Tag Archives: finding balance

Equanimity :: Holding life in an open embrace

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In the last few posts of my dharma talks we have been looking at the Brahma-viharas, spacious mind-states where we can dwell in loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others. Now we look at the fourth of these mind states: Equanimity.

Equanimity is the ability to hold all that arises in an open embrace. It is the last of the four mind states because it naturally arises out of the continued practice of loving-kindness, compassion and happiness for others.

We have all had moments of equanimity when, for no particular reason, we feel relaxed, joyful, and in sync with life. At such moments we don’t feel victim to the whims of circumstance. We handle things that come up with an ease that surprises us. We are able to see how ‘this too shall pass’ and that a comment we might otherwise have taken as a slight isn’t really about us. We find we can be present and enjoy all that is arising, without muckraking up past offenses and future fears. Thus we don’t make mountains out of molehills. It’s as if gravity has become lighter so what we had been carrying as a burden is now a transparent bubble, and sometimes even a gift.

What if equanimity could be our natural state, even when things are not going well and we are faced with major losses and difficulties? It can be! Just by continuing our regular practice of meditation, we are cultivating equanimity. At first it comes upon us seemingly at random for brief periods. Maybe we get caught up in liking it so much that we begin to grasp at it, cling to it and strive for it. Then we lose it. Frustrating! But as we get the hang of being present with all that arises in our experience, as we practice sending metta (infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and out to all beings), equanimity becomes a more natural state.

That may sound good, or maybe too good to be true, and there may be some resistance to the idea. We may believe that we are locked into our habitual ways of reacting to life, unskillful as they may be. We may even be attached to ‘our ways’, thinking that they define us, make us distinctively who we are. This is something to notice. We can hold these thoughts in a more spacious way, respectfully questioning their veracity: ‘Is this true?’ ‘How do I know this is true?’ The thoughts may hang in there, but they will hold less power to throw us out of kilter or sabotage our wise intentions.

In the practice of mindfulness, we develop skillful ways to be in relationship with all that arises in our field of experience. We are not finding fault with our habitual reactivity or trying to ‘fix’ ourselves. Nothing is broken here. Nothing is lacking. Nothing has to be discarded or destroyed. We are simply learning how to exercise a muscle that has always been here, just under-used.

In the process of regularly flexing our muscles of awareness and compassion, we have insights that expand our understanding and our capacity for equanimity.

These insights generally fall in one of three categories:

  • Recognizing the nature of impermanence. This is not just accepting that everything changes, but actually realizing that there would be no life at all without impermanence. Neither death nor birth, neither decay nor growth. We see how all of the patterns and processes of life are in a constant state of coming together and dissolving and reforming. Just the way clouds in the sky were quite recently mist rising from the sea and before that the sea itself and before that the rain and before that cloud. The cycle of life is revealed in every aspect of being when we pause to pay attention.
  • Recognizing that, even though for practical purposes we live our lives as if we are separate beings, taking responsibility for this body-mind and all its interactions; in truth we are not separate at all! We are made up of the same stuff as the earth and stars. We are interconnected on the deepest level to all beings, in the past, present and future, in a continuous flux and flow. We are in this moment like a water drop leaping in the air over a cascade, experiencing a life that feels independent, but is in fact a fully integrated part of all being.
  • And finally, recognizing that when we resist these first two understandings, we make ourselves (and often those around us) miserable. Out of fear of things changing, out of fear of being isolated, we engage in unskillful grasping/clinging to whatever gives us pleasure and pushing away anything that doesn’t please us, we suffer. This is not the simple pain of living life in a body. It is suffering that we actively create again and again through our own unwillingness to be present in our experience, just as it is.

Studies show that meditation alone is powerful in many ways, but that the practice of metta, loving-kindness, is more powerful still. There’s no reason to choose one practice over the other. They work together. I always end my daily meditation, and the meditations I lead in class, with metta practice: May I be well/at ease/at peace/happy; May all beings be well/at ease/at peace/happy. Wording varies from practitioner to practitioner, but you get the idea. This audio is an example of sending metta. It is an extended practice, including sending metta to difficult people. Adapt the practice to suit yourself.

METTA PRACTICE

If we get into the good habit of sending metta to any person or situation that crops up in our thoughts, especially the difficult ones that can entangle us in emotional upheaval, we bring our mind back to the present moment, and at the same time do a great kindness to ourselves and to whomever we send loving-kindness.

Metta practice activates deep compassion within us. As we become aware of the nature of suffering and the interconnection of all beings, our natural generosity of spirit springs forth, providing help that is responsive, balanced and useful.

As we cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, we feel other people’s happiness as if it is our own. We have breached the previously-perceived divide between us. That divide dissolves and we are able to fully experience sympathetic joy. We see that happiness is contagious, unlimited and available in every moment if we are open to it, even if we aren’t getting everything we crave.

The skillful cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy creates equanimity in our lives. Instead of feeling tossed around by what’s going on in our lives, we become like the sky, spacious of mind and able to hold all that arises — clouds, fog, lightning, airplanes, etc. — without losing touch with our natural state of being.

