Upekkhā: Equanimity, Insight, and Peace

Brahmaviharas Part 5

This week we are on the fourth and final of the Brahmaviharas – upekkhā or equanimity as it is unanimously translated as. Often treated by some as the pinnacle achievement of practice, equanimity is one of the most important factors to develop to support meditation that can lead to insight. It seems to be the natural outcome of the practice of the previous three Brahmaviharas, mettā, karuna, and upekkhā, and is a state of perfect equilibrium in the face of any sensory experience.

It is perhaps the quality that we associate most closely with the Buddha himself, as it is easy to imagine him dealing with every situation with serenity and poise, so it is unsurprising that we sometimes inadvertently put equanimity on a pedestal and treat it as a rarefied state. It is a little ironic that conversely in the wider world equanimity is often seen as a negative state, and trying to explain why it is something worth developing can be hard to explain to someone who doesn’t practice.

When you are a meditation practitioner, it can be easy to forget that in the ordinary world equanimity is not something most people get excited about. Obviously, equanimity is itself about not getting excited -the whole point of equanimity is to be unmoved by the vagaries of experience – but equanimity has a lot of negative baggage attached to it that we might have to work through before we can really open ourselves up to it.

It can be seen as a state of unresponsiveness, of indifference, of numbness or neutrality, and we can develop a real resistance to equanimity as being positive in any way. The story attributed to Jack Engler and the famous Indian laywoman meditation master Dipa Ma where he puzzled over why anyone would want to achieve equanimity is a perfect illustration of these ideas:

Jack Engler asked Dipa Ma about the place of fun in Buddhist practice. “This all sounds very gray,” he said. “Getting rid of the passion, getting rid of anger, getting rid of desire. It seems like a kind of gray existence. Where’s the juice?” [1]

The juice, Dipa Ma responds, is in the fact that once you can see past the mind states that cause passion, anger, and desire, life is actually a lot more flavourful, but it can be hard to be convinced by this until you have had a little taste of it yourself.

I think some of the problems and negative press that equanimity gets come from when we treat it as being a personality trait or as a personal quality we need to develop, which obscures its key role in meditation. When we reflect on equanimity as a personal quality, this can give it an air of being difficult to master or unobtainable. The suttas abound with instances where we find the Buddha’s disciples demonstrating their equanimity when faced with all kinds of difficult circumstances that we feel that we could never be at peace with without becoming completely indifferent and detached from our experience.

For instance in the Punna sutta where the Buddha questions one of his monks about how he will cope living with a rough, fierce tribe, the monk of the title, Punna, seems so able to accommodate any eventuality that his breeziness about facing violence and death seems so beyond what most of us are capable of that it is almost comical. Asking what he will do if they insult him, Punna says he will be grateful they aren’t hitting him with their fists. What if they hit you with their fists, asks the Buddha? I’ll be grateful they aren’t hitting me with stones, replies Punna. What if they hit you with stones? I’ll be grateful they aren’t hitting me with clubs. Punna continues in this same line finishing up by finding a reason to even still be grateful if the people of the tribe decide to kill him. [2]

The Simile of the Saw is one of the strongest expressions of this state of unimaginable equanimity:

Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. [3]

When you try to imagine yourself in the position of being totally unmoved by having your limbs sawn off, or responding to any kind of abuse, violence, or even death in good humour, it is unsurprising that equanimity seems like a remote achievement, beyond the reach of the average person, and that it must require some kind of shutting off from the world and reality.

In the same negative vein, equanimity frequently gets presented as something of a stolid quality, dry but necessary. It is the hard edge that keeps the other ‘soft’ Brahmaviharas functional by operating to balance the excesses of the previous three Brahmaviharas, providing some reason and judgement to what could otherwise descend into sentimentality. But in this way of thinking about equanimity, it also needs the previous three Brahmaviharas to keep it in check, because without their heart focus equanimity would sink to its lowest form, that of cold indifference. This seems to saddle equanimity with the reputation of being vital but untrustworthy.

In the same kind of schemes it gets relegated to being the element that prevents us from ‘taking sides’ and having favourites, and acting to purify the proceeding Brahmaviharas. I feel that these ways of looking at equanimity inadvertently reverse the directional relationship between the Brahmaviharas, making the first three mettā, karuna, and muditā the central ones, with upekkhā just there to prop them up, whereas actually equanimity appears to be the outcome of the maturing of the other Brahmaviharas.

