During turbulent periods of crises, I find it really helpful to go to the heart of the teachings of the Buddhadharma. By remembering to bring forth the essential teachings as living experience, we will find the strength, resilience and even sometimes joy to face the world even when it seems to have gone completely mad.
The practice of the Four Immeasurable Qualities—Equanimity, Loving-Kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy— are common to all Buddhist traditions of practice. For our great tradition of Mahayana, they are the foundation for bringing forth all the sublime qualities of Bodhicitta, the heart and mind of Enlightenment.
Over the next few posts, I will use this opportunity that the current world situation presents to show how we can use these practices in order to transform our mind and heart.
What makes these qualities the basis of Bodhicitta or Enlightenment? It’s that they are limitless and immeasurable. So while the texts usually start with love, according to the pith instructions of our tradition, it is even better to start with Equanimity. It is by building on a foundation of Equanimity that our Love, Compassion and Joy will be truly immeasurable—without any limits.
When we are able to fully engage the world without bias then the power of our practice will be profoundly fruitful. Without bias doesn’t mean that we don’t see things as they are, it means that we don’t engage in thoughts like “this person deserves love and that person doesn’t.” We can still acknowledge that one person’s actions are harmful and another’s beneficial, we just don’t apply our practice based on how we perceive other people to be. So it is important to begin by establishing some basis of equanimity, then when we practice the other three Immeasurable Qualities, they won’t be so easily limited by our bias.
How to Practice Immeasurable Equanimity
First we need to get used to not reacting to our emotions. For example, anger isn’t such a big problem, unless you act out of anger. In my previous blog What Can We Do if We Really Start to Freak Out? (Part 3): Liberation Through Feeling, I explained a simple practice of feeling your panic, instead of the story of why you are panicked. This practice works for any emotion, instead of chasing the reasons, the story, for the anger, we should just feel the sensation of the anger in our body.
Here’s the practice from the previous blog, the example is panic, but it could be anything, even positive feelings of love or joy:
Sit quietly in meditative equipoise for a few minutes or Create Space.
Now, allow yourself to feel the panic, instead of just thinking about all the reasons to be panicked. Gently scan your body, starting from the top of your head down. Where in the body does the feeling of panic reside? When you locate it, you don’t need to push it away, just feel it. You can think of it as loving yourself so much that you allow for whatever is there, to be there. Instead of thinking of the reasons for feeling fearful, just feel the fear. When you place your attention on the feeling, instead of a story, it becomes a mere sensation, or you could call it an energy. Inside the panic is energy, the expression of our wisdom, our love, our intelligence. Within our awareness, all these things are there, confusion and wisdom. By placing your attention in a very specific way, you can uncover the wisdom that is the basis of even panic. All you have to do is feel the energy of panic in our body, rather than thinking about the story in your mind.
The point of this practice is to get used to accommodating whatever comes to mind, without trying to fix it, transform it, make it better or worse. Whatever comes, we just shift our attention to what it feels like in the body, instead of what we think about it. We give ourselves permission to be just however we are.
Liberating From the Power of the Story
Equanimity is how we can work through our own self-loathing, insecurity or sense of unworthiness. By just allowing that sensation to be how it is, without the story of unworthiness, that liberates you from the power of the story. It’s important to begin by creating space, that way, even if there’s a little story left, it’s just a little tiny story in infinite space. It can’t overwhelm or predominate, control or define you anymore. Again and again come back to space, and come back to allowing it to be how it is; feeling how you feel rather than the story. When you feel how you feel, it becomes mere energy, just a mere sensation. That moment is immeasurable equanimity. There is no boundary, just a mere sensation in a wide open, spacious situation. Equanimity arises as a natural consequence of the spacious open quality of wisdom.
Given our current situation, our emotions are all over the place. This practice is an invaluable way to work with the how things are. After you get used to just feeling the sensation of the emotion, rather than the story, you can try bringing to mind specific people. Think of someone you really love, visualize them sitting in front of you. Then, instead of the story about how much you love them, feel the sensation of love. Or you can practice with someone you really dislike or even hate. Just feel the sensation of aversion in the body rather than the story of how terrible they are. After a while of practicing like this you will go to the feeling more and more automatically, and that’s the key to a moment of immeasurable equanimity.
Equanimity Does Not Equal Indifference
Equanimity is not the same as a numb indifference. We aren’t running from feeling, quite the opposite. We are summoning the courage of total engagement with how we feel. At first this might seem frightening—fearing that the sensation will be too intense. But that is just another story, so feel where it is in the body that the sensation of fright or resistance is found. We aren’t accepting the story, our possibly quite distorted view of how things are. Instead, we are working directly with the dynamic energy of our mind, the radiance of our own wisdom nature. Of course the ego will resist this a little, since the practice threatens the basis of our ego based habitual way of relating to the world through stories. When you begin to touch the raw dynamic power of your mind, unmitigated by stories, it may feel strange at first. But after a while, just like when you learn to ride a bicycle, you will find your balance. That balance is equanimity.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at Immeasurable Loving-Kindness (metta).
The Relying on the Four Immeasurable Qualities During a Pandemic Series:
For another teaching on the Four Immeasurable Qualities, see Quotes from the King of Samādhi Sūtra.