developing upekkhā in meditation

Image: Standing Nyorai Buddha (Tathāgata), Wood, H 166.7, Heian period 9th century Japan

POSTCARD#426: Bangkok: For those of you who’ve been following Ajahn Sucitto’s text, “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods”, I had intended to finish with a conclusion here but I discovered still a few more treasures that had to be included.

All the pāramī acquire their full power only when they are grounded in the intimate attention of meditation. Simply speaking, meditation practice develops equanimity in two ways. The first is by steadying the energy of mind. This comes around through calm, mental unification whereby the process of focusing the mind on one theme unifies, smoothes and strengthens its energy. When the mind puts aside external sense contact, and the agitation and fascination that accompany it, the mind’s energy settles and unifies with the energy of the body. Such a mind can then enjoy its own vitality and extend its awareness more widely without losing centre. This is samādhi; and as it deepens, the mind’s composure and ease refines and steadies, leaving clarity and equanimity. This is called developing ‘mind’ – referring to the energy that trembles or tightens, rises up or radiates, dependent on perceptions and feelings.

So in meditation we get to know the energetic aspect of mind, and through developing and purifying it we can rest in that element rather than in all the comings and goings. Then one’s mind remains equanimous: it isn’t pulled out, pushed in or shaken about by events. And accordingly, the mind settles on this elemental ground; in the midst of the world, it still feels whole, healthy and well.

The second way in which meditation practice develops equanimity is through the intelligent and insightful capacity of the mind. This is an aspect of wisdom (pannā) called nāna: a penetrative knowing that knows, ‘This is a thought, this is a feeling, this is a mood. This is liking, this is disliking. This is remembering, this is losing it.’ Such discernment can be trained to be equanimous and unbiased; whilst being touched by thoughts, sensations and mind states, it can be trained not to flinch, fudge, congratulate or blame.

The more we have the capacity to receive and reflect on experience, the more we see it as caused (and therefore subject to dissolution), changeable, and not belonging to anyone. This insightful focus (vipassanā) sees experience in terms of the three gates to the Deathless: desirelessness, signlessness and selflessness. In a way, they all come down to the same thing, a corrected view of how we normally mark or perceive things. Without this corrected view, we unconsciously label things in terms of their desirability, that is their agreeable or disagreeable character. And so we try to get the agreeable and get away from the disagreeable. But in meditation you discover that you can’t get or get away from what arises. The more you want to have peace and stillness, the more agitated and uptight you get. The more you try to get rid of the stupid and ugly mind-moments, the more persistently they assail you. After a while you discover that the only real option is to pay close attention and adopt on-looking equanimity. Then the hot stuff starts to boil off, and as the peaceful intention of equanimity spreads over the mind, a natural inner stillness can be realized.

Deepening into the Signless Mind

Insight furthers this development by penetrating the perceptual process that labels or ‘signs’ everything. Perception is the activity of recognizing an object as something that is known. It is the manager of the tiny mental memos that label things: ‘This is dreadful, this is humorous, this is a threat, this is fantastic,’ and so on. But when we recognize that what we experience is impermanent and changing, then we see that all memory labels are not true in a final and lasting way. In other words, the signing of things as being always this way or that way changes with our moods, our perspectives and the context in which we experience them. So things are desirable dependent on our desire, not innately in themselves. For example, lively music is great when you’re dancing, but terrible when you’re trying to get to sleep. To focus on the impermanent, moment-at-a-time nature of the experience may not get you to sleep straight away, but its equanimity will quell the restlessness and irritation. Insight shifts the signs – to the realization of signlessness.

Sometimes perception, the sign-maker, gets quite frantic: say, in a situation where there’s conflict and the sign-maker wants to designate right and wrong. Then the need to be something gives rise to a need to take a stand and hold a position. This in turn causes us to form strong views; we favour and condemn people as good guys or bad guys. (And of course, we also do this to ourselves). In terms of events in the world, there is always somebody you can lampoon or vilify: the tyrant of the moment or the corrupt minister of the year. And then there are the ones you can cheer, the white knights. Then the next year, it turns around, and the white knights have been found to be flawed by self-interest so they become the villains.

