The Brahmaviharas, or the Four Immeasurables, are mind states, or feelings that we cultivate when we practice meditation.
Here I will discuss, the first or the last immeasurable (depending on who you ask); Equanimity, or Upekkha, as it’s called in the Pali language.
One way to look at Equanimity is as balance. Another way to describe it is an attitude of patience. And an awareness of impermanence (anicca, one of the Buddha's core teachings). Whatever is going on, good or bad, nice or not nice, it too will change. The ups and downs of life are a given, they are an inescapable part of what it means to be human.
Equanimity is also about seeing the bigger picture, assuming a bird’s eye’s view.
Let me tell you a story. Back in the day, there was a poor but wise farmer. He only had one horse and one son. One night the horse got out of the pen, and ran away. The next day all the villagers were bemoaning the farmer’s bad luck. Oh, that’s terrible. What bad luck. What a pity. And so on. The farmer simply went: Hmmm.
The next night though, the horse returned along with two other horses. So now the farmer had not one but three horses! The village choir now had a different tone; Oh, how lucky. What great fortune. And so on. The farmer simply went: Hmmm. That day the son of the farmer went for a ride on one of the new horses, but he fell off and broke his leg and ended up in the hospital.
The village choir was yet again bemoaning the farmer’s fate: That’s terrible. What a curse. Poor thing. And so on. Hmmm, the farmer said.
The next day it was announced that the country where they lived was now at war, and all the young healthy men of the village were drafted. But not the farmer’s son, because he was in the hospital with his broken leg.
The villagers went: That is so lucky. You get to keep your son around. Etc. And the farmer, as usual just went: Hmmm.
We’ve all had things happen to us that at the time seemed like the worst thing ever. For example, we're all old enough to have been dumped right? And that hurts as hell. When it happens we may feel that we'll never recover from the blow, that we'll be forever sad. And now, when we look back, we might think: good riddance, I’m so happy that I’m not with him/her/they anymore.
Or, let’s say something really ‘good’ happens. I’ve read stories of people winning the lottery and quickly realising that it actually was the worst thing that happened to them. All of a sudden everyone wanted something from them, and in accumulating so many material possessions upkeep got a lot harder. And taxes were a lot harder to file. Plus it was hard to tell who was a real friend and who wasn’t.
Every ‘pleasure’ contains the seed of pain. And in every paid there's the potential for pleasure.
For example, I love chocolate chip cookies. They are so delicious. But if I eat too many I feel really bad. Sugar isn’t good for me. It makes my skin break out and my belly bloated. And I’m not really supposed to have wheat.
It’s built into our nervous system to be drawn to (craving/attachment) to pleasure. And to avoid (push away, aversion) pain. It’s completely natural. And for thousands and thousands of years it has kept us humans alive.
But, in a sense, the practice is to see through this, and to some degree, override it.
Again, we will not banish highs and lows from our lives, but we can rid ourselves of some of the turmoil around them.
Victor Frankl (writer and holocaust survivor) said:
In between the stimulus and the response, there’s a space, and that space is your power and your freedom.
So when we sit down to (formally) practice, we try to remain equanimous. We will surely experience discomfort in the body and discomfort in the mind. Our back might ache, we may feel tightness in the chest. We may feel bored. Or restless. A sad memory might float by in the sky of our mind.
Can we then try to find that space, that Frankl spoke about, before we react. Before we try to push it away, or make a story about it?
Can we find the space of awareness? Which isn't changed by an ache or a pleasant tingle.
All the Brahmaviharas actually naturally arise when we practice. Again and again we plug back into that space, to awareness. To just being. That space can hold it all, the 'good' and the 'bad.' In some sense, it's all the same.
Photo by Isak Petterson via UNSPLASH