Humans all want the same things: to be happy, healthy, safe, to generally feel good and be free from suffering. Unfortunately, even those of us who have endured relatively few stressors can attest that life is mostly not in our control. Aging, sickness and death are inevitable no matter how healthy a lifestyle we lead, and inflictive emotional states like anxiety, anger and grief are common to humanity.
From the mindfulness perspective, freedom from suffering does not come simply from reducing stressful external circumstances, though that is often a wise course of action. The relational practice of mindfulness with equanimity, according to Buddhist teachings, is the middle way and offers a path to true liberation.
Life is unpredictable and stressful circumstances are bound to occur. The good news is that we don’t have to suffer pain or hardship so much. Everyone has access to freedom from suffering by ameliorating our relationship to what is happening.
Feeling Tones After Pain
Let’s take a closer look at this. The three feeling tones that could arise in response to any experience are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Once the feeling of pain has arisen, for example, we can acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable, yet what makes us suffer discomfort has a lot more to do with how we relate to it than the sensations of pain itself.
The adage “what we resist persists” points out the futility of micromanaging or avoiding discomfort. Ignoring anxiety by drinking a glass of wine or addictively surfing the Internet, for example, might provide a short-term distraction, but it does nothing to address the deeper source of suffering. Anxiety is still there and our relationship to it hasn’t changed; we still wish it would go away.
You might be thinking, “Duh, of course I want anxiety to go away.” Here’s the potent paradox that makes this teaching so powerful: the shift from wanting things to be other than they are to allowing them to be as they are is like an internal peace treaty. That is the first major step toward liberation. This approach is not synonymous with giving up or becoming a doormat. On the contrary, it’s a way of more deeply connecting with life in a healthy, skillful way.
It’s easy to recognize suffering when we have an unpleasant reaction to something. Upon deeper examination it’s clear that suffering also ensues when we cling to pleasant experiences, only to eventually lose them since everything is impermanent. The eighteenth century English poet William Blake described the detrimental effect of attachment brilliantly:
“He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise”
Blake was pointing to the very heart of Buddhist philosophy as outlined in the Second Noble Truth: grasping is the root cause of suffering. The moment we cling to the pleasures of life, greedily wanting them to stay the same, we deny the reality that all things are impermanent and subject to change. As a mother I notice this tendency toward clinging in myself when I watch my young daughter in a particularly sweet phase and have the understandable urge to freeze her as a precious five year old. Sadness arises along with a clenching feeling in my heart. I don’t want to let go and just like that I am caught in the stress of longing while she plays happily.
Aversion to unpleasant experiences is just another form of grasping: desiring or yearning for something to be different than what has arisen. To use the same example, when my daughter is going through a challenging phase in her development, I may find myself frustrated by her defiant behavior. I end up being short with her or reacting aggressively, which isn’t a constructive approach and usually amplifies my anger and her tantrum. What I resist persists. In situations like this one, when the frustrations of parenting would be felt by even the saintliest among us, it’s beneficial to have the wisdom of equanimity at our disposal.
Try this practice the next time your patience with someone is compromised: When anger rushes in, pause, take a couple deep breaths and notice what frustration feels like in the body. Is it hot, spreading, pulsing, tingling? Is the heart rate or respiration increased? Locate its visceral presence and mentally note, “here is the experience of anger.” Then, offer yourself the well wishes you need in this moment of suffering. You might say to yourself “may I be calm,” “may I be firm and clear in setting boundaries,” “this too shall pass,” “may I not yell,” or whatever phrase it is that will support you best. Let your heart drink in this kind wish as you repeat it over several more deep breaths, and see if you can actually feel some degree of ease and calm even in the midst of strong emotion. It is liberating to choose not to allow anger to enslave us by raging at the person who has aroused frustration, or by suppressing and denying it. This “heat of the moment” practice is challenging and takes strong mindfulness to be successful, but luckily equanimity can be cultivated in the same way that any skill improves with practice.
Acknowledge the Trial
So, if a challenging circumstance arises, first acknowledge that it is hard, rather than the common response of ignoring or fighting against the situation. Does this mean that we shouldn’t attempt to change the obvious external factors the cause us stress? No, that would be denial. Leaving an unhealthy relationship, adjusting to a healthy diet and getting sufficient sleep are some examples of skillful shifts that we can control, however, we are still left with ordinary human suffering and all of life’s challenges that can’t be fixed by manipulating external factors.
Since we can’t fix everything according to our preferences, why not try the radical (and ancient) practice of allowing things to be as they are. We can experiment with equanimity in small ways at first, like observing the craving that arises when we see a desired object, such as an ice cream treat. We can look at the ice cream and notice where the craving for it is felt in the body, and then see if it’s possible to turn off the desire for it and observe it with equanimity; neither craving nor rejecting it.
Another readily available opportunity for practicing this approach is by using a pain in the body as the object of attention. The next time you notice some discomfort in the back, for example, examine its contours and features more closely. Zoom in with the mind’s eye and notice: where does it reside? Is it sharp or dull? Achy or tense? Does the pain migrate or pulsate? Can you pay attention to it calmly, with care and compassion, neither abandoning it nor getting overly entangled with it? Can you switch between allowing yourself to be okay with the pain, and then notice what it feels like to not be okay with it? A light-hearted, non-rigid attitude with these exercises is imperative to avoid getting overwhelmed.
There are many creative ways to experiment with this approach and discover if it’s true in your own experience that equanimity is indeed an antidote to suffering. Equanimity is a far cry from detaching from or “transcending” our experience. Any experimentation with it will quickly reveal that it’s actually a deepening of connection to the object of attention. Focus, curiosity and caring attention are all required if one is to observe things as they actually are, without getting hijacked by habitual reactivity and clinging to the pleasant, on the one hand, and rejecting the unpleasant, on the other.