In Buddhism it is said that there are four kinds of love: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
The last one doesn’t necessarily sound like a form of love, but for me it is the deepest and most profound of the four, without which the other three become pretty confused.
First let’s briefly understand the first three, which are what most of us think of when we consider what love is.
Loving-kindness means being kind toward ourselves. It is a lack of self-aggression and a gentleness toward all that arises from within us as well—a welcoming. It is the ground of all love without which perhaps none of the others forms of love can happen.
Compassion is perhaps the best-known form of love. This is what Mother Theresa and Jesus showed us. Our hearts break when we see anyone suffer and we do everything we can to help. We literally “feel with,” as the etymology of the word suggests.
Sympathetic joy is when we are happy for others, even and especially our “enemies.” This cuts deeply across our habitual ego-aggrandizement that so often wants to be “better than,” or to “win.” It is feeling happy for you when you get what you want. I feel joy when you feel joy, no matter what our relationship.
But it is the fourth kind of love, equanimity, which goes all the way to the root of things. Krishnamurti once asked his audience if they wanted to know the secret to enlightenment. Of course they did! That is why they had come and they waited eagerly to hear the secret, wise, and pith instructions.
“I don’t mind what happens,” he said.
That is equanimity.
Equanimity brings this to the table: “I love myself so that I can….” and equanimity says, “Stop there. There is no ‘so I can….’” We just love ourselves for no reason (loving-kindness). We are just compassionate for no reason. We are just happy for others for no reason and when it doesn’t even make sense. Equanimity is the secret ingredient that makes the bread rise.
It is not that we don’t care, or feel what happens at all, but rather that we don’t mind—we don’t “argue with reality,” as Byron Katie says. When we stop arguing with reality, believing things should be different from how they are, we actually become more available to others and ourselves.
In high school, my calculus teacher did something simple that changed my life. We were all working on a difficult problem and he looked at the chalkboard full of symbols and then turned and sat down in one of the desk-chairs in the front row, glaring at and pondering it along with the rest of us. For a moment, we were equals, paired against a problem but not each other.
I learned much later that that is also equanimity. There was no attachment in him to prove that he knew more than any of us did. We were all in it together. We were on the same side, just trying to unravel a difficult calculus problem. There was no ego in it at all and he also didn’t pretend to know what he didn’t know, even as our teacher—which showed genuine humility. He sat down in one of those nasty desk-chairs just like one of us, faced the front and stared at the blackboard, put his hand on his chin and genuinely pondered for real. If he had been faking, trying to pretend to be “one of us,” we would have known.
Equanimity is this: We are all in this together and nothing ultimately matters. It allows us to care more than we maybe ever imagined.
Whether that calculus problem was ever solved made no difference to any human life as far as I know. And yet, everything mattered. The way he sat down and joined us mattered. The way he didn’t feign authority mattered. The way he admitted that he was as perplexed as we were mattered. It mattered that he respected us enough to be curious and that did affect some lives. It affected mine.
Equanimity is nuanced and also has great depth. It is not what the mind might think—it is not at all dissociative, distant or uncaring. It is most certainly not a defensive stance. It doesn’t say, “Oh, it’s all fine.” “We are all one,” or “Well, nothing matters” in a condescending, distant, “I know” way. In fact, it is quite the opposite. When we open to equanimity we become open to everything. We stop picking and choosing based on what we like and don’t like. We stop separating ourselves in an attempt to feel less than. It opens a huge space and what rushes in is more experience and more feeling. It’s kind of like unleashing Pandora’s box.
When I don’t mind what happens, things change.
I see someone’s anger toward me, for example, as an expression of wisdom or perhaps of underlying hurt. It creates connection and I join with them and look for where they are right. I may hear their heartfelt desire to connect with me or else to share themselves. When someone corrects me or says something more eloquently than the way I said it, I feel appreciation and I defer, with honest gratitude. Equanimity. It doesn’t matter if I say it or if you do because there is no “me” in it.
That said, love never makes us stupid or blind, so I may also see the underlying confusion or ego attachments in someone’s expression but—and here’s the thing—I don’t mind. It’s okay to be confused. It is equal to being awake. It is (and if you really take this in it will blow your mind) an expression of being awake. Our awareness can actually get so vast that it all starts to make sense, and the only key is this: what is happening is what is supposed to be happening. That’s it. That brings us home.
