Seven Factors of Awakening – talk 8 – Equanimity


Tonight we complete our little tour of the Seven Factors of Awakening.

To review briefly, these are qualities of mind that the Buddha recommends that we nurture, support and bring forth in order to align the mind with freedom and awakening. There’s a dynamic tension in that in terms of this question around whether we are making something happen or just attending to the conditions of our life so that qualities of mind which are already there will blossom naturally. One teacher says the idea is to “incline the mind” in the direction of these qualities. The idea being that we have a kind of orientating power with the mind. The etymology of attention or “to attend” is atendere in Latin which means something like “to bend the mind to” so we are back to how we direct our spotlight of attention. It’s easier for us to see what we are listening to or seeing outside but the invitation in encouraging these qualities to flourish is that we attend to our inner experience more carefully. I think about it like each moment is a great meeting of the deep conditioned past and how we are holding ourself in the present. How do we meet this conjunction of condition and response – present, past, and our momentum and direction – how does it all come together.

So we look at overall patterns and moment by moment patterns. What are we doing to practice and continue our mindfulness, our remembering to pay attention in the present moment? Our gentle and persistent effort to bring up what I’ve been calling the 3 A’s in mindfulness class: awareness, acceptance, and accuracy. Interestingly a few students have reacted to accuracy. But I think I’m keeping it. Of course our view is always a little distorted so it’s hard to know what’s accurate, but we bring that up as an aspiration. To have clarity, to have accuracy, what’s happening know. Just as we can’t always be aware or accepting we bring forward the intention, the vow, to be completely aware and deeply accepting of what is. And not a passive kind of acceptance either! Then we respond as skillfully as we can to conditions. Which is another way to look at the 7 Factors – a set of guidelines for how to respond to these arising moments.

So we respond first with mindfulness, inclining the mind towards awareness of the present. Then the second factor discernment or investigation kicks in, we wonder what’s really happening here? And that gets pretty interesting – we notice things about mind, body and world that we never noticed before. And that interest born of investigation helps to motivate us – wow there’s something to this! I don’t have to be stuck in all my old patterns forever – outstanding. And so the 3rd factor of diligence or energy arises. And as we feel energized there’s a kind of warm and goodness to that even if we don’t exactly like all that we are discovering. It’s the joy of feeling that we are walking on the path. Are we at our destination yet? Of course not but that joy in moving, in hiking along our path. I put some of the summer’s hiking retreats on the website calendar today actually – you can practice literally walking the path as Dharma practice then if you like.

Anyway our joy enlivens us and softens us and we feel safe relaxing a little. This is the 4th factor – lightness and ease or calm. And sometimes of course we get hooked in joy and we need these teachings to remind us to deliberately incline the mind towards calm. Or to make choices that support the conditions leading to calm – mindful of the food we eat, the drinks we drink, the media we consume for instance. Wow, I’m really amped up, this feels a little jaggy and unsustainable, a little disconnect maybe so we bring up calm as the grounding and soothing counterpart to joy.

As we calm down we find the mind is supported to be more stable, this is samadhi or concentration that we talked about last week, the sixth factor of awakening. We can take up a single object when there is a practice or a worldly task that calls for that, and what a calming joy it is to actually be able to concentrate – isn’t it? When you are both energized and settled. When we are a student we often stumble into that state sometime, or maybe we stay up all night hoping it will come along. And when it kicks in wow, you are so much smarter than you thought you were. But of course “smart” is just a process not a state or an attribute of a person. I should teach the 7 factors of awakening to the students up at Western – it would help their studies for sure.

And as our mind become stable and concentration is strong when we don’t have a task to do or some reason to concentrate single-pointedly we can just rest the mind in open awareness. Just widen out the focus and enjoy the experience of being. If something comes up noticing it and attending to it but not so grabbed by it, and that is the precursor to our last factor. Which we’ll get to in a moment.

And a post-script to the last talk on samadhi or concentration is I found out the etymology of samadhi. Sam means gathering, and the root dha means placing. So it’s a gathering up our inner resources and choosing where to place them. On a single object, or placing them in some broad way on the whole of experience.

So there’s a balance here maybe with doing and non-doing in working with these factors. Maybe the way to talk about how to actually accomplish the nurturing of these mental factors is something like this:
1) build a good foundation
2) incline the mind
3) accept what is

Build a good foundation is our whole life. And this includes precepts practice. Is our life upright and ethical? Kind to others? Restrained and clear? In the traditional commentaries they include working with the 5 hindrances as part of building a good foundation.

Here’s a nice story from Sheng Yen about the hindrance of desire:

A young professor was attending a retreat for the first time. During the first five days she suffered greatly. She kept saying to herself that the next day would be better, but every day her suffering actually increased. She told herself that if things did not get better by the fifth day, she was going to leave. She blamed herself for not having virtuous roots and not having the capacity to practice Chan. She decided that Chan was not for her and she stood up, getting ready to leave. At that moment she felt she had let me down, and that she had let down the Buddha. She felt embarrassed, so she bowed to the Buddha statue in the Chan Hall. In that moment all the physical discomforts that she had been experiencing vanished. She had been struggling and suffering so greatly for five days, and suddenly all those negative sensations were gone. She so attached to her suffering that she could not let it go. The moment she gave up on that idea, her discomforts dropped away. She returned to her cushion and sat very well for the rest of the retreat. The difference was that she no longer wished her suffering to be gone, and she no longer rejected the discomforts of sitting. She was then able to practice very well, and at the end she did not want to leave. In fact, she plans to become a nun!

