The fourth of the Four Brahma Viharas is Uppekka, the ability to hold all that passes through our current experience with equanimity.
When something delightful and something sorrowful are happening at the same time, the ability to hold it all in an open embrace is such a blessing! But for most of us it is very difficult to imagine. I remember a woman saying she didn’t know how she could attend her daughter’s wedding with joy when her lifelong closest friend was in the last stages of dying in a nearby hospital. She felt completely split, pulled in both directions. She felt guilty for not being completely there for her daughter and guilty for not being completely there for her friend. There was no escaping the discomfort of her thoughts and emotions.
As we age, we experience these kinds of situations more often. Loved ones become ill or die. Babies are born. Joys and sorrows abound. It is with the grace of uppekka that we are able to hold them. How? That is our exploration today.
Each of the Four Brahmaviharas has an elemental quality for me. (It may have for others but I haven’t heard or read about it from any other teachers.) As previously mentioned, metta (loving-kindness) is radiant like the sun, karuna (compassion) is solid, present and receptive like the earth. Mudita (sympathetic joy) could be likened to dancing sparkling water, reflecting back all that is near it, and flowing without any sense of obstacle. Now here we are at uppekka, and I would liken it to the sky. The sky can hold clouds, rainbows, thunderstorms, and snow all at the same time within its spacious expanse. The sky holds it all, whatever it is, with equanimity. The sky is still the sky.
Try to imagine the sky dealing with clouds and other phenomena in a more typically human way: running away, avoidance through distraction, either over-efforting or getting lost in the pursuit of pleasure, turning its back on it all, throwing up its hands, falling apart, turning to drugs to numb itself, etc. Ridiculous, isn’t it? For the sky, and for us as well.
We can be like the sky. Whatever arises in our experience, we can expand in our ability to hold it in an open embrace. With attention, with tenderness, with compassion, but without clinging or grasping.
For example, a daughter’s wedding happening the very week a friend is dying. How do we do it? Like the sky! We attend each moment — whether at the betrothal or at the bedside — with our fullest possible attention, anchoring into physical sensation as we do in meditation and any time we want to bring ourselves fully present.
While at the wedding, we probably at times notice threads of thought and emotion streaming through our field of awareness. They arise and fall away, ebb and flow: Thoughts of the friend, memories of times together, sadness at the thought of losing future moments. Natural thoughts to have, natural emotions to experience. But as we anchor into physical sensation to be present in the moment, we find we are able to experience thoughts without getting lost in them.
Most commonly people want to know how they can ‘get rid of thoughts’ that will take them out of the present moment. Uppekka is the answer, but it points up the error in the question itself. It answers the deeper need. We don’t ‘get rid’ of anything. We use our meditation practice to expand our ability to hold all of what arises in a spacious way. We anchor into physical sensation to be present as much as possible, but if there is something else going on, thoughts and feelings may very well arise. We see them, note them, send metta, loving-kindness, to the person or situation that keeps coming up in our awareness. We do this even as we maintain full awareness of physical sensation, including the sights and sounds of our current experience. But if we have lost our attention to it, we simply reset our intention to be present, to follow the breath, etc. We create space. We don’t get entangled in judgment. And when we do, we reset our paired intentions to be present and compassionate. These two activities together create uppekka, the ability to hold all of our experience with equanimity.
There is a shift of consciousness that happens as we develop a steady meditation practice. With Wise Intention, Wise Effort, and Wise Concentration, a quality of Wise View will naturally arise. Instead of believing yourself to be tiny and separate tossed about by the sea of thought and emotion, swallowing, choking and feeling you are drowning; you come into a sense of infinite connection and spaciousness. A quality of Wise Mindfulness will arise: You are the sky that holds all experience, spacious and alive with equanimity. Not just when the sun is shining or the clouds are cute and fluffy. You can hold the hurricanes that pass through as well. Expand into equanimity! That is the practice.
I love the elemental qualities you write of for the Four Brahmaviharas. Linking them that way creates so many moments of opportunity for practice.
On the topic of guilt: Lately when I notice my guilt I try asking myself if there is truly anything in the situation that I am responsible for and if so is there any action I can reasonably take. I am having moderate success in letting go of it.
Any readers have something else to offer on that?