For our last meditation session of the year, I would like to talk about peace and equanimity. Peace is one of my core values, and I care deeply about it, in all its forms: peace within ourselves, peace in families, peace in the schools, in our community, peace in society and peace in the world.
As the pope John Paul II said: “Do not be afraid to take a chance on peace, to teach peace, to live peace…Peace will be the last word of history.”
This teaching has been built around quotes taken from Jack Kornfield’s gem of a book Lovingkindness, Forgiveness and Peace.
The Thai buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah described our meditation practice as stopping the war: “We human beings are in conflict, in battle, at war with so many things: with one another, with ourselves, with our ideas, our ideals, with our wishes, with our hopes. We’re in conflict with when it’s too hot, and when it’s too cold, and how it tastes and how it sounds and how they are. Why not step off the battlefield, stop the war? Find the place of peace that’s beyond and around, that’s larger than all those conflicts. Why not live in peace?”
“The human mind can create conflict. It can also create peace. To find peace in the world, we have to find peace in ourselves.”
We will explore what it means to live with a peaceful heart, and how we can practice equanimity and peace in our formal meditation practice and in daily life.
What does it mean to live with a peaceful heart
“There are those who discover they can leave behind destructive reactions and become patient as the earth unmoved by fires of anger or fear, unshaken as a pillar, unperturbed as a clear and quiet pool. Embracing both joy and sorrow, our heart can remain tender and wise.” – Dhammapada
Equanimity is the ability the remain composed and balanced even in the face of challenges. It is based on a deep and compassionate understanding of the nature of life: all things change, and when we react from frustration or anger we create more suffering, so instead we can choose to respond with wisdom.
The meditation teacher Ruth King, who has fought for racial justice and is the author of the book Mindful of race, describes the power of equanimity as being able to see beyond judgment and self-interest and realize that we are choosing to respond instead of reacting; times when we can hold the pain of injustice in our hearts, and keep our mind still, steady, and clear.
Ruth King offers beautiful metaphors to help us understand the power of peace and equanimity:
”Equanimity can feel internally like a great mountain, with the mind solid and stable, undisturbed by the changing seasons. Or it can be like the ocean, with the mind vast, deep, and immeasurable, undisturbed by whatever swims, floats, or is housed in its waters. Equanimity can be like a strong fire — roaring, engulfing, and transmuting, undisturbed by whatever is thrown into it. Or like immense space — open, allowing, and receiving, undisturbed by the objects that arise and pass away”
This is what it means to have a peaceful heart, to rest like a great tree or a mountain in the midst of all things changing.
“If you accept your life to be up and down, your mind will be much more peaceful” – Lama Yeshe
“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute are the eight worldly winds. They ceaselessly change. As a mountain is unshaken by the wind, so the heart of a wise person is unmoved by all the changes on this earth.” – Buddha
Embracing both joy and sorrow our heart can remain both tender and wise.
The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes equanimity as the balance that comes from seeing clearly the things we can change and the things we can’t control (serenity prayer). She calls it the “secret sauce” for the practices of lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy. Without equanimity lovingkindness can become attachment, compassion can become burnout, sympathetic joy can become merely comparing. Equanimity brings balance, perspective and understanding, born out of wisdom. For example, we may be wishing well to someone and perhaps doing everything we can to make their situation better, but we do that with the deep knowledge it’s not in our hands, we are not in control of someone else’s life.
As Jack Kornfield writes: “Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control. We can love and care for others, but we cannot possess our children, lovers, family or friends. We can assist them, pray for them and wish them well, yet in the end their happiness and suffering depend on their thoughts and actions, not on our wishes.”
Equanimity teaches us to care deeply but not to be overwhelmed by our caring. It is likened to the way parents feel when their children become adults. As parents, we nurture, give care and love, and then at some point we have to let go. We don’t do it with a cold feeling of withdrawal. With time we come to realise that we can not control someone else’s happiness and unhappiness.
The author and teacher of alternative medicine Rachel Naomi Remen writes – “In bullfighting there is a place in the ring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place, he stops running and can gather his full strength. He is no longer afraid… It is the job of the matador to know where this sanctuary lies, to be sure the bull does not have time to occupy his place of wholeness. This safe place for a bull is called the querencia. For humans the querencia is the safe place in our inner world… When a person finds their querencia, in full view of the matador, they are calm and peaceful. Wise. They have gathered their strength around them.”
The Vietnamese Buddhist mink Thich Nhat Hanh underlined the important role of equanimity for acting effectively in the face of danger. He gave the example of the refugee boats risking the high seas to escape war. He reported that if there was at least one calm person on board, the boat would make it to safety, as the energy of that person could inspire the others on the boat to find that place of courage, determination and calm within themselves.
From this centre of stillness, we can enter life fully, yet our heart remains free.
We can sense the ever-changing waves around us and breathe and relax.
We can rest in the eternal present, the still point.
We can learn that no matter what happens we are home.
