Equanimity means stability or composure, an evenness of mind and attitude. In the Buddhist sense, this means an imperturbable vision in which nothing stands out, all phenomena being regarded as literally equal. No phenomena distinguishes itself from any other. There are no extremes. One dwells in the vast depths of the ocean of phenomena, undisturbed by the turbulence of the surface. In the absolute sense, equanimity is thus another way of referring to true nature, as it is the quality of Buddha nature that is the capacity to remain in such perfect repose.
Such an infinite and sustained evenness implies a profound freedom. We think of it as freedom from the essence of samsaric existence, the continuous flowing into our selves, the core of the Second Noble Truth, the perpetual attachment to and search for what is ultimately a superficial and illusory happiness. In equanimity, authentic happiness resides in the freedom from the search, though not in separation from the reality of the search or from other beings consumed by it. If I cannot be ruffled by the routine zigs and zags that life takes, even and especially by the extremes (old age, sickness and death) that we can all expect sooner or later, I have achieved some grace, have I not?
Equanimity might be mistaken as dullness or vacuity, a smoothing over, even a suppression of natural human response. But no, authentic equanimity is not a flattening of responsiveness. Neither is it a dulling of perception. Quite the opposite. It is based on a heightened awareness of the forces and beliefs luring the mind away from balance, yet remaining in unity with all.
Each of us lives in a personal world of relative equanimity, a continuously fluctuating continuum. We ourselves and everyone we know or will ever encounter, in their own way, is moving back and forth on that continuum and, we hope, generally toward greater equanimity. That may seem a bold statement. And it is surely slow process. But even the most tortured among us have some awareness of their own suffering and are likely making whatever progress they can manage toward being less driven by their emotions, which is not to say they are becoming more effective in repression, but rather more effective in looking beneath to the essence of disruptive mental habits.
Some days we are able to maintain both engagement and a bemused balance of mind. On others, we’re deer in the headlights–engagement and balance completely escape us. We are well aware of our own flaws, the times when stress is overwhelming, when anger or sadness, helplessness or loneliness burst forth either without considering the consequences or even despite having considered them. These are moments of reverting to the attachment to self and misunderstanding the origins of thoughts. At such moments, authentic (absolute) equanimity, the infinitely even quality of awakened mind, is nothing more than a distant dream.
The implication of true equanimity, the absolute state (Brahman), is that the effects of ego have been quieted. If there is an “I” which can be differentiated from others, then the inner experience of “I,” the super Disney E-ride emotional roller coaster will always be drawing us into differentiation of experience into extremes of good and bad. As the Four Immeasurables prayer says, ” May all beings be free of attraction, aversion and partiality and rest in great equanimity.”
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says in Courtland Dahl’s Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, “What would you do if there was no you? If there were no ‘you’ and no ‘I,’ then just imagine, what would become of passion? What would you do with it?”
On one level, he is asking what would become of the inborn tendency to make judgments, the relative passion of falling into partiality and attachment, deciding something is good or bad and wanting it to change. He goes on to remind us that emotions, in essence, are not other than emptiness. True equanimity is being able to recognize and observe emotion without being drawn into the drama. This does not mean we can deny emotions or act as if they are not real. Equanimity is the refined capacity to experience emotion fully and to transform it into its true nature.
The Latin origin of the word passion is passio, “to suffer.” The crudest form of passion, deeply rooted in illusion of the separate self, accompanied by only a rudimentary capacity for equanimity, does indeed imply great suffering. The self-oriented kind of passion that thrives on confrontation, competition, the zero-sum passion, is never fully satisfying because the outcome will always be temporary and superficial.
To paraphrase Dzongsar Khyentse further, we might regard the relative form of passion as the opposite of equanimity. It involves fabrication, like constructing ornaments on the original tree of an emotion. Such adornments quickly become a personal agenda, which doesn’t coexist well with equanimity.
But what of inspiration, the passion to benefit beings? What of the generous impulse to contribute to a better world? What happens to passion as the capacity for equanimity grows and matures? Does it disappear? Or does it transform into love, into com-passion, the motivation to benefit others? The com-passion seeking definition here, derived from the latin “to suffer with,” is what arises with authentic equanimity. It is not the passion of attachment and fabrication of the self; it is the dawning of wisdom. That is an altogether different quality of passion than how we would normally think of it, a passion that is not grounded in attachment.
How do we know the difference?
There is clearly such a thing as relative equanimity, just as there is relative compassion or relative bodhicitta. This is conditioned equanimity, still subject to cause, still residing in a dualistic frame. Duality has not been dissolved. A personal agenda coexists with this version of equanimity. It is still possible to alleviate suffering effectively because we are cultivating a capacity to respond to immediate conditions with grace instead of with grasping, with selfless generosity instead of aversion.
While we experience the temporary bliss of relative equanimity, the accompanying relative compassion can indeed be very effective…temporarily. If we aren’t checking and noticing our personal agenda and how it is intruding, then the outcome of our efforts will likely descend into exhaustion, confusion and disappointment.
This is how Narayan Helen Liebenson ( a teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center) spoke recently:
Ultimately, we are trying to cultivate a passion for life rather than for the things of life, a passion that expands our heart and our sense of what is possible in this world. This kind of passion is love, not just for a select few, but for all. In this way, [com]passion and equanimity come together in love and in wisdom.
As equanimity grows, so also does wisdom. As strong motivation (passion) becomes less oriented to the solitary self and more so to the collective, so compassion grows. And along with that, service. Cultivating equanimity increases our capacity to love in a more universal way. We make a transition from “me” to “we”. Our passion for our selves opens to an active loving passion for the benefit of all.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche said it well:
You can be open and love someone and not be attached. One might call it passionate, but it is open—and that is what makes the difference between love [passionate service] that benefits and love that causes us to suffer. Our equanimity comes from open awareness itself. Each time you let go of your attachment, you reconnect with open awareness. This is what is known as the path.