To begin with, I should tell that you it was not the strangest conversation I have ever had. That it happened in the afternoon. That the day was warm, and I was flying that evening out of Miami, where I had done a reading and visited my parents. I had about an hour to visit my cousin, and I should tell you that I like this cousin. He is funny and smart and gay, and since I, too, am queer, I imagine we share a kinship beyond blood ties.
I should tell you that this cousin usually makes me laugh. That he almost died of liver failure a few years ago but survived and now apparently watches a lot of Fox TV news, which perhaps explains why on this afternoon, sitting in his living room, he tried to convince me that someone had paid thousands of immigrants to leave Central America for the US-Mexico border. “Do you really think all those people walked on foot for weeks, and no one paid them?” he asked me.
The shades had been drawn to keep the apartment cool. When I said nothing, my cousin repeated his question. He was referring to a lie that had started on social media and that had been supported by the Trump administration, which blamed the migration of Central American families on funding from billionaire George Soros. The lie was racially coded language. In blaming Soros, the Trump administration was pushing old anti-Semitic claims that a sinister Jewish cabal was secretly using its wealth to undermine white Christian society.
“C’mon, tell me what you think,” my cousin insisted. But we are Facebook friends. He already knew what I thought, and we both knew that he himself had arrived in the United States less than twenty years ago and had asked for asylum just like my father had done in the 1960s. What could I possibly say?
People who think immigrants are necessarily pro-immigrant have not met my family. If they did, they would know that my father voted for Trump and that another one of my cousins thinks all newly arrived immigrants should get “at the back of the line” and enter the country legally like her father did in the 1970s. In fact, her father, like mine and generations of Cubans, arrived in this country illegally and seeking asylum, much like Central Americans today. But Americans don’t generally talk about Cubans as asylum seekers, because the US government broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba at the start of the 1960s and began to consider people like my father to be political exiles. (Often the difference between asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants is decided by a group of white men in Washington, DC.)
Equanimity is said to be an anchor. It protects you against the “worldly winds”—pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disrepute.
I wish I could say now that the conversation with my cousin about immigrant families at the border was the strangest, most troubling one I have experienced recently. It wasn’t. One of my students, whose father is from South America, wrote an essay about bullying someone for speaking Spanish. When I suggested viewing the situation from the other girl’s perspective, she explained that she could not feel compassion. She didn’t say “eye for an eye,” but she may as well have. And before that, one of my dearest friends explained to me that she was not bothered about the president of the Philippines ordering death squads to execute people. No criminal charges. No trial or judge. President Duterte has people murdered and brags about it. The Philippines is where she was born and where her mother still lives. No, my friend wasn’t bothered. “He’s killing the drug dealers,” she told me flatly.
My mind stopped, and so did the words in my mouth. I felt trapped inside a bad novel set in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda during the genocide or in Argentina in the time of the Dirty War. A novel where a single man gets to decide who lives and who dies, and people don’t just look the other way but actively justify the murders. It’s the drug dealers, the Jews, the Tutsis, the socialists. After the 2016 US presidential election, a colleague said, “I didn’t think I was ever going to have to live through something like this.” She thought that her mother’s and grandmother’s generations had seen the worst: the back-alley abortions and the murders of black people trying to vote. Our generation had struggles, yes, but so many battles had been won already. We had elected the first black president. We had a Latina on the Supreme Court. We had morning-after pills. In other words, we had never thought we would see a man in the White House refer to neo-Nazis as “good people,” the way Donald Trump did after white men marched through Charlottesville in 2017, chanting that Jews would not replace them, and after one of those men killed Heather Heyer, a young woman resisting the hate rally.
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Almost three years later, I am realizing that no one ever told me I was going to be a Buddhist during a time like this. It feels naive now, but I never expected that my spiritual life would evolve during a time of Muslim bans and federal agents taking toddlers away from their mothers at the US-Mexico border. I figured that the practice of lovingkindness would always help me with my father, who votes Republican, but I didn’t think I would need Buddhism to navigate a conversation about extrajudicial executions or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories over immigrant families. I had thought that my student who had bullied someone about speaking Spanish would be fascinated at the prospect of practicing compassion. She was not.
To be honest, though, I have not turned to compassion myself very much these days. Or to lovingkindness. They are two of the four divine abodes, along with equanimity and mudita, taking joy in the joy of others—qualities that we cultivate because to experience them is to have our hearts open up. Think of four divine casitas, four sacred little houses, where you can dwell when times get rough.
As I thought more about my cousin and my friend and my student, however, the divine casita that came to mind was the fourth one: equanimity.
The first time I saw the Pali word for “equanimity,” upekkha, was at Spirit Rock, where it was etched onto a wooden sign. I regarded the word for a few seconds and concluded that it sounded very serious, like “equanimity” does in English. It struck me as a word for someone much further along the spiritual journey than I was. Indeed, during a retreat recently, a teacher pointed out that this divine casita is a sign of spiritual maturity, since equanimity underpins all the other divine states of mind and heart. Without that quality of balance, it’s easy to confuse compassion with pity or lovingkindness with attachment. Equanimity comes at the end of other lists, too. It’s the seventh of the seven factors of enlightenment and the tenth of the ten perfections.
