From this past year, What do you want to embrace and extended tenderness toward in yourself? What in your life do you want to let go of? What do you want to move toward?
In a recent Karuna Training online class, we shared a contemplative circumambulation of the calendar year from March 2020 to March 2021 to help us feel what we are holding now as we prepare to move back into what we might think of as more normal lives. Near the end of the contemplation, I asked, “What do you want to embrace or extend tenderness to? What do you want to let go of? What do you want to move toward?” In discussion later, people reported that they experienced brain fog and numbing out at the calendar year review. Others noticed increased tension, others recalled many shocks and painful jolts, and others reflected on the wake-up calls inspiring action or change. Today as I look out in my neighborhood and read the news, I see a kind of mania as we burst out into space. For myself, I wonder, how will I incorporate the experience and lessons of the past year? How can what I’ve been through better prepare me for what may be coming next personally, culturally, and globally?
Life out of Balance, Finding Equanimity
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the 1982 documentary film Koyaanisqatsi which takes its title from the Hopi word meaning "life out of balance." It has vivid images of how we’ve grown apart from nature, and it moves from still landscapes to busy cities with an unforgettable and often relentless musical score by Philip Glass. I also think of the recent film Nomadland which shows how so many of us have been disenfranchised from our birthright of belonging in a community with sufficiency on planet earth. I wonder for myself, after this (maybe) once in a lifetime year, will I now fall back into my previous out-of-balance ways, lurching into to-do lists and activities? Or will I spring forward reborn? I don’t want to go back, and I’m not confident I can spring forward either. How about you?
Karuna Training draws on Buddhist wisdom and the contemplative path of meditation as a foundation for cultivating an awakened heart and compassionate action toward ourselves and others. A central part of Buddhism is the four Brahmaviharas, also called the four limitless ones, the qualities of equanimity, love, compassion, and joy. Each of these is an active force and everyday practice, but equanimity might be particularly helpful to cultivate in our current circumstances.
Equanimity is about not losing our balance no matter what happens. It is often described as the mental calmness cultivated by making friends with our mind’s ups and downs through meditation. People often think of equanimity as having a poker face or a kind of evenness mask, but actually, it is learning to attune to life’s continual changes subtly.
Part 1: Equanimity is having an open and unbiased attitude toward life
Equanimity is sometimes described as the foundation for the other three limitless ones; cultivating the ease of equanimity can bring out the full-heartedness of love, the tenderness of compassion, and the radiance of joy. With equanimity, we take an open and unbiased attitude toward life. A kind of equality of mentality. Chogyam Trungpa called this attitude of equanimity the art of non-aggression, starting to see where we put up barriers between us and reality. It’s stopping and seeing what’s happening instead of what we think should happen based on our hopes and fears, past experiences, and projections. It’s not complacency or passivity but learning to see what’s going on, notice our responses, and move from there. This experience often comes to us vividly when it seems like time stops, for example, in birth and death situations. This same attitude can permeate our lives. In meditation, we become oh so familiar with the places our minds tend to go and have the opportunity to gently recognize these places and come back to being open and available to the present moment again and again.
Part 2: Equanimity is riding the waves of our experience
Sounds easier said than done, yes? Continually there are the traps of reactions like “Oh no, not this again!” toward ourselves, others, and situations and a sequence of falling into a rabbit hole of anger, passion, and compulsions, or ignoring and Netflix, whatever your particular poison is, or a combination. For example, I took jazz singing lessons for a while and had a habit of stopping in the middle of a song and yelling at myself, full of self-doubt and critique. At a certain point, my teacher took a stuffed lion that belonged to his daughter off a shelf and said, “Sandra, this is your inner critic; it will always be here. When this comes up in your mind, you can look to the lion and say, “Hi critic, I know you’re here, but I’m going to keep singing.” In other words, there’s more going on than these habitual reactions; we can begin to recognize and make friends with them, and this way, they can loosen their grip, and we have more choices. There can be multiple layers of feeling to recognize, honor, and relate to. At a certain point, “Oh no, not this again!” can be helpful.
In Buddhism, it is said that our enemies are our teachers. When you look back over your life, you might see that your various foils have played a pivotal role in helping you to make essential changes in your life. We can all see how we get hooked on patterns of behavior, caught on the roller coaster of normal reactions, of likes and dislikes, and that we have continual opportunities to learn and change. Spring forward, fall back. I’ve been here before; I know this ground, this reaction, this fear, this pattern. I can keep sensing and moving forward.
Part 3: Joyful equanimity is appreciating the spiral of our lives
I have the good fortune to live near redwood groves in Northern California. The giant sequoia can live to 2,000 years old, most between 500 to 1,000 years. Sometimes you’ll see a fallen tree with the tree’s rings exposed. Each ring around the heart of the tree represents another year of its life. I remember a forest ranger showing how you can see fires, droughts, rainy winters, and climate change in the tree’s rings, the variance from year to year, but yet the trees stood strong and stable through all of it.
We, too, can stand strong with equanimity, like the redwoods year after year, to come into balance with ourselves and whatever may be coming next. Not only that, but it is said that we can meet life with joyful equanimity and a sense of humor and celebration. It’s why comedy and tragedy are paired in the human experience. Even the harshest and most cruel situations of life, and pain such as we are experiencing now, the harsh falling back, can bring us together and help us spring forward into another go-round of another year.