Doesn’t it seem like just when things can’t get any worse, they do? This week in the United States has been marked by violence born out of such senseless hatred, it feels unbearable. In case you are reading this at a later date, and wonder which of the many senseless acts of violence I might be referring to, this week it is the slaughter of worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven people were killed.
I appreciated how PBS Newshour offered photos and insight into each person who died. Like the doctor who, even at a time when it wasn’t sure how AIDS was transmitted, saw his patients as people worthy of respect and kindness, shaking their hands without gloves and masks that many others in the medical community felt was necessary. And the brothers who looked out for each other with such sweet caring. What blessings they all were to the life of those around them. May they all rest in peace.
Getting a glimpse into who they were was such a reminder that the horrendous act that took their lives had nothing to do with them and who they were as people. It was an act of madness, a festering in a warped mind that manifested in a pattern that has taken root in our culture at this time and is all too easy to replicate. These kinds of patterns play out as impersonally as random tornadoes, the deranged perpetrator in some ways as helpless as the victims. The difference is that we as a community of citizens have no power over tornadoes, but we do have the power to change this kind of pattern, to make it more difficult to acquire the means to attack and easier to find mental health care. And yet we allow it to take the best of us, again and again.
How do we handle the onslaught of such a pattern repeating like a storm that strikes anywhere and doesn’t let up? Hopefully, with equanimity.
Equanimity? That sounds way too passive, way too ‘ho hum, another murderous rampage, what else is new?’ Are we practicing in order to take in such news like water off a duck’s back, leaving us untouched and uncaring? If that were the case, leave me out!
But equanimity is not disengagement from life. It is in some ways deep engagement, but done so with moment to moment attention, compassion and awareness. There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where meditators breathe in the pain of the world, a particular situation, person or group of people; and then breathe out loving-kindness. Through spacious compassionate awareness, the pain is diluted, cleansed and transformed into kindness, into good will for ourselves and all beings, without exception. It is a deep practice to be undertaken by those with a strong meditation practice that supports it. It is a way of responding to what arises with skillful means. It is empowering, balancing and enlightening. And it cultivates true equanimity.
But the tonglen practice is not the only response one could have, of course. In our class, as we shed tears and passed the tissues, a few shared how they were caring for themselves at this time. We always begin with ourselves. What is it that we need in order to be okay in this moment? Turn off the news and turn on some uplifting music? Take a walk in nature? Do some yoga? Meditate? Call a dear friend and have a deep sharing? These are skillful ways to return to our center. It is not running away. It is being fully present in this moment.
In our exploration of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening, we are just now coming to the last factor: Equanimity. How fortuitous. As a factor of awakening, it is both a quality we cultivate and a state of being that feels like a gift. And because it is the last on the Buddha’s list of factors, we might reasonably assume that it relies on all the previous factors. And that would be true. But also true is that the Buddha’s lists are often not linear but circular, so that all these factors are interdependent and evolve together.
Equanimity is being fully present with all that arises in any given moment, greeting it with spacious friendliness. Without equanimity, we are a jumble of reactivity, easily irritated, aggravated, hurt, worried, and tossed about in a turmoil of thoughts, entangled in knots of memories and judgments, at war with the world and with ourselves.
When we hear the horror stories in the news, it’s an opportunity to notice our own reactions. If we are paying attention, we can watch ourselves being tossed about as if on huge ocean waves with strong currents and undertows sucking us down and smashing us to the gravelly bottom of our emotional being.
We see that reactivity, in the form of grasping, clinging and aversion, not only causes suffering but is based on not pausing to notice the interconnectedness of all life and the intrinsic necessary nature of impermanence.
With the cultivation of all the factors of awakening — mindfulness (sati), investigation of the nature of reality (dhamma vicaya), energy/effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration/clear awareness (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkha) — we are more and more able to be present, clear-seeing and compassionate.
When the loss is personal
Dealing with the news of the world is one thing, but personal loss feels very different, doesn’t it?
At moments of great loss, it can be like a huge boulder falling into a pond, causing a lot of emotional turmoil, so much so that even the wisest among us can get caught up in the waves and pulled down so they think they might drown.
But at some point, after the waves quiet down and the person is able to see the sky above and feel the lapping of the surface of the water around them, if they have been practicing being fully present and have had insights into the nature of being, equanimity even in their great loss is possible.
We can see the nature of impermanence playing out in every aspect of all of life, and this event is one expression of that nature. Since we have already discovered for ourselves that impermanence is key to life itself, we don’t fall down the rabbit hole of rueing the death, even of someone we love. We know we all die. We may not like the circumstances, or that life was cut short relative to the average lifespan, but we recognize that nothing in life is average, that given the causes and conditions that have come together in this way at this time, this loss is inevitable.
A deeper kind of well-wishing
It is a rich and important part of our practice to send metta, infinite loving kindness, to all beings. With a deeper understanding of the nature of life, we might deepen our well-wishing beyond hoping that we, our loved ones and all beings bypass difficulty, pain or loss. These are conditions of life that happen to all of us. So what we might more deeply wish for is that we, our loved ones and all beings have the skills to greet life’s challenges with equanimity and all of these Seven Factors of Awakening.
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