Studying the words of Engaged Buddhists over recent years, it appears many agree that one of the most useful contributions Buddhism has to offer social action is the quality of equanimity. And yet, it seems to me, misunderstood equanimity poses one of the greatest obstacles Buddhism can put in the way of social engagement.
If you’ve done your Buddhism 101 you’ll know that, traditionally, equanimity plays an important part in Buddhist Dharma. Not only is it a quality we develop to support our on-going practice, but in some formulations of the path it occupies a position almost synonymous with the liberation often depicted as the goal of Buddhist training. It suggests a deep imperturbability which, like the depths of the ocean, maintains a profound calm, even as the waves on its surface swell and crash tumultuously.
But the traditional texts also slap some important public health warnings on equanimity. Loud and clear they caution: Do not mistake equanimity for indifference. Indifference, they say, is the “near enemy” of equanimity. Indifference might suggest some close similarities to equanimity, but as all good foragers know, it’s all too easy to pick something with a passing resemblance to a tasty and nourishing species — but that is in fact a poison.
The mistaken identity is a common error. But an indifferent, detached withdrawal, and lack of connection with the world, is not the equanimity the Dharma points us towards — it’s a toxic pretender, a near enemy. Yet even so, it offers an alluring surrogate.
The challenges of our times, with its economic and ecological irrationalities, social tensions and precarities, all too easily tip the balance in us towards tendencies to withdraw. It’s no wonder that disconnection entices us — and all the more so when, mistaking indifference for equanimity, we can use Buddhism to provide the rationalization that, rather than copping out, we’re actually gaining spiritual maturity!
Unless our equanimity grows out of a caring intimacy, deeply alive to the pulse of life, unless it holds within it a passionate and committed engagement with the suffering of the world, unless it’s illuminated by joyful appreciation, it’s not the equanimity the Dharma points us towards.
Turning towards the near enemy of equanimity is wide spread. It’s not only Buddhists who are seduced by the coping mechanisms of withdrawal. Donald Rothberg lists a range of contemporary forms of indifference, the state of the art of equanimity’s near enemies: denial, complacency, resignation, acquiescence, numbness, intellectual aloofness, rationalization, cynicism, dogmatism, fear of strong emotions, particularly anger. Sound familiar?
We’ve probably all heard smug reassurances that: the planet won’t actually be destroyed, or life will go on, only humanity will be wiped out — and that perhaps we deserve it anyway. But, how contorted we must become to feel reassured by abstractions that fall back on a mineral baseline, make irrelevant millions of years of evolving bio-diversity, and the actual scale of suffering a major die-off event implies. How often do we hear views that accommodate our predicament, which present themselves as grounded in maturity and wisdom, when in fact they’re merely ways of suppressing the heart.
Denial is one of the defining psychological constellations of our times. It plays out around us all day long, becoming increasingly integral to our lives and our socio-economic systems. Denial underpins the passionless mainstream discourse — which allows statistical analysis, but gives no room to heart-felt response. It fuels growth economies as we consume to avoid discomfort: Denial is good for business — in the short term! And shielded by unacknowledged privilege, denial leads to a terrible life-withering complacency and superficiality.
Indifference, compounding denial, is a grave danger. And yet, despite the perils of misidentification, equanimity still remains one of the most valuable qualities Buddhism can offer us in meeting the challenges of our times. In its authentic forms it offers a source of fearless compassion and incisive wisdom. But how can we learn to know its true character and not ingest its toxic look alikes?
The cultivation of equanimity sits within a four-fold practice, the practice of the four immeasurables, or Brahma-Viharas. There are three other qualities required to support the development of true equanimity in Buddhist terms: metta, karuna, and mudita.
Our training in equanimity begins with metta — or loving kindness, fostering a caring intimate connection with the pulse of life in oneself and in others — human and non-human. When this intimate caring is turned to face suffering in the world, it meets that quite naturally with karuna or compassion. And when we turn the intimate caring of metta to meet the happiness and wellbeing of others, it unfolds as mudita, or sympathetic joyful appreciation.
These three qualities augment each other. Metta offers the starting point of gently opening the heart. Compassion, turning this openness towards suffering in the world, protects metta from degrading into mere sentimentality and stirs us to action. The appreciative joy of mudita keeps us alive to the potential for freedom and flourishing in the world. It provides essential nourishment, feeding our efforts to alleviate suffering — so that we do not become overwhelmed.
Training to cultivate these three qualities is the groundwork which protects the development of equanimity from collapsing into its surrogate life-denying near enemies. Unless our equanimity grows out of a caring intimacy, deeply alive to the pulse of life, unless it holds within it a passionate and committed engagement with the suffering of the world, unless it’s illuminated by joyful appreciation, it’s not the equanimity the Dharma points us towards.
Rather than aloof detachment, equanimity is more like the capacity the Gitano-Flamenco tradition celebrates when it claims that our capacity to experience joy is only equal to our capacity to stay open to suffering. Equanimity is a deepening capability to stay open to the way things are, in all their heights and their depths. As equanimity grows our capacity for compassion and joy also grow. The deep calm of the ocean does not diminish the rise and fall of the waves on the surface. It adds a depth of context, but it doesn’t turn away.
Just one last thing: Damaging as they are, we can’t simply cast off denial, indifference, and the constellated range of heart closing tendencies. They serve us in a way. The near enemies of equanimity are also, in a sense, our near friends. It’s been said that “human kind can only bear so much reality”. Opening up to the way things are can be overwhelming. And our psyche applies strategies which protect us from that crushing power. Usefully opening up beyond those self-protecting strategies can only happen little by little.
What is so deeply valuable about an integrated training in the four immeasurables — metta, karuna, mudita, and equanimity — is that, not only does it protect equanimity from surrogate forms of denial, but the training actually provides the range of emotional skills required to tend with care and patience to the gradual process of growing beyond the old protective strategies, to recognise the fear and grief that lies beneath them, to nourish our heart and enable us to move gradually towards a more empowered and fearless commitment.
This article is transcribed from the ecodharma audio series, “Buddhist Reflections on Social Action” and is available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. It is gratefully reprinted with permission from Guhyapati, director of EcoDharma Centre, a dharma centre in Spain offering “radical ecology, radical dharma.”