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On Equanimity

“More, more, more" is a familiar refrain in Western society—more production, more economic growth, and, presumably, more security and happiness. This message is incessantly driven home by the many forms of modem electronic and print advertising that are designed to induce us to crave. In contemporary urban life, these voices of desire are everywhere. To simply observe them and try to assess the force of their impact upon each of us is in itself an interesting form of meditation.

The environmental movement in recent years has aptly demonstrated that "more" can often mean "more than we bargained for." We now sense that growth has its price, in terms of damage to the ecosystem and the suffering that will be faced by future generations as a result of our conduct. But we rarely assess the impact desire and craving have on our spiritual lives.

Buddhism provides many skillful means we can use to understand and respond to the present environmental crisis. One is the practice of equanimity—remaining calm in trying circumstances. In our age of inflamed desires, equanimity can serve as a "balm of clear water to pour on the roots of our afflictions," to use a verse from "The Ceremony for Beginning Anew." The importance of equanimity in Buddhist practice is suggested by its inclusion among the Seven Factors of Awakening and the Four Limitless Meditations:

1. Compassion, to remove suffering

2. Lovingkindness, to give joy

3. Joy, in the happiness and joy of others

4. Equanimity, with no calculation of gain or loss

The significance of equanimity is also very much in evidence in The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings. Three of the Eight Realizations directly address the subjects of desire and equanimity. Briefly stated, the Second Realization is "the awareness that more desire brings more suffering." The Third Realization is that "the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes impure actions to ever increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principal of having few desires. They live a simple life of peace in order to practice the way, and consider the realization of understanding as their only career." The Seventh Realization is that the five categories of desire—being wealthy, beautiful, ambitious, lazy, and finding pleasure in eating—lead to difficulties. In his commentary on the sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh observes:

"Knowing how to feel satisfied with few possessions destroys desire and greed. This means being content with material conditions that allow us to be healthy and strong enough to practice the Way. This is an effective way to cut through the net of passions and desires, attain a peaceful state of body and mind, have more time to help others, and be free to realize the highest goal: the development of concentration and understanding to attain realization. Knowing how to feel satisfied with few possessions helps us avoid becoming part of an economic system that exploits others, and it enables us to decrease our involvement in the pollution of the environment."

It could indeed be very helpful to cultivate equanimity in order to live wisely in our present age. We live in a time when mass culture is tirelessly attempting to convince us to do things regardless of the real consequences. If even a fraction of these messages plant seeds within us, we will do the most absurd things—buy things we don't need, work longer hours than is wise for us or our families, incur debt we can't hope to repay, and become so nervous in the process that we'll never be able to savor a moment of pleasure with our belongings, even if a few hours of "free" time were to present themselves.

Let us contemplate a life imbued with an appreciation for equanimity. If we can stop weighing, judging, attempting to measure profit and loss in terms of money, status, or pleasurable experiences ceaselessly in relation to our "Self”—aren't we "liberated" in a very tangible way? Could we at least attempt to stop, look, and find out? Ironically, we might be happier by living below our means and less self-centeredly. Those who choose to walk this path undoubtedly do less damage, with their footsteps, to our planet.

In his retreat with psychotherapists three years ago in Colorado, Thay demonstrated how deeply we can meditate upon equanimity. These insights can be developed into a profound understanding of our environmental crisis. He began with a description of the four mental formations that are characteristic of our sense of self. The first is the belief that there is an entity called a "self” that can exist independently. The second is the belief in the permanence of the self, on the one hand, or nihilism, on the other. The third is self-inflation or arrogance—the sense that you are more important than anyone or anything around you. The fourth is self-addiction, where all your activities are designed to advance or serve the self. Then, Thay suggested, "The insight that you get from meditation is to transform these types of mental formations within yourself so that you realize that everyone is equal and each thing is made of every other thing. This is true equanimity." The meditation on equanimity, with its deep exploration of the human role in relationship to its surroundings, can make significant contributions to the intelligent resolution of our current dilemma as a species.

Western thought is gradually achieving the same appreciation of the distinctly un-Western concept of equanimity. In his short story, entitled "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy tells a parable about a peasant named Pakhom, who aspired to own land. When a local noblewoman put her land up for sale, he borrowed from friends and family to acquire a small portion. He farmed well and discharged his debts, and "yet he was not happy."

So Pakhom became obsessed with acquiring more and better land, land which might somehow satisfy him. Yet the pattern repeated itself over and over. He would struggle to acquire more property, at the expense of his relationship with others, only to find each time that his new "allotment seemed to him altogether too small for his ambition"; and that the new farm "seemed to him rather narrow quarters." So when, one day, he learned about a far-away tribe known as the Bashkirs who were willing to sell vast tracts for very little money, he rushed off on the long journey. The Bashkir chief confirmed with a broad smile that his tribe felt it had too much land and would sell it at one price, 1,000 rubles a day. Pakhom did not understand this rather peculiar price structure, so the chieftain explained with a laugh that for 1,000 rubles Pakhom could own all that he could "go round in a day" on foot. There was, however, a stipulation—"If you don't come back within the day to the place from which you started, your money is lost."

Pakhom was so excited he could not sleep the night before the contest. He worried that the chieftain was only playing with him, and that there could be no such bargain. At dawn the next day, he was relieved to find the chieftain and his friends above on a local hilltop, looking over a broad expanse  of virgin land. Pakhom deposited his 1000 rubles on the ground within the chieftain's hat, and was reminded to return before sunset or lose everything. Pakhom took little heed. Despite intense heat, he pushed and pushed himself. Each time he thought of turning back, the sight of a new meadow or grove of trees whetted his appetite. When the sun began to sink, he finally turned back toward the chieftain. He was so tired he ached, but he would not stop and rest, out of fear that he would fall asleep. The sun was setting as he reached the base of the initial hilltop. He could see the Bashkirs waving to him, and the chieftain's foxskin cap on the ground, including the money in it. As the sun set, Pakhom "exerted his last energies" while watching the chieftain "laughing and holding his sides." Then he fell forward, reaching out his arms toward the cap. "Akh, brave lad!" the chieftain shouted. "You have got a good piece of land." Pakhom lay dead, and his servant dug a grave for him, just long enough—about seven feet—to bury him from head to foot.

Jack Lawlor
Evanston, Illinois

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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