There seems to be something of a fear hiding in our distrust of equanimity, a fear of who we will be if we stop chasing the highs of experience. We seem to imagine that without ‘the juice’ of life, we will be cold, dry, hard, and empty – and so will our lives.

The state of equanimity in meditation is one that is hard to sell if you try to describe it in plain terms – it is a state where you neither feel pain or pleasure. This sounds like an experiential vacuum, a void,  the very thing we seem to be afraid of, but the reality of the experience is nothing of the sort. It is a supremely peaceful state to be in, calm, stable, and completely centred, thoroughly pleasurable while at the same time being a completely different kind of pleasure to the kind we normally have.

To reach a state of equanimity we have to be prepared to let go of the ways of achieving pleasure that we currently have, and trust that there is something better. At some point we just have to jump in and try it.

Equanimity as a meditation state is a very peaceful and pleasant one, and this kind of wholesome pleasant experience is a crucial part of the practice. It provides us an alternative to worldly sensory pleasures which helps us to let go of chasing and clinging onto pleasant feelings, which in turn directly contributes to the reduction in our suffering.

Equanimity does seem to be a little bit different to the three previous Brahmaviharas though. Whereas each of those connected directly to the cultivation of one of the wholesome mind states – renunciation, good will, and harmlessness – equanimity seems to have no corresponding quality or mind state that it leads to. The outcome of equanimity practice on the face of it seems to simply be the development of equanimous mind states.

But we can make a bit more sense of this difference if we treat the previous three Brahmaviharas as essentially being practices that have a collective outcome of mind states of equanimity. With the practice of the other three Brahmaviharas under your belt, there really isn’t much left in the world for you to get bent out of shape about; you don’t have a problem with anyone or with yourself, you don’t want revenge on anyone, and you are content with whatever you have got, so the natural outcome of that is you respond to every situation with equanimity because you don’t need anything to be different.

Like all of the Brahmaviharas, individually and collectively, its principal use is in meditation, but like the other Brahmaviharas our understanding of how to use it in meditation suffers when we treat upekkhā as a personal quality or a personality trait that we need to develop.

It’s a curious thing that equanimity pops up on so many Buddhist lists, and that it is so often the final factor on  that list. As we already know it is the fourth and final of the Brahmaviharas, and it is also the final of the 7 Factors of Enlightenment. In the suttas it is often used to make reference to the 4th jhana, and it is the last of the 5 elements in 5 Factored Noble Concentration. It also makes its appearance as the last of the 10 Paramis, the Theravādan equivalent of the Paramittas. Its consistent appearance as the last factor in so many lists gives it the appearance that it is the actual goal of the practice.

This carries over into ideas that some people have that equanimity in meditation is the same as a state of pure, objectless awareness, or that it is making contact with the ‘deathless’, that it is like being in nibbana. This might not seem problematic, but if you treat equanimity as the final stage, when you get there you will do nothing to go any further – because where else is there to go? You will be very peaceful, that can’t be denied, your suffering will be on hold, and it is a wholesome mind state, but it is still a conditioned and fabricated state, which means at some point your equanimity will wear off and you will be back to suffering again.

It is clearly said in the suttas that equanimity is a conditioned state, and that means it cannot be the same as enlightenment, because enlightenment is an unconditioned state. In fact equanimity can act as a block to enlightenment if we inadvertently cling to it. In MN 106 Ānanda asks the Buddha if a practitioner who gains equanimity will also become enlightened. The Buddha replies that one practitioner might, and another might not. When further probed the Buddha explains that if a practitioner clings to equanimity because they enjoy it then they will not reach enlightenment, but if they don’t cling to it then they will be able to reach enlightenment. [4]

The Brahmaviharas are stated to be preparatory practices for absorption meditation, and the cultivation of them leads to first jhana. We can understand how this could be the case in very simple terms: the Brahmaviharas make you less reactive to sensory stimuli, therefore you are less likely to be distracted or follow a train of thought in meditation, meaning your mind will stay in one place longer, and therefore you will naturally reach a concentrated state of mind. Equanimity has a much clearer role in this than the other Brahmaviharas because it is obviously by its very nature a state of non-reactivity.

