Today I’d like to share with you four special qualities I have been trying to develop in my mindfulness practice: Loving Kindness, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity. These four qualities are an ideal way of conduct towards living beings. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in everyday life. These qualities level social barriers, build harmonious communities, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.
We all make at least short visits to these qualities. Before I started my mindfulness practice, my visits with compassion and equanimity were quite rare. I am practicing to make them my mind’s automatic response by trying to be mindful of them in all my daily activities.
My practice with these four qualities has given me trust that I can float in the ever-changing ocean of life. That I don’t have to remove myself from the world nor get lost in it. I can be with all my experience whether pleasant or unpleasant, acknowledging my thoughts and feelings just as they are. To do this I have to embrace tension, paradox, and change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, I am letting myself be open and relax in the middle. It’s in the middle we discover that the world is workable.
While I may focus on one quality over the others at a particular time, I find that they really need to work together. Because love, compassion, and joy can lead to excessive attachment, their warmth needs to be balanced with equanimity. Because equanimity can lead to excessive detachment, its coolness needs to be balanced with love, compassion, and joy. Established together, these radiant qualities express optimal mental harmony. Practicing equanimity helps us to have a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart gives birth to love. When love meets suffering, it turns to compassion. When love meets happiness, it turns to joy.
Equanimity allows us to stay with the ebb and flow of existence. Equanimity and calm are actually natural states of the mind; we add on everything else. It’s equanimity that allows us to hold joy and sorrow in balance. It’s equanimity that allows us to have and keep a clear mind and an open heart.
Equanimity helps us stay connected with experiences even when they are difficult or challenging by deepening insight into the true nature of reality. Much to my dismay, renunciation is part of equanimity. I struggle with renouncing the need to be in control; renouncing the need to hold the only correct views and opinions; and especially with renouncing the need to be right.
Formal equanimity practice is a two-step process. We learn to see what’s going on externally around us and then what’s going on in the body and the mind. This allows us to see when we want something different from what is. Really noticing what’s happening right now replaces the untrue stories we tell ourselves.
Equanimity is a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight. But this does not mean equanimity is dull, heartless and frigid. Its unshakable nature is not the immovability of a dead, cold stone. It is the understanding of the true reality. I am practicing equanimity to learn stay connected with the difficult instead of brushing it under the carpet.
Compassion guards equanimity from falling into a cold indifference, and keeps it from selfish isolation. When we are beginning to practice equanimity, we need compassion to urge us to enter again and again the battlefield of the world. Each time we do, it strengthens our equanimity. In the past I was often indifferent, worried that if I am compassionate, I will be responsible for fixing things that I can’t fix.
Joy gives equanimity the mild serenity that softens its stern appearance. It is the divine smile, a smile that persists in spite of knowledge of the world’s suffering, a smile that gives solace and hope.
Equanimity rooted in insight is the guiding and restraining power for the other three sublime states. It points out to them the direction they have to take and sees to it that this direction is followed.
Compassion is the strong wish of the heart to alleviate all suffering. Syliva Bornstein says, it’s hard for the mind to stay relaxed and friendly when it encounters a painful, unpleasant situation. In fact, it’s normal, and often helpful, for human beings to startle at the awareness of distress. The startle is an instinctive response, a signal to the mind: “Uh-oh. Something is wrong, and you might need to do something.” Sometimes the startle is strong enough to frighten the mind into confusion. There is a period of unease as the mind tries to cope, either by accommodating the experience or distracting itself if it can’t. When the mind is able to stay steady, it moves immediately to act skillfully, whether in thought or in deed. I have spent a lot of time distracting myself when I couldn’t fix things as my mind was not able to stay steady.
Compassion is a way of engaging with the fragile and unpredictable world. Its domain is not just the world of those you love and care for, but also the world of those who threaten, disturb, and cause us harm. For me the path is to discover how much our hearts can encompass. Our capacity to cause suffering as well as to heal suffering live side by side within us. If we choose to develop the capacity to heal, we will find our hearts can encompass a great deal, and we can learn to heal—rather than increase—the schisms that divide us from one another.
We can touch into compassion whenever the mind is quiet, whenever we allow the heart to open. Unfortunately, thick layers of ignorance and trauma can obscure our compassion. On the global scale, ignorance manifests as injustice, racism, exploitation, and violence. On a personal scale, we see our own states of envy, anxiety, addiction, and aggression. When we take this blindness to be the end of the story, we limit the possibility of human development.
Compassion reminds love and joy that their happiness coexists with misery. Thus, it prevents love and joy from turning into states of self-satisfied complacency.
Equanimity furnishes compassion with an even, unwavering courage and fearlessness, enabling it to face the misery and despair which confront compassion again and again. To the active side of compassion, equanimity is the calm and firm hand led by wisdom – indispensable to those who want to practice the difficult art of helping others.
Joy holds compassion back from becoming overwhelmed by the sight of the world’s suffering, from being absorbed by it to the exclusion of everything else. Joy relieves the tension of mind.
Loving kindness is a “practice” that must begin with ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves unconditionally in order to love others in a way that is not contingent on others being lovable. We practice in an effort to see all beings as worthy of love, even to those we don’t like.
Loving kindness means embracing all beings, be they noble-minded or low-minded, good or evil. The noble and the good are embraced because love is flowing to them spontaneously. The low-minded and evil-minded are included because they are in the most in need of love. In many of them the seed of goodness may have died merely because warmth was lacking for its growth, the goodness perished from cold in a loveless world.
Joy is seeing the basic goodness of all beings and relishing the fundamental well-being of ourselves and others. Loving Kindness, compassion and equanimity help us learn to realize and rest in basic goodness without being swayed by external conditions.
Conditional joy which feels like excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Unconditional joy which results from curiosity is smoother, and open rather than contracted. The joy arises from being attentive and curious in the present moment. It is unconditional joy we want to develop in ourselves. Why?
It is usually easier for us to experience conditional joy for ourselves than it is to experience it for others. One of the hardest things for many of us to do is to feel happy when something good happens to another person. Judgment and envy, the tendency to compare and demean, and greed and prejudice narrow our world and make joy difficult to experience. But learning to feel unconditional joy in ourselves makes it easier for us to feel the joy for others.
One doorway to joy is compassion. Life is so fragile, with its volcanic shifts from pleasure to pain, from ease to difficult confrontations, from getting what we want to watching what we just got begin to fade away. We go up and down, all of us. Vulnerability in the face of constant change is what we share, whatever our present condition. If we remember that even people who have more than we do suffer, we will feel closer to them.
Developing Loving Kindness, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity allow us to reduce our suffering and the suffering of others. By practicing these, we can help heal the wounds suffered in everyday life.
My wishes for you:
May you accept and find ease with things just as they are
May you hold yourself with compassion
May you be filled with lovingkindness
May you be aware of all your moments of joy