Part III: Perfect Equanimity
It has been 3 weeks since I’ve come back from the 10 Day Silent Meditation retreat, and I still hear the words ‘Perfect Equanimity’ reverberating between my ears, down into my chest, and out through my fingers and toes. There were two highlights every single day that I would desperately look forward to like a prison inmate craves a conjugal visit. One was lunch, duh. The other was movie time. Every evening at 7 PM, after hours upon hours of meditation, we were seated to watch a recorded discourse where S N Goenka elaborated on the Vipassana experience. These discourses talked us through the sensations we were experiencing from day to day, directly relating them back to the philosophy of Dhamma - the path to a good life based on the teachings of Gotoma The Buddah. The great insight from Buddah is that all human suffering comes from attachment.
What is 'perfect equanimity'? Why can I still hear it? Is it because I was brainwashed for 10 days? Possibly. There’s nothing like being brainwashed for world peace. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s brainwashing. Sure, you are isolated for the rest of the world, encouraged not to speak to others or consume any other information other than your host for 120 continuous hours, but ultimately, when you hear something and experience something to be true, it sticks. So, ‘perfect equanimity’ sticks - but why?
Perfect equanimity in Vipassana is the belief that approaching all of the body sensations equally is the key to a balanced life - a happy, present life. This means without labelling them as good or bad, without attaching to them or avoiding them. Without wishing that things be other than they are in the present moment. This is the living and doing practice of the philosophy of Dhamma. It is practicing and experiencing the truth about all of reality in the context of your own physical body - that no matter how good or bad a sensation feels in the moment, all things ultimately come to pass.
S N Goenka, the teacher responsible for taking the Vipassana practice international to dozens of countries in over 160 centres worldwide, joined his first 10 Day sitting under the tutelage of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, a renowned Burmese Vipassana teacher, and on his second day he wanted to run away. He came into it unwittingly by referral, not unlike many Vipassana students including myself, desperate for relief from inexplicable pains that medical science could not address. Coming from a wealthy, business background, he was skeptical of what he would find in Vipassana, and his reaction to run away was not uncommon - and a reaction I can personally relate to.
I mentioned in Part II how I experienced wanting the meditation sittings to end. They were tedious and uncomfortable and up to Day 5 I questioned why I was there and why I would voluntarily sign up to get my ass kicked by meditation. Scanning my body from head to toe, noting sensations that were pleasant and unpleasant, itching, burning, soreness, tingling, and subtle peaceful vibrations, there were times I was not equanimous. I wanted it the discomfort to end, and for the gong to ring to let us know we could go to breakfast or lunch or bed. I was waiting to get saved by the bell - that is, until I realized that this is how I was going through life. I was waiting for what was happening right now to be over so I could get to the end of the sitting, or the end of the ten days - but what then? After those sittings and those days, I would still have work to do. Waiting for things to be other than they were would achieve nothing but more frustration, and lead to more work in the end.
We talked about more in Part II as it applies to our distracting thoughts and anxieties about specific scenarios. It also applies to our approach to work and doing. We think about more work and get overwhelmed. We can’t wait for the work to be over, so we rush, cut corners, pray for it to be over and the reach our goal so we can say ‘we did it’ for a fleeting moment. In actuality, it’s just work. If our life is nothing but a 10 Day journey, then we are all right here for a short space of time and in that time we will always have work to do. What is the point of complaining about having to do work, and being miserable in the end when it's all over? In fact, it’s liberating to just accept that there is always work and always ways to improve. Our remaining time is better spent doing the best we can instead of perpetuating the eternal cycle of dissatisfaction as we strive to be the best or be the first at the finish line.
There is an analogy Goenka used during his discourses that was really helpful in understanding the disposition of a Vipassana student. There are three kinds of people. One finds a glass half full and cries because it is not full. Another finds a glass half full and is excited because at least it is half full! Yet another, a Vipassana person, finds a glass half full and says this is great, the glass is full, but I can find a way to fill it all the way to the top. This is the reason for the 10 day sits, and determined repetitive practice: it builds the ability to see a negative not only as a positive, but as an opportunity to do better by perseverance. It is to endure the practical work of doing, to achieve a positive result. It’s not merely passive positive thinking, it is a commitment to actively participate in your own well-being and the well-being of others.
Perfect equanimity is work. Hard work. It is the work all of us can do to let go of the expectations we have of ourselves and others. It is the work we can do individually to let people be who they are without fighting them or avoiding them, but sitting with them in discomfort until it becomes comfortable. It’s the work we can do to sustain ourselves in hard situations like untimely deaths, suicidal thoughts, and heartbreak with the belief that as hard as they are, they will pass. It’s the work we can do to understand that while good times are great, not to take them for granted, and savour them like you’re eating your last meal on death row. It’s the work we can all do to stop placing ourselves on a hierarchy and to be identified by arbitrary titles like director, manager, specialist, etc., and start sharing what we actually do with others. There are all sorts of other scenarios where you can be equanimous. Think of your life, your major storyline at this moment, and what it would be like to 1) not desire a particular result, and 2) not sweep it under the rug, either. And all things being equal, allow what is happening right now to be okay for right now.
While I’m not sure that perfect equanimity is entirely possible, I do think the practice is the most important part. Wouldn't it be wonderful to think about a world that practiced equanimity? We might have more openly diverse, harmonious and understanding families rather than the aptly named ‘nuclear’ family which for some reason so many families strive. We might actually have productive conversations with people about race relations, sexual misconduct, and personal trauma without fear of offending others with our viewpoint which was formed and reinforced in large part by others. We might select world leaders that represent an equanimous point of view, that is neither one thing or the other - this party, or that party - but a smorgasbord of things that actually represent what it is to be human with a fully functioning human mind.
Going to Vipassana helped me think about all of this in a new way, and while it was hard work and oftentimes I questioned whether I’d do it again, in retrospect, the opportunity to practice and feel my own humanity is something I will value for the rest of my life and try to apply to the world around me. Something about this seems eerily familiar, like I might have had this experience over and over again between every death and rebirth.
If that’s how all this life stuff typically goes down, I wonder if my last words and first thoughts will always be: ‘Well, that was really, really hard, but I am so glad I did it. I think I’ll do that again, but maybe this time I'll do better.’