But the mechanics of how this non-reactivity contributes to our ability to meditate gets a bit of illumination in MN 152 where the Buddha talks about the difference between a trainee and a more accomplished meditator in their experiences of feelings. In this section a comparison is made between a trainee who hasn’t developed equanimity yet and an experienced practitioner:

And how are they a practicing trainee? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes, liking, disliking, and both liking and disliking come up in them. They are horrified, repelled, and disgusted by that. When they hear a sound … When they smell an odor … When they taste a flavor … When they feel a touch … When they know a thought with their mind, liking, disliking, and both liking and disliking come up in them. They are horrified, repelled, and disgusted by that. That’s how they are a practicing trainee.

And how are they a noble one with developed faculties? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes, liking, disliking, and both liking and disliking come up in them. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the unrepulsive in the repulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the repulsive in the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the unrepulsive in the repulsive and the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the repulsive in the unrepulsive and the repulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate staying equanimous, mindful and aware, rejecting both the repulsive and the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do. [5]

We could read this to suggest that equanimity in meditation serves an important function in allowing us to stay with our experiences and investigate them thoroughly. The experienced practitioner, unmoved by what they encounter, even has the space to delve so deeply into their experience that they can choose which features of it to focus on, the repulsive or the unrepulsive. This ability would clearly make a very large contribution to our ability to investigate phenomenon in a way that would support the arising of insight, simply because we would be able to investigate any subject without distress or discomfort.

When we reach equanimity in meditation, we are temporarily unreactive to feelings, both painful and pleasant. But this comes with a risk that we will mistake this wholesome state of equanimity for other states that also are free from pain. I would suggest that if we treat equanimity as a personal characteristic, or something we can just make a choice to do, and not as the outcome of the practice of the Brahmaviharas, then there is a risk that we don’t learn how to deal with or tolerate feelings of discomfort and aversion, and instead of equanimity we might be using avoidance and indifference instead without realising our mistake.

Denying or avoiding your experience clearly isn’t the same as equanimity. If you are equanimous about something then you have no reason to hide from it, you just deal with it as it is.

The practice of the previous three Brahmaviharas helps us to be open not just to our experience but to our selves too. Mettā takes away any meanness toward ourselves, compassion takes away any wish to do things that might be harmful or harsh to ourselves, and muditā takes away the discontent with ourselves. When we deny our experience, it is often because we dislike who we are and how we are reacting. Developing the practices of the three previous Brahmaviharas mean that we are much better equipped to face, accept, and tolerate any uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about ourselves that come up.

The impact that mistaking avoidance for equanimity can make is quite astounding, as shown in the incredible story Ajahn Thiradhammo tells about a time in his life where he was dealing with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Wondering how to deal with it, he said:

“I looked in a meditation manual which said that the antidote for worry was equanimity, so I thought, ‘I’ll just develop equanimity, then’ – and after a while I fell asleep. Actually, it wasn’t even sleep; it was just blanking out, it was unconsciousness, which became a real problem.” [6]

He asked his teacher for advice who said to just investigate that sleepiness, which he did. After two months of investigating he found that just before he lapsed into the sleep state, there was a moment of neutral feeling or emotional numbness, but the issue continued to happen:

“Then in the third month I noticed that before neutral feeling there was seemingly equanimity, but actually, looked at closer, it wasn’t equanimity at all; it was indifference, it was actually a turning off from experience. The indifference in this case was turning off from the worry, turning off from a disturbing experience and being indifferent to it; and then there was a numb feeling before there was unconsciousness. So in order to unravel the problem I had to go back to the source and stop creating indifference. Once I stopped developing indifference, the sleepiness stopped, but then all the worry came back! However, at least I was conscious.” [6]

This shows how important it is for us to not only fully understand what equanimity is and isn’t, but to have made the right preparations before we try to use it. Ajahn Thiradhammo just read it out of a book and tried it, he didn’t develop the other Brahmaviharas first, or speak to his teacher for instructions, and the result of that was he got it spectacularly wrong.

