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.
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)