When something delightful and something sorrowful happen at the same time, equanimity allows us to hold it all in an open embrace. We can be present for the joyful event, even as slender threads of sorrow arise.

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 equanimity that we are able to hold them just as the sky holds rainbows and hurricanes at the same time. The sky is still the sky. We too can cultivate compassionate spaciousness to hold all of our experience without getting lost or toppled. We are not devoid of emotion. But we can be present for them as well.

Imagine the sky dealing what passes through in a typically human way. Try to picture the sky running away from clouds, striving to overcome fog, getting lost in the pursuit of rainbows, turning its back on lightning, throwing up its hands at hurricanes, falling apart in a tornado, turning to drugs to numb itself to days of rain.  Ridiculous, right? 

We have the capacity to be like the sky! Whatever arises in our experience, we can hold in an open embrace. With attention, respect, compassion and kindness, but without clinging or grasping. If a thought is tenacious, we send metta to the person or situation, and return fully to the present moment.

Teaching in class about equanimity, I felt my whole chest opening as I expanded my arms out in a welcoming embrace. Words felt insufficient to express the meaning of equanimity. Maybe this physical sense of expansiveness is an additional way of opening to the possibility of equanimity in your life. Try it!

Equanimity is a spacious mind-state that naturally arises out of the regular practice of meditation. It is not a goal, not something to try hard to do, strive for or aim at. It’s not something to achieve. All of these ways of approaching any quality of mindfulness only entangle us in a tight knot of fear-based thoughts and emotions.

If you want to experience equanimity, the path is simple: Practice meditation every day. Attend weekly classes for inspiration and support. Go on retreats when you can for deeper insights. Go for walks in the woods, on the beach or wherever you can connect with trees, water and sky. Then don’t get lost in conversation with others or your own thoughts. Instead just listen to the sounds of nature, look around you, and feel your body moving through space. Find your place in nature. Give yourself quiet times to be present with all that is arising, send metta to yourself and all beings and equanimity will rise up within you.

Open to it like the sky!

Caught up in an internal windstorm?

windstormEach moment of each day teaches us something new about how to be in relationship with life. So many opportunities to see, for example, fear arising to tear things apart, and love arising to bring seemingly disparate hearts together.

Our practice is to live our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. To be present and compassionate with whatever arises, giving it space to transform, allowing ourselves to let it be, and to be enriched, informed and enlivened by the experience of even the most difficult emotions and experiences passing through our field of awareness.

Can we engage in the dance of life without getting entangled, strangled, or wanting to strangle? Can we allow ourselves to befriend even that irritant that torments us? We can if we can see it for what it is.

Over the past weeks in my life there seems to be a roller coaster of new sometimes scary and sometimes jubilant information coming in, all tied up in deep fraternal love (and annoyance and petulance — oh yeah, it’s all still there!) Here is the challenge my meditation practice has primed me to handle with equaniminity. Somehow I pictured equanimity differently, but hey, letting go of self-judgment for taking the bait, taking the low road is part of the process. Remembering to take time off, to unplug, to keep up my dependable practices that sustain me: that’s how equanimity looks in this moment.

Recently we have had so much windy weather. Gales really. I wonder is that normal for June? Is this the new normal? Anxiety sets in. I loath wind! Oh yes, I get grumpy, and the seemingly endless wind has been the convenient target for all my worry and discontent. ‘If only’ the wind would stop howling, then I could be happy. And eventually it did, and I was in fact somewhat relieved to fling open the doors and enjoy the still air and bird song. Ah!

Then I went to my poetry class and, wouldn’t you know it, the teacher played a recording of howling wind. She said wind is her favorite element. She should live at my house! Grrr. Because the speakers were right behind me, the wind was blowing in both ears and down my neck, tensing my body…again! She had us sit in meditation with the wind for a bit. So what choice did I have but to recognize the opportunity to do a little inquiry into my tormented relationship to wind?

Then she read something that has stayed with me: ‘It is not the wind that makes noise, but the objects in its way.’ And I heard it this way: It is not the wind that makes noise, but all that resists it.

Hmm. Is that true? How do I know that’s true? The wind pushes the objects. The objects move and make sound vibrations. The wind that meets no resistance is not howling, but perhaps dancing. Hmm. Bah, humbug. Sounds like a fairy tale, just making excuses. But this is the practice. So I continue.

Having made a kind of enemy of the wind, there are many other questions I could explore that might be helpful, scientific, philosophical and psychological: How does air become wind? What is the value of wind? What would life be like without wind? Is it really the wind I am upset with?

This kind of investigation is useful when we see we have made an enemy out of anything: a person, group, situation, condition or in this case an element. We might practice loving-kindness, sending metta. Inquiry might also be helpful when we meet a lot of inner resistance, and our offerings are grudging at best.

If we really pay attention we can see how we may make enemies everywhere. It is not to torment us that the enemy arises. It is to challenge us to practice opening our hearts and minds, befriending when we are able, doing inquiry when we are not, and eventually finding the door through the heart of the ‘enemy’ to the truth of our experience.