Ajahn Sucitto gives us a warning of how a wrong understanding of equanimity can lead us in the wrong direction:

“ True enough, the Pāli word upekkhā can mean ‘neutral’ in terms of feeling; it can give the impression that one is indifferent and doesn’t care — a nonchalant, laissez-faire attitude. But this is stupid equanimity: there’s nothing furthering in it. Nonchalance carries delusion that does not fully acknowledge the feeling or the consequence of mind states. It’s an escape in which one gets vague and fuzzy; it’s a defence, a not wanting to feel…”[7]

We need to be really switched on to recognise the difference between the lack of uncomfortable feeling caused by denial and the lack of reaction to an uncomfortable feeling that happens when it is met with a mind state of equanimity. When you are working from equanimity the source of the discomfort is still there, and it can be there as long as it likes – you don’t feel like you need to change anything, everything can be just as it is. But when you are working from denial, discomfort can’t be tolerated, the only state you are comfortable in is numbness – you can’t sit with the discomfort, you can only hide from it. It might feel like a similar state, but denial always has a thread of suffering woven into it, there is always some underlying lack of peace in it, a tension at having to be so guarded.

But we have to work through this and get to true equanimity because there is no experience that is quite like it, and we only fully understand what that means when we experience it for ourselves. True equanimity opens up the field of investigation for us and makes insight more possible.

One particularly important insight ties equanimity into the development of the Four Noble Truths, just as was seen in the previous  Brahmaviharas of compassion and muditā. It is perhaps not so obvious as the other two, but the third Noble Truth is that suffering can end, and when we reach a state of equanimity in meditation, we get a very direct – albeit temporary – experience of what it feels like when we don’t cling to or try to push away sensory experiences. In essence what we get is a brief glimpse of the end of suffering, and so the premise of the third Noble Truth is confirmed to us, as well as showing us that the cause of suffering, as pointed out in the second Noble Truth, is indeed clinging. With direct confirmation of this, we now have a reason to trust the fourth Noble Truth – that following the Noble Eightfold Path of practice will lead to the permanent end of suffering. So in this way we can see how the practices of the Brahmaviharas are intimately connected to engaging with, experiencing, understanding, and applying the teachings of the Four Noble Truths.

Negative and confusing ideas about what equanimity is for in Brahmavihara practice detract, I think, from its deserved position as the final Brahmavihara and its crucially important role in developing the kind of meditation that can eventually lead to insight and final liberation. Denial and emotional indifference can also masquerade as the untroubled state of equanimity, which I feel shows why it is so important to recognise why equanimity is presented as the fourth Brahmavihara, it needs us to follow the path of development set out by the order of the Brahmaviharas where each step supports and conditions the next.

From where I started some 5 weeks ago this study of the Brahmaviharas has taken me on an incredible journey, from thinking they were little more than a soft-centred wellbeing exercise to understanding the depths that their practice can lead to. Not only do they fulfil the training for Right Intention, and thus support the rest of the steps of the Eightfold Path, but they are intertwined with the direct experience of the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and allow us to investigate experience to reach the required insights to lead to awakening. For me now there is no question that the Brahmaviharas are any kind of secondary practice but instead a vital and very central one, one that pulls together the different strands of the teachings, combining ethics, meditation, and insight in one uplifting and liberating practice.

Image by confused_me from Pixabay

References

1.    Amy Schmidt. Dipa Ma: The life and legacy of a Buddhist master. Birmingham: Windhorse; 2005.

2.    Bhikkhu Sujato. Puṇṇasutta SN35.88. 04/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/sn35.88/en/sujato. Accessed 16 Aug 2021.

3.    Bhikkhu Sujato. Kakacūpamasutta MN21. 04/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn21/en/sujato. Accessed 17 Aug 2021.

4.    Bhikkhu Sujato. Āneñjasappāyasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato. 04/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn106/en/sujato##106. Accessed 16 Aug 2021.

5.    Bhikkhu Sujato. Indriyabhāvanāsutta MN152. 04/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn152/en/sujato##106. Accessed 16 Aug 2021.

6.    Ajahn Thiradhammo. Contemplations on the Seven Factors of Awakening: Aruna Publications; 2012. https://amaravati.org/dhamma-books/contemplations-on-the-seven-factors-of-awakening/

7.    Ajahn Sucitto. Paramis: Amaravati Publications; 2012. https://amaravati.org/dhamma-books/parami-ways-to-cross-lifes-floods/

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