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Uppekha (Equanimity)

The fourth Brahma Vihara practice, uppekha is about balance. Sharon Salzberg describes it as "a spacious stillness of the mind, a radiant calm...." (p. 139)

Balancing what?

Salzberg begins her chapter on uppekha saying

How can a human heart absorb the continual, unremitting contrasts of this life without feeling shattered and thinking that we cannot bear it? Battered by the changes, the heart-mind can become brittle, rigid. It can wither and shrink. The Buddha said that our hearts can wilt as a flower does when it has been out in the sun too long. (p. 138)

She goes on to describe balancing the mind between some of these "unremitting contrasts." In one site now defunct I found ten kinds of equanimity listed under uppekha, many of them which I couldn't relate to or understand.

Two of these situations requiring balance interest me particularly. The first is physical pain; theoetically uppekha enables one to feel the sensations without suffering. Though I'm extremely interested in this, I don't understand it yet.

The second application which means a lot to me is that it seems essential to me to balance the mind when you're working on the other brahma-vihara practices. Sending loving-kindness energy; holding all suffering beings in a compassionate heart; celebrating the good fortune of others — when I do those, I easily get caught in an attachment to results. I want others to be healed and happy, free of suffering. When they are not, I easily get caught in disappointment, grief, feeling inadequate ...sometimes shutting down in frustration, sometimes swept by outrage: that the world is not fair; that with the best intentions and the best methods, I cannot make it so.

Uppekha teaches me that results are not in my control. That in fact the attachment to results creates its own undesirable results.

The meditation

All beings are the owners of their karma.
Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them. (p. 147)

A flash from the past

When I read the uppekha meditation, I was immediately reminded of a piece written by Fritz Perls that was popular in the 60s under the name of "The Gestalt Prayer":

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful,
If not, it can't be helped.

This piece has helped a lot of people define boundaries more appropriately — but is flawed, I believe, by failing to understand the principle of karma. I am not responsible for your reactions to me, but at the same time I am responsible for my actions. This is always a paradox, and a struggle in every relationship — but to me the Gestalt Prayer seems to deny half of the reality. This attitude in turn cripples brahma vihara practices.

The difference

The uppekha meditation, like the Gestalt Prayer, talks about how your happiness does not depend on me. It differs from the gestalt prayer in its understanding of karma.

The Buddhist understanding of karma focuses on the intention behind an action; different intentions result in different karma from identical actions. Thus our character shapes our experience.

I can send you metta (for example), but how you use it depends on who you are. Likewise sending you metta is an action founded in an intention that builds my character — my karma.

Uppekha is caring

Ann Barker, teacher of the Green Mountain Sangha and TheravadaNet, says

...this practice sometimes strikes the practitioner as being heartless or as creating indifference. This is actually not the case, as you'll see once you get into it. There is a significant difference between equanimity and coldness. Equanimity enables you to regard the suffering of others (or of self) with calmness and clarity, a fertile environment for the arising of genuine loving helpfulness, for a capacity to hear without projecting one's own needs, and for knowing of suffering without being thrown off balance by it. Contrary to its first appearance, it makes us able to know and to hold in a loving way more rather than less suffering.

Sharon Salzberg too emphasizes this; equanimity is not the same thing as indifference, which "rests on quiet, sullen withdrawal, which is a type of aversion, and there is no aversion in dispassion's calm sureness." (p. 151)

This does not mean that we do not care. We do and we should care. We choose to open our hearts and to offer as much love, compassion, and rejoicing as we possibly can, and we also let go of results. the end, we have to recognize where the boundaries actually are, what our responsibility really is, and where the source of happiness truly lies. (p. 147)

5 November 2001

The other Brahma-Vihara techniques