upekkha - the practice of equanimity

Upekkha: The Practice of Equanimity

Equanimity is one of the most important, influential, significant and helpful mental factors in our practice and in our lives. It serves as a strategy par excellence that helps us stay serene and unruffled as we maneuver the ups and downs of life.

Therefore it is little wonder that the Buddha accorded equanimity a prominent place in his teachings by designating it as one of the four divine abidings or beautiful mental qualities that ought to be strongly developed by us.

The four divine abidings – lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha) – have each an important role to play in keeping our mind well-balanced, healthy and buoyant.

In this essay, we shall examine the role of equanimity in maintaining our mental wellbeing and happiness.

Firstly, as to its definition: Equanimity is the quality of being calm, even tempered and composed, even in the midst of stress, tension and provocation.

Synonyms for equanimity are: mental equilibrium, mental equipoise, mental balance, steadiness of mind, collectedness of mind, self-possession, aplomb, sangfroid, imperturbability, unflappability, coolness, peacefulness, serenity and tranquillity.

Imagine how nice it would be if we can always be calm and cool, unfazed and unruffled by all the ups and downs of life! We know that “such is life” and “this, too, will pass” and we maintain our inner calm and peace.

The mental quality to develop for the attainment of an unshakable mind is equanimity. The Buddha who, himself, possessed a mind that cannot be shaken by the vicissitudes of life, stressed that intention and resolution are important supportive factors in the development of any wholesome mental quality.

First, we need to appreciate the great and indispensable value of equanimity and arouse a strong intention to cultivate it. Our mind then becomes resolved on equanimity: we are firmly determined to cultivate, hone and strengthen this important quality of mind.

Once the resolution is formed, we make a conscious effort to maintain a calm and peaceful state of mind throughout the day. This can be done by reminding ourselves now and then as we go about our daily activities: “calm, cool, peaceful, easy, relaxed.”

This is our equanimity ‘mantra’ – “calm, cool, peaceful, easy, relaxed.” It reminds us of the way we want to be, the way we want to live our life – calmly and peacefully and not in an agitated or anxious manner.

Thus, every time we are upset, that is the time when we need to cultivate equanimity. First, we are aware that the mind is upset, that we have lost our mental equilibrium and composure. We observe the mind that is disturbed – how does it feel like? Does the mind feel tense, tight, constricted, angry, fuming, agitated, anxious, worried, fearful? What are the thoughts occurring at the time? Angry thoughts, violent thoughts, fearful thoughts, anxious thoughts, worried thoughts, negative thoughts?

We can study the cocktail of emotions and thoughts arising at the time. We also observe the body – how does it feel like? Similarly tense, tightness in the head, chest, stomach? Feeling hot, having constricted breathing, heart pumping? When mindfulness is brought to bear on our body and mind, it has a calming and healing effect. It acts like a soothing balm.

Then we can further help ourselves by taking mindful breaths and reminding ourselves to stay calm and cool. “Easy, easy, relaxed, relaxed,” we tell ourselves like a mother soothing a child or like a good friend or therapist counselling us.

We remember our resolution to stay cool and serene. We can reflect in various ways to help us calm down. For example, if the problem or disturbance is not too serious or grave, we can tell ourselves “Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is all small stuff. Life is short and all of us will have to die one day. I don’t want to lose all the precious moments of my life to anger, agitation, tension, worry, distress, etc. I want to cultivate an imperturbable mind, a mind that is strong and steady and not easily affected by outer circumstances.”

“I don’t want to quarrel or argue with anybody. Sometimes it’s not just about being right and gaining the upper hand or standing on a higher ground: what’s more important is keeping my own inner peace. I want to be at peace with myself and the world. I want to maintain a peaceful and healthy state of mind.”

This does not mean that we cannot speak up and state our case. But it means that if we choose to do so, we will do it calmly and skilfully without the heated emotion of anger.

Thus, we can reflect in various ways to help us regain our mental composure. If we are upset with somebody, it may be skilful to consider the person’s good intentions and qualities which will help us to feel less averse and more positive towards him or her.