I have largely stayed away from teachings on equanimity. It’s not that I’ve been worried about indifference, though I’m aware that this is a concern for a lot of people. What if on your way to upekkha you become a doormat? What if you end up accepting the unacceptable in the name of equanimity? Buddhist teachers often point out that upekkha is not passivity. It means seeing the situation clearly, so you’re responding rather than reacting.
Maybe because I am action-oriented I have not worried that equanimity would slow me down. Balanced or not, I take action. No, I stayed away from equanimity because I figured I needed to get a grasp on this lovingkindness business first, as well as on generating compassion for, say, elected officials. Not to mention cultivating appreciative joy for people who can drink milkshakes without putting on extra weight. Frankly, I figured equanimity would be like retirement: it would happen eventually after I got through the real business of the other three divine abodes.
The conversation with my cousin and my friend and my student changed that, however. There was also this: Less than two hours from where I live, a white man tried to barge into a black church in Kentucky to kill people. When he couldn’t get in, he drove to a supermarket. There, he shot and killed Maurice Stallard, a black grandfather. In the parking lot, he killed Vickie Lee Jones, a black woman in her sixties who had survived breast cancer. Witnesses reported that he refrained from shooting a white customer, telling him, “Whites don’t shoot whites.”
The next day, authorities intercepted pipe bombs targeting former president Obama and other Democrats.
Two days later, a white man murdered 11 people in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The accumulation of news stories and the horrible conversations that followed left me feeling swept away in despair and rage, and while I know that those emotional states can be useful—anger can be a good indicator that someone is violating values you hold very dear, such as human rights—I sensed I was being consumed. I started to wonder if now was a time when equanimity could come in.
Equanimity is said to be an anchor. It protects you against the “worldly winds”—pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, and fame and disrepute—by keeping you anchored so you’re not tossed about by those winds. Or hurricanes. The first time I recognized equanimity in action was during Hurricane Andrew, in 1992. I was a preteen, staying with my father’s cousin, Margo, and her family in South Florida.
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A tall, fair-skinned Cuban woman with green eyes, Margo did not panic when the winds began. She boiled water. She cooked pots of black beans. She slipped her husband a sedative. When the hurricane finally ended, sparing us but killing 65 people, Margo walked us around the neighborhood to survey the damage. The hurricane had yanked giant palm trees and flipped them over, so their thick roots poked at the air like colossal brown fingers.
Margo did not cry. She didn’t even complain. She boiled more water and got us all fed, and no plate of Cuban black beans ever tasted better.
The Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe reminded listeners in a dharma talk that upekkha means “balance” and also “to stand in the middle of all this.” That was what I had seen in Margo when I was a child and what I wanted now for myself. To stand in the middle of all this and have a clear head about what I needed to do next.
I showed up for a dharma talk that ostensibly had nothing to do with equanimity, and since I vaguely sensed I might have to skip out and use the restroom, I sat at the back of the meditation hall.
I heard the clarion call that equanimity is my “charge,” my responsibility. It means keeping my own heart steady, free, and open.
I was trying to focus on the talk, but the room had not been well insulated and a cold draft came from the window. It was January. I was in Massachusetts. Nothing I wore felt warm. My attempt to focus on the teacher’s dharma talk failed. And I needed to pee. I thought about the bathroom and whether I should go now or hold out a little longer. I chided myself for not being more attentive to the dharma talk, telling myself something I had heard others say: when you’re listening to a dharma talk, imagine yourself listening to the Buddha himself. I tried that. It didn’t work.
Still sitting in the meditation hall, I began to think of my meeting with this teacher the next day and how I would pose my questions to her about equanimity. I was having doubts, after all. Maybe the Buddha hadn’t thought about immigrants. Maybe he hadn’t considered family members denouncing immigrants. Maybe in the teachings he had skipped talking about white men barging into churches and mosques, temples and supermarkets, determined to kill people because of their skin color or their religion or where they had been born.
The teacher was talking and I was forming my question when I felt in my body a total resistance. Thinking about racial hatred and xenophobia, I heard the words “It shouldn’t be this way” inside of me, but mostly I felt those words in my body, like a stake driven into the ground. It should not be this way. No one should hate people showing up at the border. Or black people. No one should think that a so-called president has the right to order the executions of people for any reason.
There was my pain over these horrors, and then there was the pain of believing it should not be this way.
Instantly I remembered James Baldwin’s famous passage from his essay “Notes of a Native Son”:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.
I had read Baldwin’s essay many times and had taught it to my students, but for the first time I saw that it is a teaching on equanimity. Acceptance means seeing a situation as it is. The winds—or hurricanes—that had been pushing me around were not just the horrors but my unspoken insistence that the horrors should not exist and that I should get to be a Buddhist during the “good” times, not these times. I heard in Baldwin’s words the emphasis on holding two opposing ideas: accepting the existence of injustice and fighting to vanquish it. I heard, too, the clarion call that equanimity is my “charge,” my responsibility. That it means keeping my own heart steady, free, and open.
It’s hard to describe how soft my chest cavity felt when I acknowledged all this. Maybe it was my imagination, but I sensed in my body a kind of anchoring, a settling in, a sense of I see this, even this, and I felt strong, too. It’s odd to say that I felt both soft and strong at the same time, but I did. I also felt renewed. I would talk again with my friend and also with my cousin. I would get back into the classroom and on social media with more clarity. I would write this essay.
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