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Upekkha mystifies me. I’m really drawn to it as a state of being, and yet I’ve no idea how to describe it. I think it’s because I’ve lived most of my life bound by its near and far enemies of neutrality and indifference, and I want nothing more than to feel deeply with all beings. To imbibe equanimity is to be permeated by love, by compassion and by joy fully and wholeheartedly, without wavering, without shying away, without averting or hiding.
I remember my first strong reaction to things not going the way I would have liked. I was about 10 years old, living in a neighborhood where I would ride my bike up to the corner store to meet my very first ‘best’ friend. We’d roam around the quiet streets for hours having all sorts of adventures. One afternoon, my parents told me we’d be moving to the next state over. It was my third or fourth move as a young child, and the first time I really felt and understood the impact of losing all that I’ve come to love and trust. I stood in the dirt parking lot of the corner store, clutching my bike handles and crying for what seemed like eternity. I promised that I’d never let myself get close to anyone again. I didn’t want friendships if it meant this much pain when they were no longer possible.
A part of me closed down that day.
I was a kid who moved a lot. Every couple of years we’d move across state borders and I’d start at a new school, not knowing anyone, and doing my best to blend in. By the time I finished high school (12th grade) I would have moved four more times. I became a bit hardened to the process, letting my feelings of sadness and loss be well concealed. As a young adult I continued that trend. Moving house became a habit that helped me feel more in control of my losses, not only to control them, but seemingly avoid them all together. When one has boxes to pack and furniture to tend to, one doesn’t have time for feeling things!
By the time I was thirty I counted that I had moved house thirty-two times.
By then I’d encountered the Triratna Buddhist Community and started meditating, studying the Dharma and developing spiritual friendships. I viewed myself as even-keeled, not overly reactive and fairly objective - Buddhism fit me like a glove! Or did it?
A spiritual friend once shared she thought of me like a chameleon - easily blending into my surroundings. At first I quickly rejected this idea! But over time, with reflection, I could see how this was true. I had developed a seemingly fool-proof strategy to stay hidden and protected from pain inflicted on me by others. With it came a distinct numbing out to my experiences. My mentor’s suggestion was to move towards ever greater wholeheartedness with all that I did. To do so, I needed to know my heart! I created a mantra of repeatedly asking myself, ‘what do I feel, what do I think?’
What I came to discover was that I was really cut off from my feelings. My seemingly laid-back, even-keeled attitude was at best a dull neutrality, at worse, active indifference. Where had I seen that? Ah, yes, the near enemies of upekkha! If the near enemies were present, then access to the divine realm of upekkha must be near as well.
Within the spiritual community that I’d grown to love and trust, I slowly started softening those walls. As clarity dawned on the nature of experience, I learned to meet that with love and kindness, towards myself, towards others, towards all beings. A key place for this transformation was on a Brahma Viharas retreat with Ratnavandana back in 2002.
I showed up in a pretty fragile state having just come from a two year fairly difficult and challenging situation. I was stuck in a state of anger and blaming a particular person for my unhappiness. Not feeling particularly ‘spiritual’ in my negative state of mind, and recognizing it as one that went right back to that 10-year old me, screaming into the abyss between my bicycle handles - this was not how I want things to be!
I learned on that retreat that in order to truly transform oneself and dwell in the Brahma Viharas, one needs to start where they are. I needed to acknowledge, own and feel the anger (and underlying sadness, disappointment, sense of failure, distrust, all of it), take responsibility for any unskillfulness on my part, meet the tender bits of myself with kindness and see that freedom from suffering was possible. Here I was in these beautiful retreat surroundings, immersed in the mythic dimension, engaged with these amazing meditation practices, being with beautiful people, and now turning towards with a great deal of loss and disappointment with wholehearted engagement. And with this, the arising of equanimity.
Ratnavandana describes equanimity as having a mysterious quality. It’s that something happens in your experience and you’ve just opened out into this space that somehow just allows whatever’s happening to happen, without pushing it away, just being with it in this open space, which is such a freeing experience. I think of it like riding a bike. In the words of Albert Einstein, “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.”
To allow myself to become unstuck, to allow emotions and thoughts to move freely, to recognize what’s helpful and what’s helpful, to cultivate the good, and meet whatever arises in the world with wholehearted engaged kindness, this is my path to equanimity.
Listen to Ratnavandana’s personal take on Upekkha
Guided Upekkha Bhavana