2020-12-29 Brahmavihāras: Equanimity (2 of 5)
5:30PM Dec 29, 2020
So, good day and I suddenly find myself feeling I think quite happy to sit here, I think because of the topic of equanimity brahmavihāras that I'll be speaking about. So, this is the second talk in the series on equanimity. A form of care for others, an attitude of caregiving, an attitude of kindness, goodwill for others.
Equanimity is when that goodwill is equanimous, are not reactive, not agitated, when our goodwill is not influenced by any kind of pursuit of desire, wanting something. Not caught up in repulsion or pushing away, or not wanting something.
And this comes into play, particularly importantly, when it's hard to have goodwill for people. When it's hard to have pure love or kindness for people because of the circumstances they're in. One circumstance is when people make choices for themselves that are not for their own benefit in the end. To have equanimity for people who make choices that are harming themselves.
That's their choice. And that's their agency. That's their choice in a sense, even if it's unconscious, the choices they're making. But the choices are their own. And so how our goodwill comes into play when people are making poor choices is part of the domain of the of this brahmavihāra of equanimity.
Certainly, we can feel compassion for people. But trying to help them and wanting to help them when they're making choices that are going in the opposite direction - it's kind of exhausting for the person who's compassionate. And it may be pointless to have appreciative joy when we know they're making bad choices.
When we know that suffering is coming is also challenging for the person who's wise and sees what's going on. But to be able to see this person making choices. They're unfortunate choices. They're going in a poor direction, but I still keep my heart open to them. I still have this goodwill, and I care about them.
But it doesn't do if I harm myself, if I get all agitated by it, if I get contracted around it, or if I keep pushing to be compassionate, and try everything I can to help the person. Or if I go along and celebrate with them, when what they're doing is actually quite harmful, even though they have kind of a joy. And so how not to harm ourselves with our goodwill is a little bit the domain of equanimity.
The word equanimity in Pali, is upekkhā. And it comes from the root verb to see, to view, to observe. The etymology of the word means to have an overview of the situation. I think of it as a bird's eye view. And so to not be lost in the details of everything, but have the overview of everything. So we see it see it. We can see it with wisdom, and see the bigger picture. We're not caught in the details.
There are times when people, for example, will do you a favor. You come to work and a colleague says, "You know, I had a really difficult night last night. It's very hard. I have family who have COVID. People are dying." Or, "My child was up all night, throwing up and having fever." They come to work and then they say they say, "It's at a hard time, and I'm really irritable." And you say, "Oh, thank you for telling me."
And then if you find that they're expressing some irritable tendency, you're much more forgiving of them. You say, "Oh, you know, they've had a hard time." You have an overview of why they are the way they are. So you have more space for them to be that way. They've warned you. They've been kind enough to warn you, and so you kind of get out of the way, "Okay. That's just today that they're that way." And you feel for them. You have compassion for them.
You're equanimous about how they may be, or say a mean thing, or cut you off going to the bathroom - because of something, whatever it might be. In that sense, there's an overview, a bigger picture. And so we're more equanimous, and more at ease with what to do.
So, upekkhā is a wisdom factor. Our understanding of the situation is really useful for having equanimity. To simply hold ourselves in an equanimous way, is probably not so helpful. Because holding and assuming something which is not really true for ourselves - that can also be exhausting, and be harming for ourselves.
So, how do you have that bigger picture? How do you have the view, the understanding of circumstances and of other people, so that when you have goodwill for them, it's appropriate. We have equanimity, meaning we don't get agitated. We don't get restless, upset, or contracted.
One of the classic teachings in Buddhism is that everyone has their actions as their own. Everyone has their actions. And no one else makes up for your actions. They are your own actions, no matter your circumstances, or where you found yourself in life.
There are a lot of unfortunate things that happen to people. We get sick in all kinds of ways. Or we end up living in a war zone. Or have some accident. A car drives into us - we're doing nothing wrong - but someone else maybe is not paying attention. They run into us, and we're injured. Those are not our choices, to have these things happen.
