needs, desires, expectations, timetable, or impatience, and it’s equanimity that will lift up the quality of lovingkindness so even if those other things do arise, they don’t become predominant.
It’s the same with compassion. It’s said that equanimity endows compassion with courage because it’s not easy to come face to face with suffering without looking the other way, without trying to repackage it, or call it something else and not just crumble and feel overcome. That kind of stability—that upliftment—comes from equanimity. We see what we can do and what we can’t do. We remember how much we don’t know because of the force of equanimity.
That’s the place where we remember, “Oh, maybe right now I’m just planting a seed and I can’t actually know what the ultimate result will be. I can just rejoice in the giving, in the planting, and feel good about that.”
It’s also equanimity that affects sympathetic joy so that once we have wisdom, it’s not just a very narrow circle of people we feel sympathetic joy for, like our team, family, or people. We remember this is the nature of life: we go up and we go down. Through understanding that, we don’t begrudge somebody’s happiness. We’re actually happy for their happiness, whoever they are.
Indeed, the proximate cause of equanimity is just that: it’s seeing the nature of life and understanding what the Buddha talked about as the eight vicissitudes, or the changes of fortune, in life. There is pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. It’s just in the very nature of things.
Adapted from Tricycle’s Online Course “The Boundless Heart,” an eight-week course on Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Learn more about Tricycle’s online courses here.
Read more on equanimity in the features “A Perfect Balance: Cultivating equanimity with Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita,” “The Buddha’s Smile,” by Andrew Olendzki, and “The Noble Abode of Equanimity,” by Daisy Hernandez.
Listen to Daisy Hernández reflect on equanimity in an episode of Life As It Is.