2020-12-30 Brahmavihāras: Equanimity (3 of 5)
5:18PM Dec 30, 2020
So, the topic for today is to continue the discussion from yesterday. So the general topic is equanimity, and equanimity as a form of care or love for the world, for others - to not be all bothered by what's going on with others and people and ourselves, and be able to keep a kind of steadiness of mind, calmness or ease of mind, so that our love is not agitated by the challenges of this world - the challenges of people and others, what goes on.
And in particular, as I've been saying, is the challenges. So the mind doesn't get caught up in pursuing, engaging, doing, trying to fix all kinds of things that disturb our love and equanimity - too quickly wanting to fix things. The other is not getting caught up in repulsion, pushing away, and not being able to stay present - or going away from what's going on, closing down.
But to be able to stay open and wise, without anxiously getting involved unnecessarily or inappropriately - when we can't do anything, when it's not appropriate for us to try to be involved, or to fix or do something. There are many reasons for that. Why it's not appropriate to actually actively get involved.
One is that sometimes it's better to let people find their own way. And we can offer our support in terms of our presence, our appreciation, and our encouragement. But if we do everything for other people, then we don't let them grow strong.
There's this beautiful story that went around some years ago - and that of a person I don't know if it's just made up or true - but it's a person who comes across a cocoon with a butterfly, which is about to be born. And the butterfly is struggling to come out of the cocoon. And the caring person who wants to help, and pulls in some of the threads to loosen up the space so the butterfly can come out. And when the butterfly finally comes out, the butterfly falls to the ground, and never flies, and dies. What the caring person doesn't know is that only in the struggle to get free of the cocoon, can the butterfly lubricate its wings enough to be able to fly properly. So the struggle is needed for the butterfly.
And so one of the reasons not to get too involved in other people's struggles is when, when and only when, for example, when it only but when they need to kind of be left alone to let them find their own way and learn and develop and strengthen. And if we do it for them, they never grow. They never face themselves.
This is especially true spiritually. You know, if someone fixes all our problems for us, we'll never develop the insight, the capacity, and the inner strength to address the problems for ourselves. There are many reasons to develop this. But of the things that gets in the way of staying equanimous and loving and un-agitated is for many people a sense of responsibility.
And certainly I identify with this. One of my Achilles heels has been maybe still is a little bit the sense of being responsible for too many things, responsible for other people, how they feel, and the need to somehow get involved. And, and so in terms of allowing people the autonomy to choose to make their own actions and choices, and not realizing that it is not up to us, what choices they make, we can support them, we can offer guidance and advice. But ultimately, people make choices for themselves. And to take responsibility for how people feel, and the outcomes of people's lives too much is to get agitated, is to lose the equanimity - and in some ways also lose the clarity of love, that clarity of goodwill that can be there, before responsibility kicks in, in an unhealthy way.
So in order to maintain that kind of equanimous care and love and goodwill - for some of us, it's useful to look at this topic of responsibility. And in this regard, I find it interesting that this English word responsibility, has a wide range of meanings, which – as far as I can tell – is different in some other countries. I read once that one of the first people to study the Iroquois nation, found out that claim that there was no word in that language for responsibility. But they seem to have a very successful and noble civilization without the word responsibility.
If you look in the Pali-English dictionary, there's only a small handful - two, three, or four words that the Englishmen who made the dictionary over 100 years ago, chose to add the word responsibility as one of its meanings. But the main meanings are things like burden. And, burden isn't quite, a satisfying definition for the English word responsibility. And so it's almost as if that word responsibility doesn't quite work in the languages of the Buddha.
And I speak Norwegian. And in Norwegian, the word for responsibility is 'ansvar', which means to answer. It's like a cognate of the English word answer. And it's probably closer in meaning to the French or Italian words 'réponse' and 'riposta' than to the English word responsibility. In Norwegian the connotations of ansvar means what you have to answer for - what you're accountable for.
