No matter how long we’ve been in the habit of protecting and armoring ourselves, it’s always possible for people like you and me to dissolve the barriers of fear and confusion and open our hearts.
It’s like we are standing at a crossroads—the choice is ours. We can spend our lives circling familiar ground, deepening habits of aggression and craving, sowing the seeds of suffering, or we can summon the courage to step off the well-worn path of our habits and begin sowing the seeds of love, compassion, and well-being.
In the Mahayana tradition we are encouraged to arouse bodhichitta, the heart of awakening, as the fuel for our journey. Bodhichitta is the wholehearted commitment to free ourselves from the suffering of ignorance and destructive habitual patterns so we can help others do the same. And not just some others—all others. The practice of compassion has to be unconditional and unbiased; it needs to include those we fear or loathe, as well as those we may never meet. It doesn’t work to be selective. As long as we are picking and choosing who is worthy and who is not, we remain trapped by the very self-centeredness that prevents the growth of real compassion.
The trick is that if we want to generate love and compassion for all without exception, we need to experience a sense of closeness and connection that we don’t normally feel. This is why the Buddhist teachings instruct us to train in equanimity as the foundation of compassion.
Over the years of trying to put these teachings into practice, I have come to appreciate how key equanimity is. As soon as we try to practice equanimity we start to notice how we are influenced continually by all of our opinions and judgments. We see how our lack of equanimity holds us back, stops us in our tracks. Suddenly we meet head-on an ancient double-padlocked door to the heart, and, try as we might, compassion won’t flow until we open it.
One of the most effective ways to open this door is the practice of equanimity. To do this we train in keeping our hearts and minds open in increasingly difficult circumstances, and in relaxing the mind’s reactivity, we increase our capacity to love.
Equanimity is not a necessary part of the compassion we usually feel. To the extent that we think of compassion as a feeling reserved for a few, or as an occasional response of the heart to the suffering of a stranger, we don’t need to train in equanimity. But if we aspire to open beyond the usual “me and mine” definition of compassion, equanimity is like the magic key found in fairy tales—the key that opens the door to a hidden treasure. It is also like the hospitable and fruitful earth that allows the heart of great love and compassion to grow and flourish.
There are three stages in the development of equanimity:
Each stage builds on and includes the previous. Together, they become the springboard for the contemplative practice of “exchanging self and other” and the actual practice of tonglen. At this stage equanimity reaches beyond any imagined borders and becomes what in Tibetan is called dagzhen nyamje. Dagzhen refers to self and others, and nyamje is equal and exchange. Seen in this way, we can appreciate how closely connected equanimity is to tonglen, a practice intended to free us from our ancient prison of selfishness.
The first stage of equanimity is part of the practice of the “four immeasurables” (love, compassion, joy, and equanimity). Equanimity is one of the four limitless qualities of heart and mind we wish for ourselves and others to experience. And because we wish for all without exception to dwell in love, compassion, and joy, equanimity is also the thread that unites them.
The deceptively simple word “all” conveys the vastness of this practice. It reminds us that we aren’t simply thinking, “May my friends, family, co-workers, and everyone who I love and care about have happiness and its causes.” We reach out beyond the current limits of our love and think, “May the person who cut me off in the parking lot be free from suffering and its causes. May that bookkeeper who messed up my account and cost me extra money have happiness and its causes. May the person who won’t stop talking in the movie theater have joy and its causes. May the person who insulted me, may the person who embarrassed me, may the friend who doesn’t return my calls, may all of these people have happiness and its causes, be free from suffering and its causes, have joy and its causes. And may all of them dwell in equanimity free from attachment and aversion.”
Until we actually develop equanimity it can feel like what we are really saying is, “May all beings have happiness, and may they all be free from suffering—but really only those I like and not those I dislike.” We might sincerely love “all beings” in a general way when we’re sitting on our meditation cushions, but actual, or even imagined, encounters with real people show us with unfailing honesty where we get stuck.
The practice of equanimity at the level of aspiration is incredibly helpful because it stretches our heart beyond its current capability. However shut down or worked up we may feel, we start with whatever equanimity we have and we nurture it. It doesn’t matter if it seems really, really tiny as long as it is genuine. We are not telling ourselves that we feel something we don’t. We are not trying to deceive ourselves, convince ourselves, or cover our true feelings. We are just expressing our wish to open our heart further and encouraging ourselves to move closer to our resistance. In the process, we learn firsthand how much pain there is in grasping and aversion. We see how we automatically open up to some people and shut down with others. We also see how one moment of openness can lead to another.
With aspiration practice, if we find ourselves shutting down when thinking of certain people or groups of people and can’t bring ourselves to include them, we simply stop and observe what’s happening. We notice our fear, revulsion, or prejudice without running away from it and without condemning ourselves. And then we can return to our aspiration. Strengthening our aspiration at times like these can help us stay in touch with the motivation to nurture our awakened heart. We can think to ourselves, “At this moment I can’t open my heart to this person, but I hold the wish that one day I’ll be able to open my heart more fully than today.” With this approach we stay connected to a sincere wish to deepen our experience of equanimity, without adding layers of criticism and self-recrimination. In fact, the times we feel furthest from equanimity can be the moments that inspire us to strengthen the aspiration for our heart to open beyond what now seems possible.