This is the story of politics isn’t it? How the Western powers can seem to be liberating other countries from their tyrannical regimes — and are then revealed as being motivated by economic self-interest. And, how our allies are discovered as indulging in the same kind of corruption as our enemies. We focus on the sign of the good and ignore the other signs, or we do the same with the sign of the bad. But when discernment is equanimous we recognize that perception is affected by self-interest: ‘My people, my religion as against those others.’ Insight reveals the bias of self.

I was given a lesson in signlessness and selflessness whilst attending a sky burial in Tibet. In a sky burial, a corpse is laid out on the ground and slashed open to attract the vultures — who then descend in a flock to devour the flesh. The bones are then smashed to powder and scattered. It’s grim enough when described in words … but in real life, when one sees two or three freshly dead bodies tossed off a cart, there’s a perceptual shock — because the mind ‘signs’ the bodies as ‘people asleep.’ Then when the butchers start slashing them as if they were cutting up a side of beef … and when within a few minutes a flock of eager birds completely covers the bodies in a heaving mass … and then within a few minutes they are gone leaving only a scattered heap of bones … the signs of ‘person,’ (someone’s father or mother), ‘human body,’ ‘meat’ and ‘bones’ flash through the mind with emotional intensity and disappear. All that’s left is a sober and empty clarity.

Then you look at your own body and those of people around you: old, young, male, female, fat, thin. And you say, ‘Who is this?’ In itself a body is neither something nor nothing. But it certainly isn’t ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ And when we recognize that an object is not what we label it as, the labelling stops; there is signlessness and non-identification with that object. This also has a profound effect on the mental agent of making signs, that scurrying inner secretary who’s always handing us the name, the opinion — the sign. Busy isn’t it? But when all signs are seen as relative, and when compulsive self-interest is laid aside, then the secretary can take a break. With the sign-maker on holiday, we can get a taste of deep peace. This is called ‘not-making-it-that’ (atammayatā), the realization of the source of the mind. There is no identification, even with the knowing which is the last hideout of self-view. There is no inner need to know and describe anything — and yet there is clear awareness. This is the ceasing of ‘name’ that is synonymous with full Awakening. Equanimity, framed by other perfections and applied to the mind’s reflexes in meditation, keeps releasing the preferences that form our world. When the mind completely lets go, this is atammayatā – the deepest layer of awareness where there is no labelling and no intention. The mind’s energy is untroubled, and its discernment is clear but not making any signs. Deliverance of mind (ceto-vimutti) and deliverance of wisdom (pannā-vimutti) have combined. There’s no trembling to respond to or ward off, and there are no ideas to hold on to. A more fundamental property, the ‘Nibbāna-element,’ is realized.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī 2

There was the story of the Buddha-to-be sitting under the Bodhi tree and meeting, then repelling, the demons of Mara through calling the Earth to witness the vast store of perfections he had accumulated over past lives. Another description illustrates the part equanimity played in that. In this account (M. 36), the Buddha describes having three successive realizations:

1. His previous lives;

2. The nature of good, evil, and their consequences;

3. The ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering.

1. So first of all, with his mind ‘concentrated and attained to imperturbability,’ his focus widened to include a panorama of his many lives. How can we understand this? Imagine the one life that you can remember and contemplate the twists and turns of its drama: now exciting, now struggling, now a waste of time, now persevering, making  choices, feeling bad with a stroke of misfortune, and then feeling good with a lucky break … and so on. Can you do that without reacting, flinching or getting nostalgic? Can you stop the analyses and pondering, and get past being the victim or the star of the show? If you can keep going and witness all of it with equanimity, can you say this life is good or bad? Or isn’t it just what it is – and isn’t it a learning experience? That’s the first stage of wise equanimity. With that absence of final judgment the mind remains open, and the learning deepens.

2. The second realization of the Buddha-to-be was through the contemplation of all beings going through the ups and downs of their lives as he had done, and reaping the results of their actions. This was the realization of kamma – that any action, even mental, has consequences. This is the law of cause and effect. It is impersonal, and doesn’t apportion blame. The law of kamma says that acts, thoughts and speech lift you up to a bright state or drag you down to a dark state dependent on the ethical quality of the intention that initiates them. Intention chooses heaven, hell or somewhere in between – one moment at a time. And if you get past the reactions and the explanations, you get in touch with the mind’s intention. Then you can investigate and set the right course.

