Perfecting Spiritual Balance

image credit: Ove Tøpfer

Original article A Perfect Balance by Gil Fronsdal & Sayadaw U Pandita in Tricycle magazine’s winter 2005 issue.

Finding balance within ourselves is a tricky business. Lean too far over into blame and you fall. Stand too rigidly in how things should be and you fall again. Practicing equanimity, practicing being right where we are and letting go of how, what if, and why let’s us embrace the moment to moment grace of equanimity. Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita explain how this is so.

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.
—Gil Fronsdal
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:

1 Balanced emotion toward all living things

The first and foremost is to have an equanimous attitude toward all living beings. These are your loved ones, including animals. We have a lot of attachment and desire associated with people we love, and also with our pets. Sometimes we can be what we call “crazy” about someone. This experience does not contribute to equanimity, which is a state of balance.

To prepare the ground for equanimity to arise, one should try to cultivate an attitude of nonattachment and equanimity toward the people and animals we love. As worldly people, it may be necessary to have a certain amount of attachment in relationships, but excessive attachment is destructive to us as well as to loved ones. We begin to worry too much over their welfare. Especially in retreat, we should try to put aside such excessive concern and worry for the welfare of our friends.

One reflection that can develop nonattachment is to regard all beings as the heirs of their own karma. People reap the rewards of good karma and suffer the consequences of unwholesome acts. They created this karma under their own volition, and no one can prevent their experiencing the consequences. On the ultimate level, there is nothing you or anybody else can do to save them. If you think in this way, you may worry less about your loved ones.

You can also gain equanimity about beings by reflecting on ultimate reality. Perhaps you can tell yourself that, ultimately speaking, there is only mind and matter. Where is that person you are so wildly in love with? There is only nama and rupa, mind and body, arising and passing away from moment to moment. Which moment are you in love with? You may be able to drive some sense into your heart this way.

One might worry that reflections like this could turn into unfeeling indifference and lead us to abandon a mate or a dear person. This is not the case. Equanimity is not insensitivity, indifference, or apathy. It is simply nonpreferential. Under its influence, one does not push aside the things one dislikes or grasp at the things one prefers. The mind rests in an attitude of balance and acceptance of things as they are. When equanimity, this factor of enlightenment, is present, one abandons both attachment to beings and dislike for them. The texts tell us that equanimity is the cause for the cleansing and purification of one who has deep tendencies toward lust or desire, which is the opposite of equanimity.

2 Balanced emotion toward inanimate things

The second way of developing this factor of enlightenment is to adopt an attitude of balance toward inanimate things: property, clothing, the latest fad on the market. Clothing, for example, will be ripped and stained someday. It will decay and perish because it is impermanent, like everything else. Furthermore, we do not even own it, not in the ultimate sense. Everything is non-self; there is no one to own anything. To develop balance and to cut down attachment, it is helpful to look at material things as transient. You might say to yourself, “I’m going to make use of this for a short time. It’s not going to last forever.”

People who get caught up in fads may be compelled to buy each new product that appears on the market. Once this gadget has been bought, another more sophisticated model will soon appear. Such persons throw away the old one and buy a new one. This behavior does not reflect equanimity.

3 Avoiding people who “go crazy”

The third method for developing equanimity as an enlightenment factor is avoiding the company of people who tend to be crazy about people and things. These people have a deep possessiveness. They cling to what they think belongs to them, both people and things. Some people find it difficult to see another person enjoying or using their property.

There is a case of an elder who had a great attachment to pets. It seems that in his monastery he bred a lot of dogs and cats. One day this elder came to my center in Rangoon to do a retreat. When he was meditating, he was practicing under favorable circumstances, but his practice was not very deep. Finally I had an idea and asked him if he had any pets in his monastery. He brightened up and said, “Oh yes, I have so many dogs and cats. Ever since I came here I’ve been thinking about whether they have enough food to eat and how they’re doing.” I asked him to forget about the animals and concentrate on meditation, and quite soon he was making good progress.

Please do not allow overattachment to loved ones, or even pets, to prevent you from attending meditation retreats that will allow you to deepen your practice and to develop equanimity as a factor of enlightenment.

4 Choosing friends who stay cool

As a fourth method of arousing upekkha, you should choose friends who have no great attachment to beings or possessions. This method of developing equanimity is simply the converse of the preceding one. In choosing such a friend, if you happen to pick the elder I described just now, it could be a bit of a problem.

