We’ve been exploring the divine or sublime mental states that the Buddha taught about: universal goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We now come to the last of these, and one could wonder why a mental state that is not clearly on the happy side of the balance sheet is included. As every wise teacher says, we need balance with whatever is going on, positive or negative. It is very easy for us to rush headlong in the direction of either happiness or unhappiness, and lose perspective in the process. Unexciting as it may seem, the truest peace can be found in a balanced state of mind.
How can we recognize and develop this quality of equanimity in ourselves?
But you also have to realize that no matter how unlimited the scope of these positive emotions, their effect is going to run into limits. In other words, regardless of how strong your goodwill or compassion may be, there are bound to be people whose past actions are unskillful and who cannot or will not change their ways in the present. This is why you need equanimity as your reality check. When you encounter areas where you can’t be of help, you learn not to get upset. Think about the universality of the principle of karma: it applies to everyone regardless of whether you like them or not. That puts you in a position where you can see more clearly what can be changed, where you can be of help. In other words, equanimity isn’t a blanket acceptance of things as they are. It’s a tool for helping you to develop discernment as to which kinds of suffering you have to accept and which ones you don’t.
For example, someone in your family may be suffering from Alzheimer’s. If you get upset about the fact of the disease, you’re limiting your ability to be genuinely helpful. To be more effective, you have to use equanimity as a means of letting go of what you want to change and focusing more on what can be changed in the present.
The example Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses to illustrate the usefulness of equanimity could just as easily be mental illness or old age. In any given situation we know immediately what we do and don’t want to be true. We don’t want our loved ones to be ill or to suffer; we don’t want our comfortable lives to be disrupted. Once we recognize that, we can examine the situation realistically and try to figure out what IS happening and how we might help. Is there anything to be done to reduce the suffering (ours or someone else’s)? What I often say to friends who are in distress is that we can only choose from the available options.
More next time about how equanimity helps us understand ourselves and others realistically AND with goodwill and compassion.