So the intention of equanimity creates an unbiased strength which gives you the chance to see more clearly. And to offer this strength to yourself or others is a precious gift. One time a friend of mine was cheating on his medical prescription and acquiring addictive drugs under false pretences. His wife knew of this and naturally was deeply concerned. But instead of criticising him, she just bided her time, and at the right moment coolly and caringly pointed out to him that what he was doing was going to bring him into deep trouble, in terms of a loss of self-respect, psychological wellbeing, and in terms of the law. But she made clear that the choice of action was up to him. Her unhurried tone and absence of drama and blame penetrated deeply, so with this encouragement to carefully consider cause and effect, he promptly changed his ways.

Equanimity then isn’t about being passive and not assessing actions. Instead, applied equanimity makes us feel less guilty, defensive and reactive. A natural sense of conscience can arise to guide us to what, in our heart of hearts, we know is right and makes sense. A heavy-handed approach merely closes the mind in defence, or sets off a counter reaction. On the other hand a passive approach, in which everything is okay and we suppress wise counsel and feedback, leaves us prey to our impulses and blind habits. The Buddha’s middle way takes in the knowledge of cause and effect while making intention, rather than self, the owner of action. So the Buddha’s teaching offers us calm and clear guidelines that respect our innate moral sense, rather than righteous rants that render us as infants with irredeemable corruptions.

3. However, it takes an unflinching and steady attention of ongoing equanimity to bear witness to all of our actions. So it’s a matter of unconditional self-acceptance: this is what you’ve been, and what you’ve done for good or for bad. No censoring, no justifications – just stay tuned in. Then the mind can operate outside of the continual enactments and parades of self-view. It deepens to see that what each of us experiences as ‘myself’ is actually the current of cause and effect, for good or bad. It is kamma, not blind destiny or a flawed self, that carries the mind along and creates a ‘personal’ history. The Buddha-to-be didn’t rest with that realization, but penetrated deeper. Giving up sorrow or elation about what he had now understood, his mind deepened to review the assumptions that support kamma: the seeking for happiness through gaining and getting rid of; the questing for security through acquiring a philosophical or religious view; the grip that holds the mind as an unchanging self; and the denial of not owning up to the day after day unsatisfactoriness of doing all this. As we have seen, these are the floods of sensuality, views, becoming and ignorance. As he penetrated past these biases, through seeing them for what they are, his mind released from all suffering and stress. This was the third realization.

Calling a fully-released person anything is a potentially confusing business, so he referred to himself as ‘Tathāgata’ (Gone Thus), although we generally use the easier word ‘Buddha’ (Awake; Fully-Knowing) as a designation. Not that he personally needed a title to take a stand on. He was pretty cool about  all that. For example, in the Brahmajāla Sutta (D.1) he advised the monks on how to respond when they hear others either disparaging the Buddha, or praising him. His comment was that whether the monks felt angry and displeased in the case of disparagement, or elated in the case of praise – ‘That would only be a hindrance for you.’ The correct response was simply to refer to the disparagement or the praise as either incorrect or well-grounded. There’s no need to defend or affirm a person; such an effort encourages views, identification and conflict. But it’s not as if there’s no assessment, and that it’s all the same; there definitely is assessment and a response. But the response comes from a mind that is equanimous around identity and allows discernment to speak clearly of actions and behaviour, not personality. Things are seen as ‘thus,’ ‘just so’; the ‘Gone Thus’ sees even truth as ‘thus’ without attachment. So equanimity is a deep humility that allows the mind to step out of adopting any identity, any view, any judgment. With evenness of mind the intentions of wisdom and relinquishment make the choice to abandon the cause of suffering, and kindness and compassion encourage others to do the same.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī

Photo: Locana Buddha, Tang Dynasty, 7th Century, China

Ajahn Sucitto’s presentation of the Ten Perfections [Pāramī] is coming to the end. Next week we will conclude with the Buddha’s three successive realizations: his previous lives; the nature of good, evil, and their consequences; and the ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering. In this chapter we look at the structure and nature of Upekkhā [equanimity]; a situation of suffering, conflict in the mind, resolved by inclusion rather than trying to analyse further or bring it to an end by some other means.

