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Cultivating equanimity with Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita
Equanimity, one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice, is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”
The English word “equanimity” translates two separate Pali words used by the Buddha, upekkha and tatramajjhattata. Upekkha, the more common term, means “to look over” and refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation—the ability to see without being caught by what we see. When well developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace.
Upekkha can also refer to the spaciousness that comes from seeing a bigger picture. Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean “to see with patience.” We might understand this as “seeing with understanding.” For example, when we know not to take offensive words personally, we are less likely to react to what was said. And by not reacting there is greater possibility to respond from wisdom and compassion. This form of equanimity is sometimes compared to grandmotherly love. The grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren but, thanks to her experience with her own children, is less likely to be caught up in the drama of the grandchildren’s lives.
Still more qualities of equanimity are revealed by the term tatramajjhattata, a long compound made of simple Pali words. Tatra, meaning “there,” sometimes refers to “all these things.” Majjha means “middle,” and tata means “to stand or to pose.” Put together, the word becomes “to stand in the middle of all this.” As a form of equanimity, this “being in the middle” refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This form of balance comes from some inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds (see “Seven Supports for Equanimity,”). As inner strength develops, for example, from the accumulation of mindfulness in the ordinary moments of life, equanimity follows.
Equanimity is a protection from what are called the Eight Worldly Winds: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively elated with success, praise, fame, or pleasure can be a setup for suffering when the winds of change shift. For example, success can be wonderful, but if it leads to arrogance, we have more to lose in future challenges. Becoming personally invested in praise can tend toward conceit. Identifying with failure, we may feel incompetent or inadequate. Reacting to pain, we may become discouraged. If we understand or feel that our sense of inner well-being is independent of the Eight Winds, we are more likely to remain on an even keel in their midst.
A simple definition of “equanimity,” considering the various Pali roots, is the capacity to not be caught up with what happens to us. We can practice with equanimity by studying the ways that we get caught. Instead of pursuing the ideal of balance and nonreactivity directly, we can give careful attention to how balance is lost and how reactivity is triggered. Trying to fit into some idealistic model of what being equanimous is supposed to look like can all too easily produce such threats to equanimity as indifference, aloofness, rigidity, or complacency. But when the obstacles are understood and removed, then the resulting equanimity can be the foundation for caring, presence, flexibility and diligence.
U Pandita on Developing Equanimity
According to the Buddha, the way to bring about equanimity is wise attention: to be continually mindful from moment to moment, without a break, based on the intention to develop equanimity. One moment of equanimity causes a succeeding moment of equanimity to arise. Once equanimity is activated, it will be the cause for equanimity to continue and to deepen. It can bring one to deep levels of practice beyond the insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena.
Equanimity does not arise easily in the minds of beginning yogis. Though these yogis may be diligent in trying to be mindful from moment to moment, equanimity comes and goes. The mind will be well-balanced for a little while and then it will go off again. Step by step, equanimity is strengthened. The intervals when it is present grow more prolonged and frequent. Eventually, equanimity becomes strong enough to qualify as a factor of enlightenment. Along with this practice of wise attention, here are five more ways to develop equanimity: