Why is the practice of equanimity so hard?
I was trying to answer the question in my handout from the “One Year to Live” class which said: What attitude or state of mind do you wish to cultivate and live with daily? I jumped on this one, sure that I had a response worth pondering. Yes, I want to bring about steadiness of mind and equanimity as I travel through these last chapters of my life. It was clear to me as I began to reflect that this was not something that would just come to me in some grand insight and remain with me forever. No, it was something I had to turn my attention to every day as I faced a vast array of experiences. Of the four brahma viharas in Buddhism it is thought to be the hardest. It does all come back to love in the end, but that is a complex story…
So what is this challenging state of mind? It is the acceptance of the continual arising and passing away of phenomena, and these phenomena can be as small as a headache or as giant as the threat of nuclear annihilation. It could be facing a broken heart or being disappointed that your favorite eatery no longer serves clam chowder! Both joy and sadness are impermanent.
The longer I live the more I realize that I – and the rest of my fellow human beings – have little control over much of what occurs around us. Yes, we can smile at a passerby on the street, give a gift to a friend, or make a beautiful meal for our family, but in the end we cannot really change the trajectory of other people’s lives, and we cannot alter what they think or how they feel. It is hard enough to change some of our own thought patterns that are unhealthy, like obsessive self criticism or a phobia about riding in elevators, let alone trying to change someone else’s emotional or intellectual state. We can go to the polls and vote for candidates we approve of and whose values we share, but anyone who looks at the political narrative over recent decades knows that we often don’t see our own vision or dreams being fulfilled by those we have chosen.
Equanimity can be painful at times … when we see our values being trashed by those we trusted to take care of our society, when we wake up day after day feeling the weight of our life winding down, when we say we’re sorry to someone and know that the hurt still remains in their heart, when we face our occasional failure to live by our own values, when we look out at the ocean and feel the heart hurting for a very old loss, or when accept our physical limitations … The pain arises because we cannot act, we must allow it all, and because as humans we carry an innate inclination to make things better, to heal wounds, to bring a smile to a sad face.
When my youngest daughter was a little girl she used to remind me that I helped her bad dreams go away, and when she said this my heart went all warm and mushy and I felt she had paid me some ultimate tribute. I had the capacity to drive away the darkness. Or did I? I think I simply witnessed her fears and put my hands on her and the nightmares eventually floated off into space. There’s something fairytale-ish about this, and it reminds me of the profound burden of motherhood: the job we take on of making things better. And this is where love comes in. We hang in there with love, and often we can help the pain of another recede. But sometimes we can’t…
Our lives have become more complicated, we live in a fragmented, techno-driven culture where closeness and trust and intimacy are more and more of a challenge, and dishonesty and greed seem to be standard qualities that people manifest. This simple direct touching of one another with love and bringing about comfort seems harder and harder to come by. That doesn’t mean that we give up. We have to continue to extend ourselves with love and compassion, even as we sit with all that we cannot change and practice equanimity.
Because love is who we are. No matter what. And we can’t weather the storms ahead with out it.