And there's a different word for obligation, or duty. In Norwegian, it's 'plikt'. And so these are two different words. Whereas in English, it seems to me that the idea of obligation, duty, and accountability are all kind of in the range of meanings of responsibility. So much so, that responsibility often comes across as something we're obligated to do. We have a responsibility to do something. Whereas, and in the Norwegian word, ansvar, is that we're accountable for what we do. We have to answer for what we do.
So if we take English word responsibility to mean that we're responsible for our actions, that kind of goes clearly along with Buddhist ways of thinking - that we're responsible for how we act and what we do, the choices we make. And we're responsible for the outcome. We're certainly responsible for making the choices and doing the act. But we're responsible and we're accountable to the to the outcome.
And so what it's not in Buddhism is this idea that we carry with us in an innate obligation and duty, to become free, to be loving, to be kind, to be responsible for other people. That responsibility is not this weight that we carry with us.
In some ways, Buddhist practice frees us from a certain understanding of responsibility: the sense of obligation and duty. As far as I can tell, there doesn't come from the teachings of the Buddha, any sense of obligation in doing the spiritual practice in life. There's no obligation to be loving, There's no obligation to be generous. There's no obligation to be caring for other people. It's not a duty. It is an opportunity. It is a choice. It is something we might want to do, but not because we're obligated to do it.
And the only reason we have obligation in Buddhism is if we made a promise - a vow, a commitment - or if we have a purpose that we want to fulfill, then kind of - I don't know if obligation is the right word - but certain purposes require certain things. If you want to discover the benefits of meditation and really dedicate your life to live out the benefits of meditation - that requires that we meditate.
And so, but this idea that Buddhism very much frees us from this sense of obligation and duty, in favor of being accountable for the choices we make and the actions we do. We have to answer for the consequences of them for ourselves as for other people.
And this sense of freedom from this kind of obligatory responsibility means that we can enter into different situations, kind of with a fresh mind with a clear mind, ready to respond. We have an ability to respond, ready to meet the situation as it is. But without carrying with us, the ideations and notions and ideas of what we have to do, and should do, that are often a trigger for reactivity. For being upset that things don't go along. Or that I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm obligated to be a certain way in this situation.
But to enter any situation without obligation, and then to respond as appropriate. To meet it, and see what the choices are, can help with this equanimity. It's easier than perhaps to love. Because then love is not burdened by duty, by what we do. We have to be a certain way. We have to respond a certain way. We have to fix the situation.
And so we can just be there and figure out what's needed. And so the love of equanimity - equanimity brahmavihāra - is often very valuable to be the first way in which we meet the person. The first way in which we meet a situation. It's the first way of discovering and finding out what's there,
If we enter into a new situation or meet a new person, and we're just automatically being compassionate for them before we even know them - it's a little bit burdensome for them. And certainly, we're kind of activated. Or if we're already feeling joy, before we know anything about them, we might actually do them a disservice if someone, someone they love just died. And we just jumping forth with our appreciation how wonderful they are. Or if we just have too much goodwill for them before there's a chance for there to be some real connection and knowledge. Then to see that our appreciation can also be kind of off.
So this ability to know equanimous love, or nonreactive - love that doesn't carry any responsibility and obligation with it. But it's just there, like an open door that's there, ready to meet whatever whoever comes through that door, and then respond accordingly.
So if some of you are a little bit like me, with an Achilles heel of responsibility, that is obligation or duty - to really develop this equanimity brahmavihāra, it helps to see that we do this and not be caught by it. And let it just be water that washes by, as you hold yourself steady in your love and your care for the world.
Don't be tripped up by obligation and duty, even if other people expect that of you. Why should they? And why should we believe them that that's how it has to be? It's possible to love and be generous and kind and have very rich and warm relationships without any sense of duty and obligation - unless you've made promises.
So I hope this is helpful as I explore this topic of equanimity. And we'll continue tomorrow. Thank you.