Thursday, October 23, 2008

what is equanimity?

There is no such thing as a slow day at work. And so, last night was the end of yet another long day. I relaxed by catching up on the latest updates to my favorite blogs and reading any mail I might get. I eat a little food. I tend to spend too much time doing this, reluctant to go to sleep. In the end I face the next day deprived of rest and with indigestion. When I thought about how self-defeating this was, I reflected on the importance of responding to stress with equanimity. That doesn't mean blocking out my feelings when something happens to me, but behind it is a realization that coping with stress by craving for pleasure tends to be counterproductive. So how does one maintain equanimity?

Creating a task list was not an entirely useless exercise. Looking over it, I see an eclectic mix of activities, all of which point to developing a more peaceful life in tune with the world around me. But I don't have to do any of them in order to have peace. A big part of equanimity is knowing that everything you need you have right now. Through the clouds of greed and ambition, people have been saying this for a long time.

"I've all I need. There's nothing I lack."

Diogenes had equanimity, but I seldom find myself at peace with this feeling. Nonetheless, I need it if I am to be able to plan for tomorrow. And I need to know what I will do tomorrow if I am to have any peace for today. It's a positive feedback system; peace is in many ways a sense of security in the future.

This last Halloween I was Garth (of SNL's Wayne's World), but next year I might try to dress in costume as Diogenes of Sinope wandering the streets with a lamp during the day looking for a human being.

-edited 04 November 2008

Having learned about the therapeutic properties of hot and cold cycles in traditional sauna use, it seems very clear that a sense of equanimity is not arrived at purely through a change in mind (perspectives, concepts, etc.). Perhaps even more importantly, it requires positive changes in one's physical body (nutrition, fitness, organ functioning, etc.). The combination of both being optimal.

-last edited 07 November 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

anicca, dukkha, karuna

Just as all things end, so too does suffering. Without this important understanding, compassion will quickly wither and die. And so today I came to realize the wisdom conveyed in Palden Gyatso's words when he connected several key ideas: "When we are able to perceive all things as impermanent, then we can have compassion." Enemies become friends, friends may become enemies, nothing stays the same, everything is transient. Even the worst situations change, and that allows me to feel compassion for them. If they did not, I could not have compassion for them, it would be intolerable.

Few people love stress, disease, or suffering, yet alone willingly welcome any of these into their lives. Compassion, the genuine desire to remove harm and suffering from others, seems to be the most rational response when confronted with these undesireable facets of life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A prayer

May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May the forlorn find hope,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.

May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose;
May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.

May the poor find wealth,
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.
Adapted from chapter ten of Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The spirit of compassion

Whenever ideas are translated from one language to another, or one culture to another, or even one person to another, the difficulty lies in ensuring that the essential meaning survives the transition. So of course, the words themselves are not as important as the notions they carry. In the same manner, the word "compassion" is not important either so much as the idea that it is the wish that others be free from suffering. It is a hope that is not exclusive to any single virtue, but shared with and incorporated into many. A few years ago I was interested in negative consequentialism, the idea that suffering can and should be prevented, with the emphasis on prevention whenever possible. It's an idea that has taken root in some contemporary policies such as the "Precautionary Principle". Though it is desireable to anticipate and prevent problems before they arise, that isn't always possible. Author Sharon Salzberg once wrote that strength arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world, and bearing witness to it without fear, whether it is in ourselves or others. This strength is the ability to act with all the skill at our disposal to address it. There is an established practice called Tonglen that appears to effectively convey the spirit of compassion.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Book review: An Open Heart

My children caused me to think about compassion, appropriately enough. One morning, about two weeks ago, I was lying in bed, exhausted and wanting to sleep in. As usual my kids woke up early and were not interested in going back to sleep at all. My son, less than a year old, is hungry and needs his diaper changed. I saw that more than anything else it takes compassion for me to meet his needs as well as my own. A profound, calm, abiding compassion.

I was pleasantly surprised when I read "An Open Heart" by the Dalai Lama. I was looking for information about how to develop greater compassion in my life, and this book was a direct answer to that question. When I had briefly looked at other books under his authorship, I dismissed them as having a lack of depth and looking like a lot of other new age nonsense. (I am especially critical of anything that generates wide spread acclaim or appeals to a popular audience.) But now my opinion has changed. In this book at least, the Dalai Lama provided a detailed presentation of the mental techniques used by Tibetan Buddhists to increase virtuous thoughts and responsible actions. The explanations behind why they are used reveal an apparently rich understanding of the way the mind works. This may all be pseudo-science, but if nothing else it is at least a window into the cultural and religious history of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the Dalai Lama, in order to generate genuine compassion, one must combine a feeling of empathy for others with a profound understanding of the suffering they experience. Empathy is generated by reflecting on the kindness of others, and recognizing how our fortune is dependent on the cooperation and contribution of others. We can extend a recognition of our own suffering to the suffering of others. (Suffering is a word that I dislike. It conotes a sense of graveness that I feel only the most extreme situations warrant. So I offer "stress" as an appropriate substitute henceforth.) The Dalai Lama identifies three kinds of stress: the "stress of stress", the "stress of change", and the "stress of existence". I will spare you the details here, but that pretty much covers everything.

I got about twenty pages to go before finishing the book (it isn't very long). As an important political as well as spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama cannot avoid getting his hands dirty in these two most contentious human institutions. That makes the book all the more interesting. And oddly enough he has been in the news just today with doubts about his physical health as he has been in and out of hospitals. But at 73, physical problems are not unheard of for anyone.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'
- Kurt Vonnegut

When we are able to perceive all things as impermanent, then we can have compassion.
- Palden Gyatso "From torture to tolerance: A Tibetan Lama's survival under Chinese occupation" Friday, Oct. 28, 2005

The exercise of compassion is what matters in our world.
- Karen Armstrong, Parabola magazine vol. 31 no. 3
Compassion is something that I need in order to help others when at the same time I need help myself, and to help myself when I'd rather let myself go. But having compassion is not always easy in either case. I think a view to personal benefit is not inherently inconsistent with compassion, whereas it would be with altruism by definition. Is it possible (or even desireable) to have compassion for everyone? I can't answer that. And does a desire to be compassionate require a desire for suffering since without suffering, there is no need for compassion? But I think this is not so, because suffering is an unavoidable part of life that needs no invitation.
"Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others' suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama's philosophy and mission," says Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader. "We wanted to see how this voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems involved in empathy."
Matthieu Ricard participated in this study involving fMRI brain scans to see the effect of meditating on compassion. This is all very interesting. I think it is somewhat similar to prayer in the Christian tradition. The primary motivation for many prayers is compassion.