How many times a day do we get upset? What are the circumstances that annoy or unsettle us? Our loss of patience with a loved one? Stress at the workplace? Too much work or a boss or colleague being difficult? An unpleasant encounter with somebody rude in a shop or office or on the road? Or just simply feeling overwhelmed and not being in a good mood? There are many scenarios and possibilities that can cause us to go off kilter.

It is important to notice when we lose our cool and to regain our mental equilibrium as soon as possible. When we make keeping calm our priority we find that oftentimes we stay cool, even in the midst of a stressful or difficult situation. We have developed the habit of being unruffled. And even when we lose our balance we are quick to regain it. It is wonderful once we gain this measure of mastery over our mind.


With what mind are we doing this?

As we go about our daily work and chores it is good to pause now and then and ask ourselves: “With what mind are we doing this?” Are we going about it calmly, peacefully and joyfully or are we impatient, rushing, hasty, tense, agitated or absent-minded and lost in thoughts? If so, we can bring our mind back to the present moment and perform our tasks purposefully, calmly and cheerfully.


Mindfulness of the body

Placing mindfulness on the body as we carry out simple activities has a calming effect on the mind. Here are some examples:

Make it a habit to note the intention each time you want to get up or sit down. Then follow through by being mindful of the process of raising up or lowering down your body. Notice the sensations involved in these simple movements. Notice how this simple act of awareness brings you into the present moment and has a calming effect on the mind. Your mind becomes, as it were, one with the body. By placing attention on simple activities of the body in this way you can create many moments or little oases (islands) of peacefulness in the course of the day. We should not underestimate the effect of all these little moments of awareness, for they all add up, creating and contributing to a momentum and continuity of calmness and stability in the mind.

Similarly, you can be mindful when opening and closing a door, noting the intention and the action that follows – the stretching out of the arm, the hand going round the door knob and turning it or pressing down on the lever to open the door. You can feel the sensation of the hand on the door knob or lever (e.g., coldness, hardness) and the effort to pull or push open the door.

I have also suggested in previous essays that we can combine mindfulness of the body with metta (lovingkindness) practice. Thus, even as you turn the door knob you can wish, “May all beings be happy,” or “May so and so be happy.” You may ask, “Wouldn’t that disrupt the flow of awareness on the activity itself?” The answer is, it is alright as we can switch between mindfulness of the body and mindfulness on metta. Whether it is mindfulness placed on the body or on metta, both are fine as they are wholesome states of mind and we can choose to move between them.

In fact, we can also think a wholesome thought in connection with an activity. For example – on opening a door – “May I open the door to all wholesome states of mind,” and on closing a door – “May I close the door to all unwholesome states of mind.” Switching on a light – “May I switch on the light of wisdom and awareness;” switching off a light, “May delusion and unwholesome states of mind vanish.”

You will gather that the principle is to keep the mind wholesome and this can be done through awareness of the body and mind states, radiating metta and practising the other three brahmaviharas, thinking a wholesome or positive thought, exercising wise reflection, even smiling or keeping the mind buoyant in one way or another.

More examples where we can apply mindfulness: washing the dishes, sweeping the floor and doing various chores, dressing up, slipping your foot into your shoe, stirring a cup of coffee, drinking, eating (chewing, tasting, swallowing), waking up in the morning, brushing the teeth, shaving, washing the face, showering, toilet activities, etc. In other words, anything and everything, both bodily and mental, can be made an object of awareness.

While we have emphasized equanimity as the subject matter of this essay, it should be mentioned that generally we cultivate two states of mind – either being calm, peaceful, equanimous or being joyful and happy. Thus, our mode of being is one that alternates between calmness and joy.


Going with the flow

Things are impermanent. They change, being subject to conditions. They are in a state of flux, constantly arising and passing away. There is nothing we can cling to. If we bear this well in mind, we can live more lightly and wisely, going with the flow. We cultivate a mind that is open and accepting, adaptable and adjustable, nimble, agile, versatile and flexible.


The Eight Worldly Conditions and Our Attitude Towards Them

The Buddha spoke about the eight worldly conditions (loka-dhammas) to which all beings are subject and the importance of keeping a level head when encountering them. These eight are: gain and loss; pain and pleasure; praise and blame; and fame and disrepute.

