A word I hear a lot, both inside and outside of Buddhism, is equanimity. Inside, it shows up in the teachings, perhaps most notably as upekkha, one of the four brahmaviharas, or “immeasurables.” Outside, I hear it as an assumption about Buddhism (or about meditation generally): “Oh, you’re Buddhist? That’s great. You must have a ton of equanimity.”
So, what is it? Often, it seems to be equated with a kind of imperturbability—imagine a scene of chaos, with a meditator in the middle, eyes closed, half smiling, totally calm. That visual in its many variations, from the Buddha himself to modern-day monks to posters for yoga classes, is pretty compelling. It suggests a kind of perfect composure, an inner something so solid that it can’t be affected or knocked off balance by what’s going on around it. I wouldn’t guess at what percentage of people new to Buddhism are looking for exactly that, but I bet it’s pretty high. Thirty years ago, that was me.
The problem with this vision of equanimity, of course, is that it seems to hinge on a kind of separation, a distance. It’s fragile. If it seems nothing can knock you down, well, that just means you haven’t been hit hard enough. And when you are, your equanimity—according to this definition—will be knocked out of you. Even if it looks calm and effortless, it requires that certain things don’t get in.
In traditional Buddhism, however, that’s not what equanimity, or upekkha, really is. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Equanimity is a posture of total inclusivity; it is the absence of in or out. For equanimity to be true equanimity—for it to be truly unshakeable—it can’t be in opposition to anything. So if I’m in the presence of suffering, my equanimity can’t be built on somehow not feeling it, or even feeling it less than those around me. If I’m surrounded by chaos, the foundation of my can’t be that the chaos stays just a hair’s-breadth away, never touching. In both of those scenarios, there’s a kind of bubble around me. And bubbles burst. Better, then, to start with a bubble that includes the suffering, that includes the chaos.
I sometimes think of this in terms of a boat on the water. It’s a beautiful image—boats aren’t actually resistant or in opposition to water, they’re just there, riding the waves. Spiritually, that feels like a pretty good goal: just ride the waves. But the point of a boat is actually separation, to keep certain things dry and above, away from the depths. That’s why boats can capsize—as much as they look like freedom, they don’t actually belong to the world they’re in, they just stay blissfully above it. There is something, though, that never capsizes, that never sinks, that never gets overtaken by a wave, and that’s water itself.
Another frame for this is pushing and pulling. In Buddhist terms, these are our two most basic actions: clinging and aversion. The things we like, we pull closer, and the things we don’t want, we push away—in every second of every day, in every breath, with every thought. Some people are better at it than others. Some do it more subtly, or with less effort. But that’s not the same as equanimity. That’s just a more skillful way of being in opposition with how things are in this moment.
Equanimity in the face of suffering means equanimity within suffering. It means that you see another person’s pain in yourself, and you see yourself in that person’s pain. It’s the same for joy, for chaos, for fear. It doesn’t mean you’re consumed, or that you feel it in the same way someone else does. But it does mean you’re not fighting it, not trying to create a reality that feels like this, or that doesn’t feel like that. It’s intimacy, a willingness to be present. It’s an agreement, with yourself, to include all of it, now and now and now.
I’m not saying this is easy. It’s not. But it’s available. We just have to let our guards down.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practioner’s Guide.