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.
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. 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.This is why the Buddhist teachings instruct us to train in equanimity as the foundation of compassion.
There are three stages in the development of equanimity:
(Last week we covered Aspring. Please refer to last weeks reading to review if you missed it.)
The Buddha observed that all of the misery in the world can be boiled down to three basic causes: grasping, aversion, and ignorance. We want, we reject, and we ignore. Always reaching for what we want and pushing away what we don’t, while ignoring the rest, is our typical routine. The problem is, the more we narrow life into yes and no, acceptable and unacceptable, wanted and unwanted, the more we suffer. The truth is, we will never get life to work on our terms or according to our plans. We will never get rid of everything we don’t want and get our hands on everything we do. At this level of equanimity we begin to work more directly with our habits of mind. We soften the hard edges of our biases and dissolve the solidity of our projections by really looking at them and seeing through them.
The meditation practice that supports this stage of equanimity involves observing our attachment, aversion, and indifference in response to the three kinds of beings we encounter—those we like, those we dislike, and those about whom we’re indifferent. Traditionally, these are labeled friends, enemies, and strangers. In this practice, we bring to mind as vividly as possible three people who fall into these categories. We notice all of the opinions, judgments, emotions, and bodily sensations that arise as we think about each one.
At first glance these distinctions seem straightforward and our attitudes justified. The whole thing looks quite reasonable. But when we dig a little deeper, the building blocks of our logic start to crumble. We realize that our feelings about others often have a lot more to do with us than they do with the other person. Our mother is a stranger to someone else and perhaps another person’s enemy. The bank teller who is a stranger to us is someone else’s precious mother. We perceive people a certain way because of the way they treat us, how important or unimportant they are to us, or because we feel threatened, annoyed, supported, or cared for by them. But life’s reality is much vaster than that. Today’s friend can be, and often is, tomorrow’s enemy. All of our friends began as strangers. In truth there is no rock-solid enemy, no absolute friend, and no permanent stranger. It is in our minds that we are making it so. It is easy to say this, and may not sound like much, but every time we actually experience a glimpse of this truth, a little bit more of our self-protective armor dissolves.
It can be very helpful to practice cultivating this second level of equanimity on the spot. Walking down the street or sitting in an airport terminal can be a good time to observe how easily we shut down or open up. We see how automatically we form opinions about others, and how these opinions can nail us to a position. Before we know it we’re taking sides. It doesn’t take much. There’s the panhandler on the corner, the group of men in suits, the woman in stilettos and a fur coat, the person in a wheelchair. Paying attention, we notice when we feel appreciation or irritation arise and try to catch it before it hardens into grasping or aversion. The trick is to do this with both honesty and kindness, without adding a whole storyline about how we “ought” to feel. This takes both courage and curiosity—the courage to face ourselves and notice our meanness, greediness, or loneliness, and the curiosity to not recoil but move closer to it.
Paradoxically, moving closer sometimes means first stepping back. I recall some good advice I received from my teacher, Gehlek Rimpoche, when I asked him about an issue I was struggling with. He said, “You know, in Cleveland I drive very often on a street called Overlook. That may be a good street for you to drive on.” When we are caught up in our reactions to things it can help to step back and overlook the situation. Things can feel a lot less claustrophobic when we have a bird’s-eye view. As we open to a bigger picture we actually get to know our anger, prejudices, and fears, and learn a lot about what every other human being is up against. We see how much pain there is in shutting people out of our hearts, and how much joy there is when we express our willingness to open to all of life.
At the third level of equanimity we begin to rock the foundations of our self-centeredness through the practice of equalizing self and others. We see beneath the surface to how we all want the same thing. Instead of holding ourselves apart from others, we realize how close to them we really are. We do this by acknowledging a simple human truth—everyone, just like me, wishes to have happiness, and everyone just like me, wishes to avoid suffering. Just like me, everyone wants to be loved, to be safe and healthy, to be comfortable and at ease. And just like me, no one wants to feel afraid or inadequate, no one wants to be sick, lonely, or depressed.
Differences in religion, values, race, or social status create illusions of separateness and distance. Equalizing practice is a way of cutting through the surface of things and realizing that whatever differences there are between people, at the core we are kindred spirits seeking the same thing. We often look out at our troubled, messed-up world and wonder why people act in such destructive and hurtful ways. But if we think about it, it’s really not such a mystery. Their motivations are the same as ours; their deepest fears and longings are the same as ours. They want comfort, ease, and security; they don’t want discomfort, anxiety, and pain.
In this fundamental way we are intimately connected with everyone else on the planet. Through the practice of equalizing we see beyond the differences that divide us to the common humanity that unites us. We acknowledge our shared humanity.
The equality practice can be done while sitting on your meditation cushion and contemplating people you know, person by person. You can begin with friends, move on to strangers, and gradually include enemies. Imagining each person, you think, “Just like me, this person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, this person doesn’t want stress and illness and misery. Just like me, this person wants comfort and safety and ease. When this person has a headache she wants to be free of it. When he hurts, he wants relief.” Allow yourself to be touched by the awareness that each one of these people is just like you in these wishes.
This practice also works well in our daily life. Instead of going through our day caught up in our own world, we can take a few minutes, or a few hours, to focus on the practice of equalizing. It is so simple and direct, and yet it’s a real eye-opener to consider others in this way. When you meet another person you think, “Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn’t want to suffer. Just like me, this cashier who is looking tired wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, this parking attendant who seems impatient wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, all the people standing in this long line getting restless want happiness and don’t want suffering.”
When we do this practice we encounter our habit of thinking we are the center of the universe, and that our pain, our fears, our dreams, our yearnings are somehow different and more important than everyone else’s. It can be quite shocking and humbling to realize just how alike we all are. The more we cultivate this practice of equalizing, the more difficult it becomes to draw a solid line between us “the good” and them “the bad,” and it is not so easy to justify hurting or neglecting others. The Buddha said, “See yourself in others. Then who can you hurt? What harm can you do?”
Over months and years, as we practice equalizing ourselves with others, we gradually open to this understanding, until ultimately we can no longer close our heart to anyone. Loving others then becomes a natural expression of feeling our closeness with them and our likeness to them.
Training in the three stages of equanimity—aspiring, dissolving, and equalizing—supports us in steadily awakening our hear. Each stage gives inspiration for the other, and each stage leads us into further openness. We can take one stage and work with it for a while, or we can weave our way between them.
Aspiration allows us to continually extend the reach of our heart.
Dissolving softens the fixations and defences that keep us habitually caught in accepting some of life and rejecting the rest.
Equalizing brings us back again and again to the naked truth of our shared humanity and shared heart. Together, these practices of equanimity move us closer to ourselves, closer to life, and closer to the heart of compassion.