Gain and loss: Sometimes we gain and sometimes we lose. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Everybody loves gain and no-one relishes suffering a loss. But no-one can be completely free of losses or succeed all the time. Things change according to conditions. Thus when we suffer a loss or failure we should be able to accept it gracefully and equanimously. We should reflect that losing or winning is secondary – what’s important is that we have done our part or done our best. Besides, whatever we lose, we never lose our values, for that is something that is always with us. We practise our values under all circumstances and we continue to strengthen and increase these values. Thus it is more important how we live our life, which is according to our innermost core values of integrity, honesty, lovingkindness, compassion, generosity, understanding, forgiveness, etc., that we hold most dear.

When we gain or succeed at something, that is fine. We can rejoice and be happy about it. We can congratulate ourselves if we have worked hard for it. We are also grateful to the people and supportive conditions that made our success possible. But we must remember that gain or success is impermanent and subject to change. Thus, we wouldn’t let the gain get to our head, lose our humility, become arrogant or proud, or become attached to it. We know that gain has its counterpart in loss which we would have to face from time to time. Thus when we gain, we do so without losing our wisdom and self-composure.

Pleasure and pain:  Sometimes we encounter pleasure, sometimes pain. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes sad. When we experience pleasure and happiness, that is fine. We can appreciate it as no-one wants to suffer and everybody wants to be happy. However, we must remember that happiness, too, is subject to change. When conditions change and we are faced with unpleasurable circumstances, we need to maintain equanimity and reflect on the impermanent nature of life. Our ability to accept the unpleasant and painful will help to reduce our pain and suffering. From a state of equanimity we can start to feel cheerful again as we apply wisdom and right attitude towards the unpleasant object or circumstance. When we have cultivated the habit of being calm and cheerful, it is easy to bounce back to what we termed as our baseline mind. We know how to count our blessings and reflect in various ways to feel better and happy again.

Praise and blame: Everybody loves to be praised and nobody likes to be blamed. It is fine to feel happy when complimented and to express appreciation for the compliment. The compliment may encourage us to continue doing a good job or whatever we are doing, to help others, etc. However, we know that we cannot always be praised and there will be times when we are criticised or blamed. At such times we should maintain our mental composure and calmly consider the criticism. Is it justified? If it is we can be thankful for the feedback as it gives us an opportunity to improve ourselves. If we feel the criticism is unfounded, again that is no cause for us to be upset. We can calmly explain ourselves so as to bring clarity to the situation. This is the attitude of a wise person who can calmly address the criticism. In the Dhammapada, a book containing short sayings of the Buddha, there is a verse, “As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, even so the wise are not ruffled by praise or blame.”

Fame and Disrepute: Fame is not something we may strive for but should it come to us, we may use it in a wise way for the benefit of others. We would not let fame get to our head. We would continue to live as we always do, kindly and humbly. On the other hand, if we get a bad reputation through our own misdeeds, we would have to accept it and strive to become a better person. We would not be perturbed by a lack of fame if our objective is simply to live a good life imbued with values.

The Buddha's approach to these worldly conditions is neither to approve nor disapprove of them but to see that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory and subject to change. Seeing their limitation and danger, the practitioner becomes dispassionate towards them and aspires for the dustless and sorrowless state of Nibbana which is the end of all suffering.


Peace with oneself and others and the world

If we are to develop equanimity, our focus should be on peace, more specifically, to be at peace with ourselves, with others, and with the world.

It is important to be at peace with ourselves. To do so, we should accept ourselves as we are, warts and all. We may not be perfect but we are pretty good: there are excellent qualities in us. We should acknowledge these good qualities and continue to strengthen them while chipping away at our weaknesses and imperfections. We are a work-in-progress and it takes time to be all that we want to be. We can only do our best in this lifetime and continue in the next.

We should be kind, gentle and a good friend to ourselves just as we are a good friend to others. There is no point in beating ourselves up – life is already hard as it is and we are trying our level best.

