The most difficult Buddhist idea to explain, I’ve found, is not interdependent arising or nonself, challenging though these are, but equanimity. How is it that one can neither like nor not like something without being emotionally detached or indifferent? Our sense of identity is so bound up with our desires that to many people the thought of being without preferences for one thing or another is tantamount to being stripped of the very quality that makes us human. Nonattachment is just so dry. Give me the pot-bellied laughing Buddha any day (who, of course, is not a Buddha at all but a Chinese folk deity), rather than the austere figure presiding over our meditation halls with barely a hint of a smile on his face.
The Buddha is not asking us to have no emotion, only to let go of our more primitive and unhealthy emotions. Desire, in both its positive mode as greed or attachment and its negative mode as hatred or aversion, is an unhealthy emotion and causes suffering. We don’t always see this, but it’s true. It is easy to see at the extreme ends of the spectrum, where craving manifests as an uncontrollable addiction or hatred results in a frenzy of brutal ethnic cleansing. But even at the near end of the spectrum these same emotional forces are at work, gently pulling us toward the things we want and pushing us away from what we don’t want. And though the effects of this are subtle, the heart of the Buddha’s insight was to recognize that they can be just as harmful.
What is the harm, you might ask, in liking the color purple or being mildly annoyed by people who are rude? Nothing much. The problem is that desire is a house builder, as the Buddha discovered on the night of his awakening. (“Housebuilder, you have been seen! You will not build another house . . . my mind has reached the destruction of craving.”—Dhammapada 154) Desire constructs the scaffolding of self upon which suffering is then draped. Only a self has desire (unlike rocks and trees), not because it is some spiritual essence unique in nature, but because the liking or not liking of something is itself what creates the self, the person who likes or does not like what is happening in this moment. This then creates the conditions for suffering to arise, for only a self can suffer (rocks and trees do not). We can only be disappointed if we set ourselves apart from what is happening by wanting it to be other than it is.
The crux of the second noble truth is not what you want but that you want. As the Buddha says in Majjhima Nikaya 43, greed and hatred are makers of measurement; they are delimiting and therefore limiting functions. They carve our minds into boxes and compartments, hemming us in with habits, wishes, wants, and needs. Consciousness, which like a luminous mirror is capable of reflecting whatever object it encounters selflessly (and thus naturally), is restricted, distorted, and even perverted by the likes and dislikes of our emotional habits—even those that seem innocuous. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to see things as they really are.
The truth is that we like our preferences and prejudices, we like defining ourselves in terms of what we like and don’t like. It is precisely desire’s entanglement with the sense of self that makes this all so difficult to unravel. Fortunately, there is a relatively easy and accessible way to counter the powerful forces of desire: the cultivation of equanimity. Every moment of mindfulness is also a moment of equanimity. It is not a disengagement from the object of awareness but rather a full and complete engagement with it. It is engaging with the breath, or with a feeling tone, or with a thought, without simultaneously wanting it to stay as it is or wanting it to be different than it is.
Awareness without wanting is not the same as having no emotion, for equanimity itself is an emotion. If a neutral feeling tone lies at the midpoint between pleasure and pain, equanimity as an emotional response lies midway between liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting, greed and hatred. In the former case there is still a feeling tone, just not one that is obviously pleasant or painful. So too with equanimity: there may be a powerful emotional charge, but it is not one that falls to one side of desire or the other. It may strike many of us as surprising, and even entirely alien, but the Buddhists are pointing to an intensity of emotional response that accepts and even celebrates what is happening without trying to distort it into something else, into something that “I” prefer.
Lovingkindness can be seen as an example of this. When we practice lovingkindness, we care deeply for the well-being of another without the personal complications that come with liking or wanting them. This is not romantic love, or even parental love, but rather a selfless love. Yes, love can reach great heights of passion when we simultaneously want someone as a lover or take pride in them as a parent, but to the extent that a sense of self is implicated, the emotion tips from selfless to self-referential. This does not make it wrong, only prone to generate suffering. Loving with equanimity can also be felt intensively, as can compassion, happiness, sorrow, and a host of other nontoxic emotions, without being self-involved.
We do not become less human by purging toxins from our emotional life but rather more nobly human. Abandoning greed, hatred, and delusion at every opportunity, we are still left with a rich, nuanced, and healthier emotional life. Like all other aspects of the deep and profound dharma, this is better understood through practice than by theorizing. Explore the cultivation of equanimity in your own experience, and see if you can discover what the Buddha is smiling about.