It could seem like a disappointment to find that the last of the pāramī, the highest, the best as far as perfections go, is equanimity, evenness of mind – where the mind refrains from delight and sorrow, ups and downs. This may not sound all transcending, but as a practice it’s deep, attentive and full. And if you consider it in the light of what the mind normally does, and how it’s motivated to get to the pleasant and the exciting, and to get away from pain, blame and loss – then you’ll probably acknowledge that to establish equanimity takes some doing.

The mind receives input in terms of perceptions and feelings that register experience as pleasant or unpleasant — which is natural enough. But then an undeveloped mind adds mental activities and programs of craving, aversion and self-interest on top of that. These are the latent proliferating tendencies (anusaya) that are embedded in the mind’s awareness and that take form as the mind rises into its activities. With these, our heart-capacity and vision shrink. We lose touch with the good fortune we have and of how much worse it could be; we forget and lose empathy for the misfortune of others; and we edit out all the ugly, smelly, rough and tedious aspects of our lives.

So our comfort zone is only a percentage of what is actually going on. The other stuff is on the other side of the border where, as soon as we touch into it, there’s a twitchy reflex, because the mind just can’t be with that fear, pain or inadequacy. And this weakness gets ignored. Instead we tend towards a mind-set that imagines the best, wants the best, and wants to be a winner. That’s the message of the society. And anything that can’t fit those criteria is second-rate, and to be excluded. Society in general tends to exclude the poor, the illiterate and the incapable. So we reject them; then we fear them; so we reject them some more. And that same kind of exclusive mind-set also turns on ourselves. No one is ever good enough, and no one can be good enough when regarded from the perspective of that critical mind-set.

If the mind gets anxious or stressed to the point where we can’t sleep, then crazy moods or suicidal instincts start coming up. And when you think of people who are dying, losing control of their bodies or becoming senile (which is likely to happen to many of us), it’s a disturbing prospect. When loved ones are losing what we know of their minds, losing the ability to form sentences or getting panicky and angry, when you witness human beings falling apart — it isn’t so easy to be philosophical about it all. But it’s through these and like contexts, through feeling the feelings and letting them move through you, that you get a chance to develop and know the value of equanimity.

Even-Minded Empathy

Cultivating equanimity as self-acceptance is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind. No need to struggle: ‘I can be with this.’

I like to define this process as having three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next. There will be a release – which might not be what you were expecting. However, through following that process, you begin to trust the effect of equanimous awareness. And that’s the real turning point. Because when you have the tools, you get eager to include your whole life as Dhamma practice. You want to see where you get itchy and defensive, and you’re on the look out for the tell-tale signs of fluster and contraction – because if you pay attention, widen, soften and include it all, the movement to Awakening continues.

As a perfection then, equanimity is an intention or ‘mental muscle’ rather than a feeling. It’s the big heart that can steadily hold feelings and perceptions in full awareness without getting rocked by them. And it strengthens into a mind state when it is supported by other pāramī. Equanimity allows a feeling to enter, be fully felt and pass. This is what makes it supremely useful: we don’t dismiss the world, but get a heart that’s big enough to embrace it. And with that there also comes the realization that the world — forms, feelings, perceptions, mental activities and even consciousness — is a passing thing that doesn’t own us. So there’s no need to run, and nothing to shut off. Equanimity then is the crucial firebreak that accompanies all the pāramī at that stage when resistance wells up. You know: the mind gets itchy about being patient, or mutters, ‘Why should I?’ about being generous, or whispers, ‘They don’t deserve it’ when cultivating mettā. With equanimity towards those floods, you don’t get caught and swept away by them. Instead this pāramī becomes your ground.

(Continued next week, 18 June 2021)

holistic kindness, metta part 4

POSTCARD#423: Bangkok: Excerpts from “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floodsby Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the link for Wiki Bio Ajahn Sucitto

Ajahn helps us discover and overcome difficulties in confronting negative self-views when clearing the ways that lead to holistic kindness. Also called loving-kindness, it is mettā in Pali, maitrī in Sanskrit; and synonyms for benevolence, friendliness, amity, good will. With the support of other pāramī; Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Patience, Truthfulness we can emerge from the negative overwhelm of self-view and experience this sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts – the divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra).