It is equally important to be at peace with others. A lot of suffering comes from wanting to change others. Therefore, a cardinal rule to remember is that we can’t change others: it is up to them to change themselves. We can give hints, suggestions, advice, even a heart-to-heart talk, but ultimately it is up to another to take responsibility for his or her life. It is up to the person to see his own faults and weaknesses and make the effort to change. No one can do it for another – each person must do it for himself or herself.

Thus it is good to remind ourselves in our relationship and interaction with others: “Don’t try to change the other. Work on your ownself and keep your peace.”

In this world, we cannot please another all the time. Sometimes we have to do what needs to be done and be at peace with it.

And to be at peace with the world at large. It is a far from perfect world. We see a lot of suffering everywhere. There is much injustice, corruption and exploitation. There is terrorism, war, violence and crime. Much of the suffering is caused by human greed, hatred and delusion. Still there are many good hearted people and we can see and experience kindness everywhere. All we can do is to do whatever we can to contribute to a better world. We try not to hurt anyone and to spread as much happiness and kindness as possible.


All beings are owners of their kamma

In the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), the great Buddhist treatise on meditation, it is instructed that practitioners reflect on the phrase, “All beings are owners of their kamma,” when doing the meditation on equanimity.

This means that we are responsible for our actions. Our happiness depends on our actions. Sometimes we may not be able to please or make others happy, much as we would like to. This is because they, too, have to take responsibility for their actions. Their happiness depends on their actions and attitudes and not merely on our wishes for them.

Of course, we can give assistance and advice but they, too, have to take the necessary actions and adopt the appropriate attitudes to gain their happiness. We have to maintain an attitude of equanimity when we find that we could do no more for another and that their unhappiness is a result of their own actions and attitudes.

However, we can still have compassion for them, wishing for their well-being and happiness and that they would take the necessary actions and responsibility for their happiness.

In the world, too, we see people suffering the consequences of their actions and from calamities and disasters. Equanimity is not indifference. We still have compassion for those who suffer and wish that they may be free from suffering. We can offer assistance wherever possible or appropriate. But equanimity comes into play here in that we do not fall into a state of grief. The mind is balanced by wisdom which sees that we are not in control of the situation and that things happen subject to conditions beyond our control.

On our part, we also take responsibility for our actions and accept their consequences, be they pleasant or unpleasant. We realise that happiness is more of an “inside job.” It depends on our actions and attitudes and how we respond towards others and external circumstances. We focus more on our values and our response in our quest for happiness.


Walking evenly over the uneven

In the Samyutta Nikaya (the Connected Discourses of the Buddha), there is a conversation between a deva and the Buddha in which the former spoke about the difficulty of walking the noble path. The deva commented that it was difficult, going on an uneven path. The Buddha replied that though difficult, the spiritual practitioner walks evenly over the uneven (visame same gacchati) while others might fall headlong.

It is imperative that as we walk the uncertain path of life, we learn and master the art of walking evenly over the uneven. The path can be steep and rocky but we see how we can take one step after another without losing our balance. Equanimity is needed to maintain our mental calm and composure in the face of all difficulties and challenges. We must be prepared and determined to take everything in our calm and cheerful stride and continue to live by our values no matter what. Our values are our guiding star in life, ever beckoning and leading us in the right direction.

Equanimity in the third and fourth jhana and as an enlightenment factor

Equanimity as a sublime state is most prominent in the fourth jhana and as an enlightenment factor leading to Nibbana.

A jhana is a deep state of meditative absorption. While equanimity is present in all the four jhanas, it is in the third jhana that its presence first becomes conspicuous as the rapture of the second jhana fades away. The traditional formula of the third jhana runs as follows:

“With the fading away of rapture, the meditator dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhāna of which the noble ones declare: ‘He, who is equanimous and mindful, lives happily.’”

In the fourth jhana, even the happiness of the third jhana fades away to give way to an even more rarified and pure state of equanimity. Mindfulness is said to be especially purified in this jhana due to the strong equanimity.

There are also seven enlightenment factors mentioned in the text, of which equanimity is the last in the sequence. The six factors before equanimity are mindfulness, investigation, effort, rapture, tranquillity and concentration. These seven are called enlightenment factors because they lead to enlightenment.

