Equanimity - Seeing Things as They Really Are
I was reminded recently of how crazy I can be. I’m not talking about clinical madness so let me explain. There is no sequence to my thought patterns. One moment I am on one track of thought and then the next I go off on a completely unrelated tangent. Most of my headspace is taken up by two or three thought patterns, which I dig up and toil over, again and again. Worst of all, they are pure fantasies that centre around regret and missed opportunities.
This became extremely apparent whilst taking part in a ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in the UK over new year. Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that predates the Buddha. Remarkably, it has been kept in its purest form over the centuries by a small, dedicated lineage in Burma. The technique and accompanying philosophy is grounded in ancient wisdom based on universal laws of nature that transcend religion, race, nationality etc. It is said that the Buddha used it to purify his mind and find enlightenment. It translates from Pali as, ‘to see things as they really are.’ It has spread across the world thanks to an Indian businessman, called S.N. Goenka, who found the technique whilst looking for a cure for his migraines. He left the world of business and dedicated the rest of his life to teaching it. He continues to do so across the world and from beyond the grave through the use of prerecorded videos.
The law that is central to the technique is the law of impermanence. Everything in this universe is in a constant state of flux and change; nothing is permanent. We know this and accept this at the intellectual level. However, misery arises when we don’t get it at the experiential level. Our misery comes from our attachment to things staying permanent, which turns into craving and aversion. We crave pleasant experiences, but then they pass and because of our attachment to them we become miserable. We are averse to unpleasant experiences, but we need not be, because they also pass.
Take my fondness of the TV series Narcos as an example. Each episode typically finishes on a cliffhanger, after which I feel a tinge of sadness, an emotion I feel the need to ‘treat’ with more of the same, so I move straight onto the next episode. But it isn’t the next episode that I am addicted to; it’s the sensation of craving itself that I am attached to. Likewise, my fear of public speaking is not a fear of the audience, but an aversion to the sensation I have within my body when I talk in public and deep down a craving for the audience to accept me. Unable to be with whatever just is, I become addicted to controlling things to become the way I think things ought to be. But the things I try and control are not within my control, and as a result I lose the balance of my mind and I suffer for it. I know it happens, and I even know why it happens, but I keep letting it happen.
For us to really understand this, we need to experience it in the body and that is what Vipassana gives us. Modern science has proved that although at the apparent level we think the world is full of solid masses, at the actual level this is not the case; there is only dissolution. A wooden table, for example, is vibrating and moving all the time at the sub atomic particle level. In a similar way we, as physical entities, are arising and passing away all the time. You are literally a different person with each word you read in this article. So, after three days of concentrating the mind, I become aware of sensations within my body. My mind becomes sharp enough to feel every subatomic particle within my body arising and passing away at great speed.
Through the practice of Vipassana I also become aware of the relationship between my body and my mind. When there is change in one, there is change in the other. When I think of food, I feel hungry. When I have pain in my leg, I am distracted and I find it difficult to focus. The two are inextricably linked.
So whilst meditating I scan the body for any sensations such as heat, vibration, tingling, itching, pain - to name just a few. I quickly become aware of a sense of craving towards sensations that I like and aversion towards sensations that I dislike. But I also become aware that all of them at varying speeds arise and then pass away. These sensations are coming from the depths of my mind, the unconscious mind. I have no control or mastery of them. I cannot stop them appearing and I cannot change their nature. They are purely a natural phenomena. However, I do have the ability to control my reaction to them and so the technique trains me to react to every sensation with equanimity. This means I should not crave for them or show aversion towards them, knowing that ultimately none of them are permanent. In so doing, and according to the teaching, I break the cycle between my conscious and unconscious mind and body. The same cycle that keeps me in a perpetual and ever multiplying negative pattern of addiction. Simply by being aware of my sensations and equanimous towards them, I purify my mind.
There is another law of nature that plays a central part in this teaching. This law states that if we align ourselves with a life that is wholesome, moral and supportive of others then we are rewarded and if we do not then we suffer. This is the law of cause and effect. Vipassana, therefore, is not just a technique, but an art of living. To support me in living a moral life I agree to five precepts before the retreat starts. I will not kill, have sexual misconduct, steal, tell lies or take intoxicants. Throughout the course I take a vow of ‘noble silence’, which includes vocal silence as well as silence of body and mind. In this way I give myself the best chance to find harmony and happiness. It’s an intense experience. I meditate for up to eleven hours a day. Phones, cameras, writing implements or any other form of distraction or something to ‘do’ are prohibited. It’s one of the few things I have done where I am not trying to get anywhere or create anything. I just have to be present with whatever is happening in the moment.
Like a wild animal, my mind rages against this. My ego is being starved. I have no one to complain to, brag to, gossip to. There is nothing to distract me or entertain me. A mental storm blows and it is uncomfortable and noisy. But then, day by day, a calm and peace descends and the torrent of my thoughts turns into a slow drip. From the silence arises a sense of joy, compassion and serenity.
I come out of the course feeling sharp and present. I drive home. What was once a menial activity, even a chore, becomes a sensual pleasure. I am aware of the steering wheel in my hands, and every muscle that I move as I navigate the road. The world outside the car has become vibrant and fascinating in its minute detail. I hear the engine, but there is also a silence that surrounds me in my car and an inner stillness that is comforted by a steady and peaceful breath. It feels like time has slowed down and I am aware of everything, effortlessly and completely. Bliss.
I arrive home and pick up a newspaper and read an article quickly and with my complete attention, without losing focus for even one word. Laughing, I rediscover the life that has always been right in front of me, right here inside me, right now.
Having done a Vipassana course before, I know that this high in which I find myself will subside in a few weeks. The starved and wild animal of my mind is already slowly awakening from its slumber. But that’s fine and to be expected, and besides, feeling high is not really the point. My goal is to be able to roll with the vicissitudes of life, free of attachment. The next day I find I have a parking ticket. Where once I would have lost my composure for ten minutes, this time I lose it only for a couple, before I get on with my day and leave it behind me.
For me the challenge of maintaining equanimity and awareness is ongoing and every day and all day I am presented with opportunities to demonstrate them. They are my tools for living a happier and more harmonious life.
Vipassana really does help you to see things as they really are and what’s more the course is free of charge. Here is a link to the website https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index