With equanimity we become unchained from the burden of having to judge, manage, figure out or fix anything anymore. Relationships become beautiful, exciting and changeable, and in a sense, they are not personal, just like the weather. Events become a spectacular display of reality whether we, relatively speaking, like them or don’t. We are allowed to not like things and even rage against them! At some point we may even get excited when things going “badly” for us. It becomes like the part of the book where the plot gets really interesting and dangerous for the protagonist, and who wants to miss that part of the hero’s journey?
I joked for a long while that my superpower was not giving a sh*t, which is perhaps the present parlance of not minding what happens.
But stay with me here, because equanimity is in no way a dismissal, disregard, or a justification for hurting, shaming or being violent toward others. In this case, I am actually and only caring about the impact on oneself, never mind the impact on another person if we behaved so blithely.
What does it do to oneself when we cut off from the other three kinds of love? What does it do to the teacher at the front of the class who has to pretend he knows more in order to protect his image instead of sitting down with us and just looking at the problem?
Equanimity has a lot to do with humility, strangely enough. It’s what makes compassion real, with the deep ring of truth.
In my experience, practicing equanimity can get pretty wacky. When we hold equally what arises for us as well as what arises for others, sane and not-so-sane, we get to play in some interesting territory. If you thought equanimity would get you off the hook of having to feel and experience things—if you thought it would somehow make you above things— think again.
The fourth kind of love is one very big, “Okay. Yes. I accept.” It is not dismissive, distancing or sarcastic. It is relentlessly and ruthlessly real.
In that way, equanimity makes no logical sense, but then again, we don’t judge a thunderstorm. We may be in awe of it, or disappointed, or frightened by it, but whichever way we view it, it just is what it is. That is equanimity. It is a radical opening of acceptance to what is. If we go further, it is more than just “Okay.” It is a “yes” to everything that happens.
Sudden encounters? Yes.
My own juvenile, or reactive behaviors? Yes.
Being treated unfairly? Yes.
Being treated kindly? Yes.
Being met and cared for? Yes.
Acting on an impulse? Yes.
Caring about how I impact others? Yes.
Being alone? Yes.
Not being understood? Yes.
Not knowing or understanding anything? Yes.
It comes down to this: what is happening should be happening, and if I have any job at all it is to discover how that is so. In that way, I become radically free. There is no wrong way to do it because, on the deepest level, it is equal. Does that mean I then rob people, or scream at them or violate anyone? No. To do that would violate my own soul and, all things being equal, why would I ever do that?
There is a story of a realized teacher who was received grandly for his wisdom and was welcomed and fed at the towns he wandered through. They felt blessed to be in his presence. One day he was at the front of the line, first to receive food because of his bright emanation, and at the back of the line was a man who was almost a mongrel. He was dirty, hunched, and smelled of rot and stench. Because of the master’s deep awareness, he could see that this man—who would receive only the leftover, unwanted table scraps along with everyone’s disdain—was actually more awake than he was and what he realized is that he does not want to be that man. He does not want to be a very awake person recognized by nobody, starving, alone, and living in squalor.
I will leave it to you to sort out the implications of that story but I will say that equanimity is the genuine willingness for anything—so here is where we open Pandora’s box.
Equanimity will take you into all the corners of yourself because it is actually about opening to everything. It gives us the almost super-human ability not to judge any person or experience that we encounter because, if you think about it, and just like the parable above, what part of you is at the back of that line? Who do you see who experiences something you can’t embrace?
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
With this kind of openness, we can then turn toward tending to our own souls, knowing that everyone is genuinely doing the best they can. Far more reaching, however, is that others are doing and being what we desperately need them to be so that we can explore what we came here to explore. We can hate them and love them all at once. We can play out our dramas, and they can play out theirs, and ultimately we know that there is just no way to do it wrong, and that doesn’t mean that it feels good to act out, throw sh*t around, or cause harm. We begin to trust life and to live it in a dignified way.
We start to not mind what happens, since what is happening happens anyway, and yet we care. In fact, we care more (remember that there are still three other kinds of love). But we don’t have to manage it anymore, even our own image, prosperity or well-being. Like my math teacher we just sit down at the table and work on things together because we know that it’s not about us.
We let things affect and open us instead, and that is actually a huge relief. When done well it actually makes us kinder, and we begin again, over and over and over. We become the essence of willing.
Author: Kristin Luce
Image: See-ming Lee/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman