One of the most skilful states of mind that one can attain is the state of equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to stay balanced and centred in the face of external events. I would like to explore the state of equanimity in this blog post.
I liken equanimity to a strong mountain, unmoving and unshaking in the midst of storms, or like a strong oak tree not being swayed by strong winds. In Buddhist teaching, equanimity is one of the four “Bramaviharas” (sublime attitudes), or the immeasurable states that are supposed to allow a person to enter the divine abode.
To really understand equanimity we firstly need to understand a number of truths about how our minds work. Our minds have developed a number of mechanisms that aid it in perpetuating the illusion of separateness. One of these mechanisms is “passing judgment.” We pass judgment on everything we can conceive or perceive, which leads to either clinging or aversion to things and events. We decide what we dislike and what we like. We spend our lives sliding between these two states that we have created for ourselves, while firmly believing that the feelings we have towards an object, person or event are inherent to that thing. This is an illusion, a trick our mind plays on us. The judgments that we pass on things are not inherent to those things. The judgments we pass are the mind’s way of creating a separate position for that thing in relation to itself. “This thing I like” (closer to me), “this thing I don’t like (further away from me). When we eat a chocolate cake, we may really enjoy the taste and get pleasure from eating it. Another person may eat the same cake and not like the taste. The person who enjoyed the taste will feel that the nice taste and pleasure he experienced from eating it is inherent to the cake, and the person who didn’t enjoy the cake will feel that the bad taste and disgust that he experienced is inherent to the cake. The truth is that neither is the case. Our judgments and feelings towards all things originate from us and not the things we are passing judgment on.
Another important thing we need to understand is cause and effect. Hindus and Buddhists call this Karma. In the western world, Karma is very misunderstood. Karma is not some sort of divine, universal system of justice; Karma simply means action. The concept of Karma teaches us that every action that we take bears its own specific fruits. These fruits are not inherently good or bad, they are just consequences of our actions. When we understand this correctly, we can really begin to see that our lives at the present moment could not be any different to what they are. Understanding this truth can be very liberating because it involves letting go of the need to try and control everything. This understanding will also give rise to mindfulness and being present in the moment, as we come to realise the importance of correct intention and correct action, and the fruits these intentions and actions produce.
When one can accept the current state they are in without passing judgment on it, when one can observe and be present in the midst of all things, people and events without labelling them as good or bad, this is what is called having an equanimous state of mind. So when things arise, we can be present and not approve or disapprove. If we can cultivate this state of mind, external events and thoughts cannot uproot us from the balanced position we have situated ourselves in. We become like the unmoving mountain in the midst of storms.
When I have talked about equanimity in the past with people, I have been asked the question, “how is being equanimous different to being indifferent?” I will let the monk Bhikkhu Bodhi reply to this (he uses the Buddhist term Upekkha to refer to equanimity):
“The real meaning of upekkha is equanimity, not indifference in the sense of unconcern for others. As a spiritual virtue, upekkha means equanimity in the face of the fluctuations of worldly fortune. It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one's fellow human beings. True equanimity is the pinnacle of the four social attitudes that the Buddhist texts call the 'divine abodes': boundless loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. The last does not override and negate the preceding three, but perfects and consummates them.”
The difference between equanimity and indifference is a very subtle one and can be clearly seen after a lot of internal contemplation. Indifference is rooted in fear, the fear of attaching and the fear of the consequences of attaching. Due to that fear one takes the attitude, “I don’t care.” Equanimity is different; it is the acceptance of the truth that we can remain in balance, not moved by fame and fortune, praise and criticism, pain and pleasure. We eliminate clinging and aversion. We are compassionate and care about the suffering of others but we accept the truth, that it is what it is.
All things that arise must eventually fall away; if we can truly see this and live this, then we can be balanced and in harmony with nature, ourselves and others.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!