The near enemies of equanimity and peace: Peace is not indifference nor withdrawal
Our conditioning leads us to react to each experience through three main feeling tones: pleasure, pain and neutrality. For example, we see an object, and in that moment, we will assess our experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This will create an immediate reaction in us: we cling to pleasant experiences, trying to retain them and not letting them go away; we react with aversion to unpleasant experiences, contracting and pushing away; we tend to be indifferent to neutral experiences, and ignore them.
Usually we tend to react to the ten thousand joys and sorrows that make up our life by going back and forth between elation and despair. Or we react with denial, indifference, repression, anxiety or feeling disconnected.
With equanimity, we can learn to be balanced in response to the ups and down of life. Balance does not mean that we don’t feel things anymore. We can feel pleasure without craving or clinging, and we can feel pain without aversion or rejection. And we can experience neutral events by being fully present to them.
In each moment, we can choose to be fully present to our experience, without holding on or pushing away, without trying to control or judge what is happening. We can cultivate a balance of mind that can receive what is happening, whatever it is. This brings us safety, confidence and freedom.
“Peace is not the absence of change or difficulty. It should not be confused with withdrawal or indifference to life. These are imitations of peace, ways of closing down based on fear. We must see them for what they are.” – Jack Kornfield
“Withdrawal removes us from connectedness, from openness, from love. When we withdraw out of fear, we run away. We believe that by disconnecting from others we will be safe. Withdrawal is not true inner peace.” – Jack Kornfield
“Indifference pretends to create peace, but it is based on not caring, a silent resignation. It is a movement away, a separation fed by a subtle fear of the heart. We pull back, believing that what happens to others is not our concern. Our courage leaves us. Indifference is a misguided way of defending ourselves.” – Jack Kornfield
I used withdrawal as a coping mechanism as a teenager to escape from the pain of my family, and it wasn’t healthy at all. I became cut off from others and from myself as well.
True equanimity is the capacity to be spacious, loving and peaceful as all things arise and pass.
Peace in action
Sometimes people fear that if they become peaceful they will be too passive or that they will lose control. But it is not the case, we can still take action, wise action. From a peaceful centre we can respond instead of react. Unconscious reactions create problems. Considered responses bring peace. With a peaceful heart whatever happens can be met with wisdom.
“To make peace we cannot ignore war, racism, violence, greed, the injustice and sufferings of the world. They must be confronted with courage and compassion. Unless we seek justice peace will fail. Yet in whatever we do, we must not let war, violence, and fear take over our own heart.” – Jack Kornfield
” The peace of the heart is not emotional resignation, but an openness that meets the ever-changing world with compassion. With equanimity we can care for all things without trying to control them” – Jack Kornfield
Equanimity allows us to not be rigidly attached to the outcome of our actions. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy: “Once we’ve done what we can, we don’t really have control over what happens, nor can we ever accomplish everything that needs to be done.”
When we take action from our heart rather than from the desire to see results, we can continue working without becoming depleted, and derive joy, rather than disappointment, from you can do.
“We can direct our actions but not their fruits. The secret of human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results” – The Bhagavad Gita
Daily practice of equanimity
Ruth King writes that equanimity is a practice, we set our intention to be equanimous, we incline our heart, reminding ourselves regularly that we want to stay in a place of stability, even-handedness, broad scene, keeping some attention on the body and the breath at all times.
We can recognise equanimity in retrospect, see how we have cultivated it in our life, when we look back and notice the difference between now and then.
“Within each of us there is a silence as vast as the universe, we long for it, we can return to it” – Jack Kornfield
Equanimity has to do with presence: how much we can stay in the here and now with what is happening, stay connected to ourselves sitting or standing, to the earth, to our breath especially the exhale.
Equanimity is an experience of grounded presence in the midst of extremes, when the mind is steady and responsive, and when we can say to ourselves, “This moment is like this, and it doesn’t have to be different right now. I can allow what is here and offer what is needed.”
Open our awareness to times throughout the day when we are not gripped, when we have a sense of ease: pause and begin to notice and include the moments where there is a sense of ease and stability, and let the nervous system recalibrate so we become used to calm and ease, we have a relationship with these peaceful states.
And yet, equanimity is not something we can force. It’s an experience we come to recognize and nurture through mindfulness practice. Fortunately, even outside of formal meditation, you can orient the heart toward that experience simply by bringing to mind intentions of equanimity. I will give several examples here. My invitation to you is to find two or three that resonate with you, and try them at different times in your day. As you say them to yourself, take time to relax and linger in the goodwill motivating these phrases by Ruth King:
May I bear witness to things just as they are.
May I remain peaceful and let go of fixation.
May I offer care without hesitation, knowing I may be met with gratitude, anger, or resistance.
May I offer care, knowing I don’t control the course of life, suffering, or death.
May I find the inner resources to genuinely contribute where needed.
May I see my limits with compassion, just as I see the limits of others.
I care about the pain of others, yet I cannot control it.
I care for all beings, but my way is not the only way. All beings have their own journey, and I have mine.
May I be free from preference and prejudice.
May I see the world with quiet eyes.
“There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.” – Jack Kornfield
When we are truly present wherever we are, we bring peace.
Ruth Kind, Mindful of Race
James Baraz, Awakening Joy
Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness
Jack Kornfield, A path with Heart