Where liberation from samsaric existence is concerned, the Buddha said “one develops the enlightenment factor of equanimity based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release.” The same goes for the other six enlightenment factors. When these seven enlightenment factors become matured, one's mind is liberated from the taints of sensuality, existence, and ignorance.

When it is liberated, the Buddha said, one knows: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any form of being.” Here, the Buddha is referring to the ultimate attainment of arahathood which marks the end of samsaric existence. The arahat lives his last life with the firm knowledge that he will undergo no more rebirth on the breakup of his body at death.


We have explored a wide range of equanimity from mindfulness in everyday life to maintaining composure in the midst of life’s vicissitudes to the deep calm and stillness of meditative absorption and maturing as an enlightenment factor in the attainment of Nibbana

Without doubt, equanimity is an indispensable mental quality which we would do well to cultivate. With equanimity, we can breeze through life, unfazed and unruffled by all its ups and down. Furthermore, equanimity, as an enlightenment factor, can take us to the peak of spiritual experience - the attainment of Nibbana and liberation from samsaric existence.


The Meditation on Equanimity

One may sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair. For details on the sitting posture, please refer to the vipassana meditation instructions here.

Begin by mentally repeating gently to yourself:

“Upekkha, upekkha, equanimity, equanimity.”

“May I be calm.”

“May I be peaceful.”

“May I be equanimous.”

“May I be equanimous at the appropriate times.” Here you understand the appropriate times as those occasions when you find yourself prone to being upset, disturbed, agitated and annoyed.

“May I be open, accepting, balanced and peaceful.” “Open and accepting” means open to and accepting of all the changes, uncertainties and ups and downs of life, cultivating an agile, nimble, adaptable, flexible and versatile mind that can respond wisely and skilfully to any situation. A mind that is steady and knows how to keep its balance by seeing things in perspective.

“May I see the rise and fall of things with equanimity.” Again, this means you accept the impermanent nature of existence, that things arise and pass away according to conditions and you want to be at peace with it, with reality, with things as they are.

“May I be equanimous towards the eight worldly conditions.” These eight worldly conditions and our attitude towards them have already been explained in the article above.

“May I be at peace with myself, with others, and with the world.” The rationale and benefit of adopting this stance towards life have also been explained above.

“May I walk evenly over the uneven.” The path may be uneven - steep, rocky, winding, meandering, going up and down and passing through pleasant and difficult stretches. We want to walk steadily through it all without losing our balance.

“All beings are owners of their kamma.” We take responsibility for our actions and happiness and understand that others have to similarly take responsibility for theirs.

By repeating these phrases again and again, we are conditioning the mind towards equanimity. We will remember to maintain equanimity and peace as we go about our daily life.

Repeating these phrases again and again like a mantra also helps to calm and tranquilize the mind as we shut out negative and irrelevant thoughts.

Eventually we might settle on a few simple words if we want to just rest in calmness. Words such as “Upekkha, Upekkha” “Equanimity, Equanimity.” “Cool, calm, peaceful, easy, relaxed.”

We settle into a vipassana mode, being aware of our breath and body sensations and the calm in our mind. From time to time we can repeat those few words, “calm, peaceful, equanimous….”

The minds becomes peaceful and equanimous just staying with the vipassana objects and occasionally repeating those few words softly and gently. When the equanimity is strong, we can also drop the words and just stay with the flow of phenomena.

"By sustained effort, heedfulness, discipline, and self-control, let the wise person make for himself an island,

which no flood can overwhelm." - Buddha, Dhammapada 25

"The quivering, fluttering mind, so difficult to guard, difficult to restrain, the wise person straightens it as a fletcher straightens an arrow. " - Buddha, Dhammapada 33

"The mind is extremely subtle and hard to perceive, alighting on whatever it pleases. It is swift and difficult to check. Let the wise person keep watch over the mind. A guarded mind brings happiness." - Buddha, Dhammapada 35, 36

"As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, even so the wise are not ruffled by praise or blame." - Buddha, Dhammapada 81