It’s been a few days since I’ve meditated but I finally got back to it this morning. Sitting there, cross-legged on the deck amongst the red pine, I found myself upset.
Equanimity, damn it! You’re supposed to be experiencing equanimity! My brain said.
As I tried to move my attention from the top of my head, down my face, along my arms and back, en route to my toes, my focus kept drifting to how bad a job I was doing.
This, as you may gather, misses the point of the practice.
It’s claimed to be the original teachings of the Buddha and yet has very little to do with modern-day Buddhism. I’m tempted to go into a history of the technique, but we can leave that for another post.
In short, the ultimate goal is to eliminate suffering from one’s life. Meditation, specially vipasanna meditation, is the medium through which that goal is achieved.
The method is to move your attention across your body and objectively observe any sensations that arise. Observe them with equanimity.
In observing them with equanimity, you avoid observing them with craving and/or aversion (i.e. enjoying pleasant sensations like warmth, disliking unpleasant sensations like cramping) which then avoids the creation of further suffering. The idea is that these sensations themselves are not inherently good or bad, they just are. It’s how you react to them that assigns them these labels.
Keeping an evenness of mind while experiencing this range of pleasant and unpleasant sensations trains your mind to act with equanimity in all situations.
You then translate this to your real life and wham, you’re enlightened.
(S.N. Goenka just rolled over in his grave.)
This beautiful word, equanimity, means ‘an evenness of mind, especially under stress’. It is a core tenant of the practice and you hear it no less than 50,000 times over the course of a retreat.
But, in practice, incredibly elusive.
I spent the first three days of my retreat with Jimmy Buffett’s Cheeseburger in Paradise stuck in my head. Not joking. There is no equanimity when your silence is interrupted by “I like mine with lettuce and tomato! Heinz 57 and French friend potatoes!” every five seconds.
I was barely able to focus on my breath, let alone move my attention throughout my body without being distracted. It’s amazing to observe just how busy your mind actually is at almost every moment.
(If you want to give it a shot right now, set a timer on your phone for two minutes, close your eyes and try to focus only on sensations on the area below your nose and above your lip. If you’re like me, it barely takes five seconds for some thought to come rushing in, trying to steal your attention. This is the monkey mind.)
But here’s the kicker.
Even if you’re failing miserably at keeping your attention focused long enough to perform this body scan, you have to remain equanimous about that too!
So even in your tenth hour of sitting crossed-legged that day, when your back has developed pulsing knot the size of a baseball, your knee ligaments feel like they might throw in the towel at any minute and you don’t feel one Buddhist monk’s whisker closer to being enlightened…this is both the most important time to retain equanimity.
Let’s just say it takes some getting used to. There were no less than ten times I nearly gave up and walked out of the place.
But in each of these moments, I got a little outside help. Second perhaps only to Equanimity, was the retreat’s repetition of the phrase Start Again.
Start Again. Start Again. Start Again.
This phrase was repeated over and over and over. At the start of sessions, at the end. In the middle when I was about to give up.
To me, it was an acknowledgement of the practice’s difficulty. An acknowledgement that you are going to fail over and over and over again. But that each time you must gather yourself and Start Again.
So I continued to Start Again. Over and over and over.
This choice to push through was the turning point in my practice.
Because in pushing through, in persevering through the mental and physical anguish, I discovered a treasure of the human experience on the other side.
Truly deep meditation, which I’ve experienced only for a matter of a total of less than one minute, is what I believe some would describe as experiencing God. In those moments I could not differentiate between myself and the air around me, nor the ground below me. Everything was one. I felt like pure energy, my body seeming to flow in and out of itself.
It’s hard to put this state into words. Many far more eloquent than I have tried and failed. So I’m just going to call it ethereal.
(The tricky thing about these deep moments of meditation is that, in my experience, they are so wonderful that you’re tempted to lose the equanimity that got you there in the first place! You’re tempted to grasp onto (i.e. crave) the ethereal experience you’re having which, ironically, makes you lose it.)
But the true value of this practice is actually not these wonderful moments of oneness. The true value is when you leave the quiet refuge of the meditation retreat and enter back into the real world.
The true value is when you get a flat tire driving to store and instead of reacting with anger (strong aversion) and ruining the rest of your day, you approach the situation with an evenness of mind.
Things aren’t good or bad. They just are.
It’s when everything goes wrong during the day and you don’t let it in. You don’t let it take hold of you. Because, just like the sensations throughout your body, events are not inherently good or bad. They just are. It’s how you react to them that assigns them these labels.
And in maintaining this equanimity through trials and tribulations, not only are you happier, you’re also able to more effectively handle these situations as you’re acting with a clear mind instead of one clouded by emotion.
Author Jon Kabat-Zinn summed up the practice beautifully when he said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.
This brings us back to me sitting on the deck this morning, amongst the red pines.
I was upset because I wasn’t staying equanimous. And I wasn’t staying equanimous because I was upset.
But I think it’s time for a deep breath.
There is no finish line is this practice. This is not a contest. This is simply a way to get the most of each day. To see things, people, events as they truly are instead of through the reactive lens of emotion.
Tomorrow you will go back out on the deck and do the only thing you can do. The only thing that will lead you in the direction of peace and happiness.
You’ll start again.