But, we do have a lot of choices in how we respond. How we choose to live our lives. We're always at a moment of choice. And when we are practicing mindfulness, we start seeing more and more the places of choice. More and more we we notice, it's actually a lot of choices, moment by moment.
If we're not mindful, we're just on automatic pilot. We don't see that we have choices about how we stand, and how we look at people. And how we speak, or when we don't speak. How much food we eat, or don't eat. It just on automatic pilot. Habit comes into play, or craving comes into play, or aversion comes into play. And it's driving the boat - we are not in charge.
But when we see the place of choice because it's just clear. The quiet opens a mindful mind. Then, when we exercise that choice, it's up to us, the consequences of that choice. So if I see a thorn sticking up out of the ground, and I know it's there, and I choose to step on it. And if I cut my foot, this blood - that was my choice, because I chose to step on it. That's a kind of dramatic example.
But if you don't see you have a choice about what you're going to say, and you feel angry and negative, or use a swear word with someone. But when you see, you clearly have a choice. If you say the swear word, and the person gets angry back, that's partly a consequence of your choice that it happened. Or that person walks away, doesn't want to talk to you. That was partly a consequence of your choice.
But if you see that choice, then you can say, "Well, wait a minute, I have a choice here. What choice do I want to live by? What is my deepest choice? What are the deepest values I want to live by here? What's most important for me?" And to pause, and look, and choose what that is.
And so, when we want to have choice, we see that other people have choices as well. We can't be in charge of the choices other people make. But we might support them. We might help them, advise them - all kinds of things we might do. But ultimately, people make their own choices. And when they make choices that are not wise for themselves, t's their consequences they're going to have to live with. If those consequences are unfortunate, it's heartbreaking sometimes.
But to not get our goodwill or love for them tied up and dependent on the choices they make - so that we don't exhaust ourselves with our compassion. We don't regret the ways in which we celebrated with them. So to have goodwill, with this overview of looking up. People that I love that I care for are making choices. And those choices are not wise. And so I have to allow them a certain generosity. To give people the autonomy, the dignity of making choices of their own. And then they have to live with the consequences. I will offer what support I can. I'll try to be supportive, but I'm not going to be responsible for all the consequences of their poor choices. They're going to have to live that out themselves.
To exactly what degree we're involved and not involved has a lot to do with the consequences we think will come about by offering our support for someone. If we think we can actually turn the boat - turn them in a new direction, or help support them to come to a new way of living - maybe it's great to offer a lot to them.
But we have to be very careful we don't harm ourselves in that process. And this is why mindfulness is so important - to really track ourselves. and see what's going on inside of ourselves. We have choices. We make choices as well. Can we choose the peaceful choices?
It doesn't mean the passive choices. It doesn't mean uninvolved choices. It means whatever choice we make, can we do so without the the negative alternatives to equanimity? Can we do it without pursuit, without chasing something, wanting something, getting something, or getting caught up in that need for something to happen? Can we do it without repulsion, or contraction, or aversion, or pushing away, or closing down, or pulling away in horror or something? Can we do it without being restless, without being agitated? Can we do it with a mind at ease?
If the mind is at ease, then the goodwill as equanimity becomes the equanimity brahmavihāra. So I'll read you a very famous passage, used liturgically in Theravāda Buddhism. I see it as understanding and appreciating people's place of choice:
"Beings are beings that have actions. I take this as being choices as their own. They have actions as their refuge. They have actions as their heritage, and they have actions as their as their closest relative they're connected to."
So actions and choice are closely related. So be careful with the choices you make - not to be hamstrung, not to be inhibited, not to be passive in some kind of negative way. Use your choices so that whatever you do in the world, you do without hurting yourself. So you stay at ease, stay peaceful. Stay equanimous in a way that allows the best qualities of who you are to be shared with the world.
So thank you very much.