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.

2 thoughts on “developing upekkhā in meditation

    • Thank you Eric, it’s in the process of finding the best way of presenting and sharing this information that I often discover a greater understanding of what it means. This motivates me to continue with the text.

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