5 Inclining the mind toward balance

The fifth and last cause for this factor of enlightenment to arise is constantly to incline your mind toward the cultivation of equanimity. When your mind is inclined in this way, it will not wander off to thoughts of your dogs and cats at home, or of your loved ones. It will only become more balanced and harmonious.

Equanimity is of tremendous importance both in the practice and in everyday life. Generally we get either swept away by pleasant and enticing objects, or worked up into a great state of agitation when confronted by unpleasant, undesirable objects. This wild alternation of contraries is nearly universal among human beings. When we lack the ability to stay balanced and unfaltering, we are easily swept into extremes of craving or aversion.

The scriptures say that when the mind indulges in sensual objects, it becomes agitated. This is the usual state of affairs in the world, as we can observe. In their quest for happiness, people mistake excitement of the mind for real happiness. They never have the chance to experience greater joy that comes with peace and tranquility.

From In this Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita, ©1991 by the Saddhamma Foundation. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications. www.wisdompubs.org

Seven Supports for Equanimity from Gil Fronsdal

One approach to developing equanimity is to cultivate the qualities of mind that support it. Here are seven supports for equanimity:

1 Integrity

When we live and act with integrity or virtue, we feel confident about our actions and words, which results in the equanimity of blamelessness. The ancient Buddhist texts speak of being able to go into any assembly of people and feel blameless.

2 Faith

While any kind of faith can provide equanimity, faith grounded in wisdom is especially powerful. The Pali word for faith, saddha, is also translated as “conviction” or confidence. If we have confidence, for example, in our ability to engage in a spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet its challenges with equanimity.

3 A well-developed mind

Much as we might develop physical strength, balance, and stability of the body in a gym, so too can we develop strength, balance, and stability of the mind. This is done through practices that cultivate calm, concentration, and mindfulness. When the mind is calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.

4 Well-being

In Buddhism, it’s considered appropriate and helpful to cultivate and enhance our well-being. It is all too easy to overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Even taking time to enjoy one’s tea or the sunset can be a training in letting in well-being.

5 Wisdom

Wisdom can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions, but remain balanced in our relationship with a person. Or we can understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them so personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising.

One of the most powerful ways to use wisdom to facilitate equanimity is to be mindful of when equanimity is absent. Honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance. Wisdom can also be an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present without the mind or heart contracting or resisting.

6 Insight

Insight is a deep seeing into the nature of things as they are. One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.

7 Freedom

Freedom comes when we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. We can get a taste of what this means by noticing areas in which we were once reactive but are no longer so. For example, some issues that upset us when we were teenagers prompt no reaction at all now that we are adults. In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.

The Buddha on Equanimity

As a solid mass of rock

Is not stirred by the wind,

So a sage is not moved

By praise and blame.

As a deep lake

Is clear and undisturbed,

So a sage becomes clear.

Upon hearing the Dharma

Virtuous people always let go.

They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires.

Touched by happiness and then by suffering,

The sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.

—Dhammapada 81-83
When a practitioner has discerned formations by attributing the three characteristics [non-self, impermanence, and suffering] to them and seeing them as empty in this way, he abandons both terror and delight, and becomes indifferent to them and neutral. The practitioner neither takes them as ”I” nor as “mine” and is like a person who has divorced a spouse [and in so doing become unaffected by the doings of the ex-spouse).

—Visuddhimagga 21.61
Equanimity is characterized as promoting neutrality toward all beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds [karma] thus:
“Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose [if not theirsl is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?” It succeeds when it makes resentment and approval subside, and it fails when it produces the equanimity of unknowing.

—Visuddhimagga 9.96

Rahula, develop meditation that is like the earth, for then agreeable and disagreeable sensory impressions will not take charge of your mind. Just as when people throw what is clean and unclean on the earth—feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood—the earth is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, agreeable and disagreeable sensory impressions will not take charge of you mind when you develop meditation like the earth.

—Majjhima-nikaya 62
Gil Fronsdal has trained in both the Soto Zen and Insight Meditation Society schools of Buddhism since 1975 and has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford University. Sayadaw U Pandita is the abbot of Panditarama Monastery and Meditation Center in Rangoon, Burma.

Speak Your Mind

*