So it’s good to train in noticing the hindrances as hindrances, and in the mindfulness of our practicing with them and the importance of it. Not to feed desire or aversion. To respond creatively to restlessness and dullness. To meet doubt with wisdom and kindness.

And with a strong foundation it’s more possible to incline the mind. To pause, breathe, and wonder about our current state. And then to tune into what seems low. If we’re really distracted and sleepy to turn up investigation and diligence. If we bouncing off the walls to incline the mind and the activity towards calm and steadiness. If our mind is bouncing around to focus the mind by sitting down to practice or just holding the mind in a focussed and steady way. Even if it doesn’t seem subjectively like we are instantly successful we bring up our faith and do our best anyway. This is a long term project, the patterns are deep.

So I made a mistake on the little sheets somehow. That 7th factor is not wisdom, it’s equanimity. There are many connections between the two. Equanimity is from the Sanskrit upeksha which means “not taking notice of”. So it has a kind of “never you mind” root meaning. Equanimity has a shared root in English with equality. So it’s a kind of being equal in our response to this world. Something good happens we enjoy it, “ahhhh”, something bad happens, too bad, “ahhhh”. To there’s a measuredness that we cultivate in our responses to the shifting sands of experience.

This one’s really about process too. When we get too hooked into the contents of what’s happening it’s hard to maintain equanimity.

A traditional way to look at what hooks us are the 8 worldly concerns. A list from the Buddha. They are 4 pairs: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and dishonor, gain and loss. That kind of sums up what we worry about doesn’t?

Much as we think the positive one is better and is what want, these teachings of equanimity tell us that reaching too hard for the positive or being fixated on someone else’s fame or success certainly, destabilizes the mind. Buddhism asks us to make a deep choice here, do we want worldly, temporary, conditioned happiness that is sure to fail us in the end, or do we want to throw our lot in with awakening. With a deep appreciation for the unfolding of things as they go. Nothing is wrong with fame or success, and in these teachings there is nothing wrong with blame and failure either. It is just what it is. Really.

So an interesting practice is to release from fame and success. We went to see our sangha friend Ruth Ozeki at the Chuckanut Radio Hour. Before we went Janet listened to a wonderful interview with her on NPR. And there was nice write up in the New York Times about her new book. Oh and she’s now on the independent bookseller’s best sellers list now too. She was fresh back from her second trip to London paid for by her publisher too. So fame and gain for sure. Really exciting. And I’m glad to say she looked pretty balanced. She said to me last night, “I figured out that a book tour like this is just like sesshin!”

I had a little taste of praise and fame the other night myself in my mindfulness mode. I was invited to present at the monthly educational event for the National Association for Mental Illness which is a really neat advocacy and education group around mental illness which even today has such horrible stigma. The turn out was twice what they usually get and the response and feeling in the room were really strong so I was feeling pretty good. Then one woman who’d taken one of our classes spoke up right at the end, actually kind of interrupting me as I was winding things down to say: “Tim I just want to make sure everyone knows what a treasure you are and how lucky Bellingham is to have you. My husband and I took your four week class and it’s totally changed our lives.”

So that was quite the note to end on. Maybe 45 people in the room. Pretty crowded.

What I noticed when I got home was that I had a bit of a praise and fame buzz on. And that I could feel into a desire to rattle on way too long about how great it went with Janet. She’s glad to hear about how things go but at a certain point you aren’t really having a conversation are you? So I made myself a snack and practices moving a little more slowly and just letting that energy go. It was actually a really kind of beautiful feeling to let it go and not be so caught up in it. You know how when you get caught up in that kind of thing how you get kind of edgy. A little fear comes with it too – did they really like me? Will I be able to keep this up? Can I do more of these presentations without them all getting tired of me? A lot of compelling thoughts about the future.

But just letting it go was a kind of dropping into the present. And there weren’t so many thoughts about the future. I still felt good but there was a lightness to it. Maybe it was a kind of shifting from joy into calm as I tried to practice equanimity. And for sure I had some pretty solid concentration inspired by making a presentation.

The eight worldly concerns aren’t that different from the five hindrances really but they are usually taught in connection to equanimity practice. And the first step is always awareness. Am I worried about having more pleasure and avoiding pain? How much energy is going there? Am I really reactive to blame and really caught up when I receive praise? Do I want a little local fame? And is there horror around the possibility that I might have a bad reputation in the community? And what do I want to gain, what am I bothered by losing?

All of this operates in the context of the bodhisattva vow and our wholesome desire to help others of course too. If it’s skillful to be a locally famous and praised mindfulness teacher then that’s what I need to take on and practice with. If it were skillful to be a homeless person and live under the Chestnut Street bridge in a tent scorned by the well meaning middle class people around us can we practice with that? It’s an active and creative kind of engagement with conditions.

So that’s a few words on equanimity. I hope our discussion of the seven factors of awakening has been helpful. It’s actually I think in some ways a pretty simple teaching – bring up these positive qualities, face the hindrances – but in other ways it’s really subtle and easy to misunderstand. We can be too prescriptive and narrow and take these things on as rules.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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