Equanimity is part of a group of four, which I’ll call the “qualities of the heart.” This group is made up of benevolence or lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Benevolence is a very natural, basic wish for well-being that we have when the heart is not hindered. It’s a basic wish that we have for others or for ourselves, and when this wish meets what is difficult, it becomes compassion—a particular kind of love or care in the face of what is challenging. When benevolence meets beauty or success or goodness, naturally it rejoices; it becomes joy. Therefore, here we already have three of these four qualities of the heart. The fourth quality is equanimity. Some people describe it as a stability of heart or mind that can meet what is difficult without falling apart, or lashing out, or closing down. It’s the heart that is able to be with what is difficult and is also able to be with what is pleasant without fear of losing it, without wanting to defend, keep, or get more of what we have. Another word that comes to mind for equanimity is composure. When we’re equanimous, we maintain access to our inner resources and to our balance of mind.
These four qualities are very important to one another. When they play together, they play well. Lovingkindness puts us in touch with our basic goodness. Compassion is the capacity to see what is difficult and to be with it. Joy calls to us saying, “Hey, come on this side of reality too; come see what is beautiful.” If they were separate from one another, I think they would become diminished. We’d see only what we like or what works for us. But compassion and joy together make space for what is broken, or rickety, or imperfect. And equanimity gives breadth and depth and duration to all these qualities.
I like to think of myself as benevolent, but I notice sometimes that I’m benevolent so long as things go my way. When they don’t work out as I want them to, my benevolence quickly goes out the window. So equanimity supports and strengthens the other three qualities.
Equanimity requires a strong, courageous intention to stay in balanced contact with what we face.
Courage is another quality associated with equanimity. In French the word for “heart” is coeur. Equanimity requires a strong, courageous intention to stay in balanced contact with what we face. It’s the highest quality in Buddhist psychology because it’s linked to insight and wisdom. Equanimity is not just a decision that we can will into being: “Let me be equanimous, right now, in the face of this difficulty.” It’s based on a deep understanding of the impermanent, unstable, changing, unreliable, and conditional nature of reality. Through insight, through meeting these characteristics of reality intimately and living with them with sensitivity to the changing nature of things, we cultivate stability. But first we have to experience the fleeting nature of events and phenomena. Deeply understanding that things do break leads to a stable heart.
I invite you to establish your posture and to then bring your intention to the foreground: “I’m really interested in keeping balance of mind; keeping some kind of calm. I’m really interested in seeing if it’s possible to keep the mind stable and balanced and not fall into worry or fear.” Maybe you want to learn how to hold things with composure and courage. Having this intention, this curiosity to see if doing this is possible, take a moment to feel your body. What does it feel like to be in this body right now? Can whatever you feel be OK? Can you know this body and this mind, this heart, just as they are? This is an invitation to practice equanimity. Can whatever is be OK as it is, just for now?
Explore this quality of equanimity by bringing to mind things that are unresolved or that are slightly difficult. You could first think of a friend who is experiencing some challenge in an aspect of their life and see whether you can hold them in your mind with care, with calm. This is the step before trying to find a solution to a problem or taking action. Think of someone who may be experiencing trouble in a relationship or health or work or finances. See whether you can recognize and quietly name what is happening. A phrase that could be useful here is, “This is what is happening for you right now. There is this difficulty in your life.” It’s a factual recognition of what is happening—not turning away, not blaming, judging, worrying; just holding or learning how to hold this truth. “This is how it is for you right now.”
Play with this on your own for just a few moments and finish by bringing to mind a compassionate wish: “May you find inside yourself and around you the resources needed to overcome this or accept this.”
Now come back to the room where you are, this space filled with silence and stillness, and notice the state of your mind. Maybe you got caught up a little with worry—or maybe not. No judgment. Just notice anything that comes up and see whether with the three S’s of space, stillness, and silence in and around you, you can help find balance again.
This time, you can think of one aspect of your life that is unresolved or unsatisfying, troubling maybe—not the most difficult thing, but something that is uncertain or challenging. The intention here is to hold this with calm and balance in a simple and factual way—maybe with the help of this sentence or another one: “This is how it is for me right now. There is this challenge, this difficulty in this aspect of my life,” and just recognizing, very simply and honestly, the challenge. “Can it be OK, just for this moment, that this situation is unresolved or uncertain? Can it be OK, just for now, that I haven’t figured it out?” See whether it’s possible to have this acceptance.
Next, express a compassionate wish: “May I find inside myself the courage, or creativity, or compassion, strength, patience to be with this situation or overcome this situation. May I find inside and outside the resources to help me navigate it.” Let go of the thoughts that may be coming up as you do this, coming back to just being here and now and becoming aware of the stillness, silence, and space.
Equanimity can be thought of as balance, equilibrium. It can be thought of as space or perspective, or as groundedness. It can also be thought of as pliability of mind—the mind that is able to consider something, let it go, and bring something else to mind.
To play with that flexibility, we can now think of someone we know who is doing well. Just to see whether the mind is able to navigate in the region of appreciation, think of someone and name them inwardly. Think and name their good qualities and rejoice in them. Think of their intelligence, kindness, humor, uniqueness. And wish this for them: “May your good qualities protect you. May your good qualities be your contribution to the world.” Notice the state of the mind and heart. It would be very natural if, in tiredness, the mind became stuck and lost track of what was happening. On the other hand, notice if it’s present and vibrant—whatever is there is totally natural. Whatever is there is completely what is.
Finally, a wish for all of us: May our good qualities protect us. May our good qualities—those that we are developing and those that are well established—protect us. May they be our contribution to the world.
Adapted from a talk given at Heartfelt Wisdom: Insight Meditation Retreat with Insight Meditation Society.
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