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Jack Kornfield has said, in explaining a Buddhist teaching:

Attachment masquerades as (or pretends to be) love,

Pity masquerades as compassion,

Indifference masquerades as equanimity.

In Buddhism, these are known as the “near enemies” (masquerades) of the wholesome states. This teaching left a strong impression on me when I first heard it, and I’ve since wondered what these three have in common. 

To me, they all seem to involve the application, or lack, of love. Concerning the first line, to be attached to the beloved but unable to love them out of a constant fear of losing them is a terrible waste. But loving someone is difficult, fraught with uncertainties and challenges and sacrifice. Are we constantly thinking about losing the beloved? Are we easily jealous? Attachment is clinging or grasping, fear-based, and conditional, whereas love is unconditional. 

Pity also lacks the ability to love the thing pitied. It’s a kind of shaking the head at a problem while not getting very close to it—keeping the pitied object at a distance from ourselves. Compassion means, literally, to suffer together or with; it requires genuine connection and the loving of its object, no matter how messy. 

Indifference, the near enemy of equanimity, lacks love and entails a sense of apathy, of distance. Equanimity, on the other hand, means we allow all things into our consciousness, both those things we first perceive as being bad and those we perceive as being good, without judging immediately which they might be. This abeyance of judgment allows something special to happen—lack of judgment equals lack of reaction and lack of pain. It seems to me that equanimity naturally flows from the inner feeling of complete love: love that touches us, wounds us, sticks with us, and changes us. You don’t set yourself the task to love someone or something. You’re not trying to “win” a lover or a situation; love simply arises, uncalled for, unbidden. 

For myself, I found living with equanimity to be my personal weakness, since indifference is my typical response to life’s difficulties. I believe this comes from being a particularly sensitive person, where every word or action of those around me can be seen as a slight. Of course, this sensitivity is a two-edged sword—it allows me to read people and understand what they mean even when they don’t say it directly. Sometimes my sensitivity allows me to judge situations better, but it can also make me vulnerable to perceived rejection and blowing things out of proportion, which ultimately just leads to greater suffering. 

For a long time, indifference was my survival tool. When I was growing up, life could be too painful because of perceived slights from others, until I learned that if I brushed things off, I could cope. This technique worked well for quite a while and helped me function in society, but my indifference to life was not without its consequences. I didn’t realize that this was deadening me, and because I acted without care—saying to hell with this or that—I would often come to regret my actions and how I treated others. While indifference can help a sensitive person survive, it also hardens the heart and makes it difficult to tap into compassion.

One of my meditation teachers helped me work with this weakness by highlighting two qualities of equanimity. He first explained to me that equanimity is strongest when our all-consuming concern with ourselves is attenuated. Put another way, loving with equanimity always means letting go of our habit of putting ourselves first. He then said that equanimity also requires us to focus on our intentions—and the thoughts, words, and actions that flow from our intentions—as opposed to outcomes. The equanimous heart can accept outcomes without attachment. Have you ever felt this way? When you set judgment aside completely? When you had the patience to allow things to work through your life? When you deferred a decision on how to react to new things? 

In shorthand: 

Indifference = To hell with it!

Equanimity = I accept it. 

Still, developing equanimity is not so easy a task. You don’t simply wake up one day and say, “Today I’m going to be equanimous.” But, with a steady meditation practice, we can cultivate a mind that is still and can be comfortably present with the arising and passing of all phenomena.

I’ll end with a classic fable. There was a prosperous man named Farmer Wang who owned a prized horse, but one day it ran away. All the villagers gathered and bemoaned his loss. “Oh, Farmer Wang, how terrible to lose your only horse. Surely life is not already bad enough without this terrible event.” But his only response was, “Well, maybe.” (Or sometimes, “We’ll see,” or “Maybe good, maybe bad.”) 

Then, surprise, the horse soon returned, bringing with it a mate it had found in its wandering. Thus, the farmer gained two horses. Of course, the villagers all came to congratulate him. “Farmer Wang, what great good fortune you have.” But he only said, “Well, maybe.” 

A while later, Farmer Wang’s son tried riding the new horse, which was a bit wild, and was thrown off, resulting in a broken leg. The neighbors returned to wail, knowing how important a son is to a Chinese farmer, and how serious the loss. Farmer Wang said again, “Well, maybe.” 

Then, because this was during a time of warlords and rebellion, an army came through and forced all the able-bodied young men of the village to join. Of course, Little Wang could not go because of his injury. The villagers were all extremely sad, but say the inevitable, how wonderful for the son to escape almost certain death, unlike their sons. Of course, Farmer Wang says…

And life goes on. That’s equanimity. 

What’s your experience with accepting?

This article originally published on May 2, 2023.