The ability to generate mettā depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.

Hence there’s a requirement to develop pāramī. Generosity and morality are foundations for fellow-feeling. And with renunciation, we practise letting go of the sense of covetousness and selfishness, the ‘me, me, me’ attitude. That, too, is a basis for kindness. With renunciation, we start to let go of the need to be successful or the need for status, and look into the props we use to support our self-image and emotional well-being, which include material things, stimulation, busyness, status and praise. When we start to let go of some of those props, then we notice the blank patches in the mind, where there’s a raw need to be stimulated, and we notice the consequent restlessness. These blank patches

indicate where we must begin filling our emotional body with well-being. The first three perfections — generosity, morality and renunciation — make well-being possible because when one is generous and virtuous, there is self-respect. Because of that good kamma, we have emotional brightness in which the mind can extend itself to other beings in empathic rather than grasping ways. Hence we get fuller and richer in ourselves and can let go of a few more props. As the fear and the need disappear, discernment gets clearer, and we can see where we need to work. This means we begin to recognize where fearful, self-defensive boundaries occur in our lives. Beyond these boundaries we collapse or get incoherent, and in maintaining them we contract or get volcanic. But with the pāramī, we see what affects us at the edge of our sense of self, and then we find the energy to work into that sensitive place.

Extending the mind into sensitive places takes us into the turbulence that the boundary has been created to contain. Often there are emotions and energies that have been pushed aside or repressed, and they lie dormant in the field of  consciousness, for as long as we keep busy or can control what’s going on. But outside of that — when things go wrong, or somebody or something pushes our buttons, or when we meditate — old senses of being intruded on or pushed around or rejected can get activated. Then what arises are generally forms of fear, grief or rage. Somebody has invaded our space; we have been denied or pushed out of warmth. There are of course personal versions of these stories, but those are the basic messages of the turbulence out of which need and depression, anxiety and resentment boil up. And with these, the first intention is of patience, then truthfulness, plus the resolve of kindness. Hold the centre, soften, widen, include it all. Sustaining these intentions — no matter what — leads to the settling and crossing over.

Patience is essential because sometimes it can take a long time staying at the edges before things shift. Truthfulness is required to acknowledge: ‘This turbulence, this sense of intimidation is not him, her, them or me. It’s actually that affect and response.’ So it is: often in our lives we find ourselves going through the same emotional scenarios and the same wounded, ‘dumped on’ experiences — just with different characters doing the dumping or irritating. First you assume, ‘It’s him or her.’ Then you might think ‘It’s me, it’s my weakness.’ But is this really true? You can spend ages attributing causes anywhere you choose along the self-other boundary, but that doesn’t release the pain. Instead you need the resolve to stay with it, to get to the truth behind the self-view. As

you let go of all the discriminations and positions, your mind widens to include it all. This is where the latent tendency that is holding the self-other boundary gets released.

Great Heart

As a Dhamma practice, we sustain and deepen the intent of kindness, irrespective of the various identities and shadow forms that arise in awareness. That’s enough. We establish clear awareness and sustain kindness in the moment where impressions occur and where responses arise. It’s not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion (karunā) and transpersonal wisdom. Karunā is the kindly eye on the helplessness of our suffering. When we experience this without blame or defence or struggle, compassion arises. And it arises irrespective of the identity or value of the wounded being. Compassion sweeps over judgments of others or ourselves. It knows how terrible it is for anything – even a mass murderer, tyrant, or poisonous snake – to be trapped in pain. When entering into this sphere of compassion, it is not a matter of doing anything, blaming or feeling sad about it, or wishing it were different. Instead, it is about entering that place where one touches the pain directly. Then, through staying in the hurt where the mind can’t do anything, has no remedies, ideas or

philosophies, it comes out of the position of ‘me.’ The small, localized state of mind opens out of the default self-and-other sense into the Great Heart. The non-doing of such a heart has powerful effects. Instead of trying to conjure it up (and feeling frustrated if ‘it doesn’t work,’ or ‘I’m not good enough’), we let the healing happen by itself. Then there is a sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts. Truly this is called a divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra). And through contemplating the selfless nature of

this abiding, the mind lets go — not only of ill-will, but also of the push of becoming and self-view. This is the shore of the Beyond.