This truth, or dharma, is the fruit of our practice. We find it by being present and compassionate. It brings a quiet balanced joy that allows us to dance with even the most tumultuous chaos.

In this week’s meditation class I shared an extended passage from the book Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, that, due to copyright laws, I can’t share here. But I highly recommend the book. Then we did a valuable exercise, walking in nature, inspired by the sharing. I encourage you to walk mindfully in nature and find something of interest to linger upon. See what happens! Be open to nature’s wisdom.

And if you find yourself in a windstorm, emotional or otherwise, rely on your daily practice discovering your own inner wisdom, the wisdom teachings and your fellow practitioners. This is called taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Noting sensations and emotions: It’s not all bad!

five sensesLast week I shared the experience of receiving difficult news, and the challenges of meditating with ‘the elephant in the room’ — that one big overbearing excruciating thought/emotion.

Over the course of the week, I continued to pay attention to physical sensation, and what a series of shifts there were to notice! Before the ‘elephant’ sensation set in, back when we were waiting to hear the diagnosis after my brother’s many scan, tests and biopsies — dreading bad news but also wanting answers — my whole body had been wracked with tension. Of course I did what I could to relax and release it, but the body just kept saying ‘Really?’

Then when I wrote last week’s post right after receiving the news we had dreaded. (Thank you to friends who wrote with concern and I’m sorry to have been so opaque about what is going on, but this is the internet after all, and I was concerned for my brother’s privacy. This week I realize we’re in for the long haul here, since he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and though it won’t be the subject of every post — I promise! — it is now very much a presence in my life, and it would be counter to the practice to pretend to ignore it. I also realized that only very close friends and family know who my brother is, so his privacy is not really an issue here.)

Okay, so we get this tidal wave of challenging news, and I notice that the tension that was wracking my whole body dissipated. I was no longer anxious because I wasn’t waiting on pins and needles with worry and not knowing. Instead I was brokenhearted, and felt the heaviness in the heart area that accompanies the strong emotions of loss, grief, sorrow. The elephant wasn’t just ‘in the room’. It was sitting on my chest!

Now because my difficult news still has, after extensive treatments, the potential to turn into good news eventually, the heaviness in my chest lifted more quickly than it might have had the news been of a permanent loss. I say this for anyone who has lost a loved one, either by death or separation. In that case the heaviness may lift and return many times. Or there may be other physical sensations that might be noticed. The main thing is that we practice noticing, staying in touch with physical sensation, because it is such a valuable messenger at a time we may be feeling quite lost. If we feel exhausted, for example, we need to take care of ourselves and not keep pushing. If we keep pushing, what happens? We find we are behaving unskillfully, and feelings are hurt all around.

For all of us dealing with ANY challenges in life of whatever magnitude, it’s tempting to embrace pleasant sensations and push through or ignore unpleasant ones. But in our practice of being present, we do ourselves a disservice by trying to escape our experience. There are no short cuts through the landscape of emotions. When we try to cut through the rough grass to get to some other part of our trail that looks easier, we get scratched, we get ticks, we get poison oak or ivy, and oftentimes we get lost. This, whatever it is in this moment, is the experience we need to attend.

But what if the pain is intolerable?
Sometimes a particular sensation, thought or emotion feels unbearable. But if we cultivate spaciousness, we might begin to notice that there is more than just this one unpleasant experience going on in this moment.

A physical example of this might be a strong pain in the right knee. Instead of getting caught up in a story about the pain, we expand our awareness to notice that maybe the other knee doesn’t hurt, or if it does, that the thigh or the shoulder or the foot is either neutral or is maybe even having a pleasant sensation. We are not running away from what is. We are expanding to include all of what is happening in this current moment, not just the difficult thing.

This is the same with current conditions. We notice unpleasant conditions, but being fully present with it allows us to also notice whatever pleasant or neutral things are occurring as well. Have you ever seen a child surrounded by toys, friends and loving parents, pouting or crying because of one little thing that isn’t to his or her liking? Have you ever seen news footage of a person in a desolate refugee camp commenting on some little thing in their experience that brings them joy? In both cases we can see that we all have choices in what we notice. This is not a Pollyanna prescription. No one’s saying ‘Look on the bright side’. We’re saying, in every moment, cultivate awareness and compassion, and look at ALL sides, or see beyond ‘sides’ and into the vast realm of being alive and awake in this moment. What a gift!

Activating all the senses and enjoying pleasant ones is a way of bringing balance into our current experience. Maybe that’s why there’s often engaging art in hospitals. It doesn’t take us away from the experience but it does offer balance. Yes, this is difficult but life itself is not inherently a horrible experience. Many hospitals also offer comfortable outdoor seating, so that sunshine and plants will bring us solace. This is not avoidance. This is balance.

So notice in any given moment all the sensations — sights, sounds, textures, temperature, energy level, tension, ease, pressure, twinges, aches, etc. — and see if you can simply stay present with the symphony of experience without getting caught up in wanting it to be different than it is.

This is not about fixing anything about ourselves or anything else. We are practicing a skill that has never been encouraged before, so it’s new and challenging. Any self-judgment simply creates more to notice, and more compassion and spaciousness for us to cultivate.