Thursday, 24 November 2011

Boundless Equanimity (Pema Chödrön)

This is the seventh in our series of teachings from Pema Chödrön's "The Places that Scare You" accompanied by the music of Chopin. In previous posts, we discussed the first three of the four immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion and empathetic joy, but it is the fourth – equanimity – that pushes the other three to the limits, and makes them limitless. In boundless equanimity, we have the transcendence of the extreme middle. 

Spinoza once wrote about how fame, fortune and pleasure were the pursuit of almost all men, but he chose to dare a different aim, renouncing these three. Little did he know of Buddhist teachings on equanimity which name exactly these, but also a fourth which, being a recluse, Spinoza had quite forgotten. Can you guess it? It was praise! Wanting these, and wanting to avoid their opposites, the eight worldly dharmas are fame & disgrace, gain & loss, pleasure & pain, praise & neglect. These eight traps, Atisha said, "make a person weak" and so his 48th lojong slogan reads: "Train without bias in all areas. It is crucial to always do this pervasively & whole-heartedly". We must take our practice into daily life!

Remember these eight and we begin to see how caught up we are in our selfish or selfless (projected) egos. The four pairs correspond to four types of ego: the idol, the idolator, the master and the slave, depending on whether desire's fulfilment is passive or active, and its orientation for self or for other. In the gap between self and other, between passive and active, the ego has no place to grasp. But in the meantime, it is forever reaching for one or other of these four corners, trying or wishing to satisfy our own or others' expectations. So long as we let it, the wheel of worldly dharmas keeps going round! 

I leave you with Chopin's Fantasie in F minor (Op. 49) played by the serene Arturo Michelangeli to accompany Chödrön's teaching.

By practicing maitri, compassion, and rejoicing, we are training in thinking bigger, in opening up as wholeheartedly as we can to ourselves, to our friends, and even to the people we dislike. We are cultivating the unbiased state of equanimity. Without this fourth boundless quality, the other three are limited by our habit of liking and disliking, accepting and rejecting.

Whenever someone asked a certain Zen master how he was, he would always answer, "I'm okay." Finally, one of his students said, "Roshi, how can you always be okay? Don't you ever have a bad day?" The Zen master answered, "Sure I do. On bad days, I'm okay. On good days, I'm also okay." This is equanimity. 

The traditional image of equanimity is a banquet to which everyone is invited. Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all, welcoming all beings, inviting life to come visit. Of course, as certain guests arrive, we’ll feel fear and aversion. We allow ourselves to open the door just a crack if that’s all that we can presently do, and we allow ourselves to shut the door when necessary. Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress. We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears – sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.

That we hope to get what we want and fear losing what we have — this describes our habitual predicament. The Buddhist teachings identify eight variations on this tendency to hope and fear: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. As long as we're caught in one of these extremes, the potential for the other is always there. They just chase each other round. No lasting happiness comes from being caught in this cycle of attraction and aversion.

To cultivate equanimity, we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion before it hardens into grasping or negativity. Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who, just like us, get hooked by hope and fear. This is how we come to appreciate that everyone's in the same boat. If we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment, rage or whatever we may experience, then a bigger perspective can emerge. Abiding with the energy, instead of acting it out or repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities emerge from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.

An on-the-spot equanimity practice is to walk down the street with the intention of staying as awake as possible to whomever we meet. This is training in being emotionally honest with ourselves. As we pass people we simply notice whether we open up or shut down. We notice if we feel attraction, aversion or indifference without adding anything extra like self-judgment. We can take the practice even further by using what comes up as the basis for empathy and understanding. Closed feelings become an opportunity to remember that others also get caught this way. Open states connect us very personally with the people we meet. Either way, we are stretching our hearts.

As with the other limitless qualities, equanimity may be practiced formally in seven stages, extending our aspiration in ever-widening circles. In culmination, through all time and space, "may all beings dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice". We can also do equanimity practice before beginning the loving-kindness or compassion practices, reflecting on the pain caused by grasping and aversion, by our fear of losing happiness, by feeling that certain people are not worthy of our compassion or love. Then we can wish for the strength and courage to feel unlimited maitri and unlimited compassion for all beings without exception, including those we dislike and fear. With this intention, we begin the seven-step practices.

The Maitri Sutra says, "With a boundless mind, one could cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world, above, below, and all around without limit." Limitless equanimity is not an empty smoothing, rather it is a matter of being fully engaged to whatever comes up, to being fully alive. Training in equanimity requires that we leave behind some baggage: the comfort of rejecting whole parts of our experience, for example, and welcoming only what is pleasant. The courage to continue with this unfolding process comes from self-compassion and giving ourselves plenty of time. If we continue to practice in this way over the months and years, we will feel our hearts and minds grow bigger. When people ask me how long this will take, I say, "at least until you die".
Recognizing the limit of this life, 
we recognize the truth of dukkha.

Recognizing the passing of this single breath, 
we see behind to the eternal and limitless.

Witnessing self empty of desire which created it, 
we melt into anatta.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Idle Recollections (Du Mu)

I'd like to offer you my translation of a poem by the 9th century Tang dynasty poet Du Mu

The image is of modern-day Yuangzhou in China where the poem was set. Enjoy!

Idle Recollections

Lost, my spirit roamed carefree,
Rivers and lakes its scenery,
Gladdened by wine and girls from Chu
Whose slender waists my palms once knew.
Ten years, and then as if in sleep,
I wakened from this dream so deep
To find the only fame I'd won
Was in love's haunts for love undone.

Yangzhou bliss had brought no favour,
Just idle memories to savour.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Revolution Baby

A really fun song by Transvision Vamp from over 20 years ago...

Are the protestors just there to have fun?

No, they have a vision too...

But Zižek warns in this very insightful article that they are the beginning, not the end, so should not be trapped into specific demands, thus providing content for existing structures of domination because it is the structures themselves that are the target of the protest. The content can and will come later if they succeed.

If success means exposing a capitalist core to our democracy which is rotten, then they will only hasten its inevitable collapse. This will not be pretty. If success means reaffirming our core is democracy, then (unlike Zižek) I think capitalism could continue to thrive and serve us well, but this can only happen after a realization.

The protestors therefore pose an important question. Has capitalism taken over? If so, we need to breathe fresh life into democracy and reassess our priorities. It is not trying to change the system from within. It is trying to change the system itself, to refuse or even break it so that it may be built better from fresh foundations.

Emancipation of society is a bit like meditation if you think about it. If patience and resilience are the order of the day, I think fun plays an important role too.

Thanks to Jon:
Thanks to Hille: