Each of our lives will be touched by what are called the winds of the world. Moments of praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, gain and loss are woven into every human life. In the light of approval and praise, we glow; in the light of disapproval and blame, we find ourselves ashamed and withering.
Understandably we long for acceptance and appreciation—the near enemy of this very human longing is the pursuit of approval and praise. Too easily we place ourselves at the whims of another’s words of affirmation. Understandably blame, judgment, and criticism are hard to bear. The near enemy of this pain is to seek an elusive perfection or to deafen ourselves to feedback from others. Too easily we internalize the anger and aversion of others as being an accurate measure of who we are. We are prone to personalize both praise and blame, describing ourselves by them and subjecting ourselves to elation and despair. Equanimity disappears in the contractedness of identification.
The wonderful meditation we finally achieved, the love we were sure would last forever, our health and youth—all are delighted in, yet all will change, and we are asked to meet the bleak landscape of disappointment and feelings of failure. Life continues to teach us the hard lessons of letting go. Culturally we are told that our worth as human beings is defined by our successes and that failure is unacceptable, an indictment upon our worthiness. During the recent recession, rates of mental illness and suicide skyrocketed. We strive to become the kind of person who is immune to failure and to fearfully defend our successes. Culturally we are taught that success opens the door to love, acceptance, and reward, whereas failure sentences us to the shadows of life. We can become frantic in our search to secure our well-being through success and possession and come to fear the loss of that certainty, believing it will sentence us to a life of invisibility and meaninglessness. We can even believe that equanimity will be the outcome of securing success rather than found through the willingness to be equally near the highs and the lows of life.
Our hearts are touched and gladdened by the moments of pleasure and delight the world offers to us. The simple joys of the sunlight touching our face, the great joys of a newborn child, the wonderful art, music, and poetry available to us gladden our hearts and enrich our lives. We love health, lovely emotions, and pleasant thoughts. We do not open so easily to the moments of pain—the unexpected illnesses, the difficult emotions, the repetitive thoughts, the vexing sights and sounds. The sounds of the birds outside the window are drowned out by the roar of the garbage truck. A delightful fantasy or plan is replaced by a nightmarish obsession. Our health falters and at times we become weary and bored with what we previously delighted in.
Equanimity is a teaching not only of poise but of grace, a deep knowing that life will not stand still for any of us and that to rely upon stability is a recipe for agitation and anxiety.
We develop the habit of leaning toward and pursuing the pleasant, flinching from the unpleasant, and doing all we can to arrange the conditions of our lives in ways that protect us from pain. We rarely appreciate that our very pursuit of pleasure makes us increasingly intolerant of pain and binds us to a life of agitation and anxiety. Equanimity holds within it a quality of resilience that is not an armoring against the winds of the world, but born of inner strength and poise. We are affected deeply by the unexpected changes and events of both the lovely and the unlovely. We will bend before the force of those winds but learn to return to uprightness. Cultivating our capacity for balance, we learn to meet the many small moments of discomfort that are part of our daily experience without flinching or turning away, discovering it is possible to surround discomfort with a calm stillness. We discover the capacity to meet the many small lovely moments of our day with a quality of appreciation that is not distorted by our desire to possess and maintain the pleasure of the lovely.
Experiences of gaining and losing are woven into the rhythm of our lives. We gain stability and security, money and stature. Many of the achievements of our lives are born of skillful effort and dedication and are to be honored. We also lose a great deal. We are separated from people we love; our livelihoods disappear; we face the loneliness of friendships that change or disappear. We lose our youth and vitality; we gain a newfound peace in the midst of aging. A mother told the story of the heartache of being informed that her son had died in the Asian tsunami. The following week she received a postcard from him saying, “I am in heaven, this is the best time of my life.” There are unexpected moments of stillness, unpredicted moments of depression. Equanimity is a teaching not only of poise but of grace, a deep knowing that life will not stand still for any of us and that to rely upon stability is a recipe for agitation and anxiety.
In the midst of all of this, we still breathe, our hearts beat, we go from morning to night, and remain present and alive. We ask ourselves how our hearts can continue to absorb the ongoing, changing stream of events without being shattered. We see the ways in a single day that our minds swing between highs and lows, elation and despair, fear and confidence. Equanimity pivotally teaches us to meet this river of uncertain and changing events equally with respect, yet without being governed by them. The Buddha said, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, success and failure are the eight worldy winds. They ceaselessly change. As a mountain is unshaken by the wind, so the heart of a wise person is steady amidst all the changes on this earth.”
In the midst of a life with its “ten thousand joys and sorrows,” we can simply attend to how we are present just now. Allow the body to come to stillness and the mind to settle, attending to the life of this moment, however it is. In the midst of the lovely, in the midst of the difficult, we make our home in our capacity to embrace, include, and care for the well-being of our hearts.
May I embrace change with stillness and calm.
May I deeply accept this moment as it is.
May my home be a home of balance and spaciousness.
Each time we return to an intentional way of being with both the lovely and the unlovely, we are untangling the patterns of aversion and craving that lead us to abandon the moment. Moments of dissociating and abandoning the moment we are in are all moments that undermine our confidence in the freedom of our own hearts. Through flights of aversion, we build fences that make our world a little smaller, telling ourselves we cannot bear this life as it is. Through following patterns of craving, we convince ourselves over and over of the insufficiency of our own hearts. Equanimity teaches us to live as if we were a mountain, touched by the winds of the world but unshaken. We learn to be steadfast, receptive, and committed to freedom. A Zen master was once asked, “What is the secret of your happiness?” He answered, “Complete, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.” The unavoidable is our life.
From Boundless Heart: The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity by Christina Feldman © 2017. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.