The Bhagavad Gita teaches that the three gateways to hell are greed, anger, and lust. Hell is not a mythical destination that may await us after this life; it is a state of mind that we can, and many of us do, experience now. The Buddha taught that two impediments toward enlightenment are desire and aversion. Greed and lust are two extreme forms of desire; hatred and anger are extreme forms of aversion.
Desire is necessary in practical life to propel us toward achieving goals, Aversion helps us avoid things that are harmful. But in their extreme forms—desire manifesting as attachment and aversion manifesting as denial and anger – they become roadblocks and impede our progress toward any practical or spiritual goals.
It is okay to set and achieve goals, and to aspire to better ourselves. Becoming attached to those goals – whether they relate to things, or ideas, or people – is not okay. Attempting to avoid situations and outcomes, even reality itself, to the point where we live in denial or live with anger, is not okay. It is okay to want things, but not to become attached to them once we attain them, or to become attached to the idea of attaining them. It is okay to avoid things, but not to the point where we deny reality or fly into frequent rages when forced to admit that reality is different from what we’d like it to be.
We cannot live a free and full life if we are so attached to our possessions, our ideas, or the people we associate with, that we suffer constant anxiety at the thought of their possible loss, or experience anger when that loss actually occurs. It is easy to see how we can become attached to material possessions, to wealth, and to power and influence. More difficult is the realization that we also form attachments to people, turning them into objects of possession. We love our spouses, our children, and our friends and we enjoy their company, but we cannot control their actions, or whether they will stay with us.
Even more subtle is the attachment that we form to our ideas and opinions and, by extension, to collective ideas and opinions. By restricting ourselves to a narrow and particular point of view, we limit our possibilities and fill our lives with anxiety because all forms of ideas and actions that are incongruent with our beliefs bombard us every day.
To cover all the earth with sheets of hide –
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth had been covered!
Likewise, we can never take
And turn aside the outer course of things.
But only seize and discipline the mind itself,
And what is there remaining to be curbed?
There is desire and there is aversion. What is the alternative? Many believe it to be indifference – an attitude sure to lead to a dull and meaningless life. Indifference causes us to act as automatons in practical matters, and to be aloof in relationships. A life of indifference is even more dissatisfying than one consumed with desire and aversion. As the old saying goes, “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” So, if not desire, or aversion, or indifference, what’s left?
The true alternative to desire and aversion is equanimity – the acceptance of things as they are. Equanimity does not mean being “wishy washy.” Practicing equanimity doesn’t mean that we should go through life as a passive doormat, gleefully accepting whatever tribulation besets us. Equanimity means accepting our current situation without undue regret or bitterness, and adjusting our goals to make it better. Equanimity is not docility, it is acceptance. Equanimity is not resignation; rather, it begins a plan of action.
Equanimity is about remaining true to your inner values while being open-minded to outer circumstances, events, and opinions. In the I Ching equanimity can be represented by the hexagram that is pure yang below and pure yin above: strong yang within, submissive yin without. This symbol unifies strength and submission – inner resolve with outer flexibility – peeling away the layers of acquired conditioning that have accumulated both collectively and individually so that successful action is possible. This hexagram of the I Ching is commonly referred to as tranquility.
Complete equanimity is difficult to achieve because we are born with an innate sense of equality. As children, we constantly bemoan that “life’s not fair.” As adults, we may no longer voice this opinion as frequently, but we continue to believe it, even if only subconsciously.
Equanimity begins with the realization that life is not fair. No one said it was, nor has anything ever happened in history to suggest that it is, or that it ever will be. Bad things happen. No one gets everything they want. Nothing good lasts forever. When outcomes do not converge with our expectations, life can be frustrating and disappointing, but “it is what it is.”
Equanimity is a central teaching of the Tao te Ching: approach life with a purpose but accept what comes. Remember that there is a naturally occurring dynamic balance, and anything carried to an extreme naturally gravitates toward its opposite. We may not like the results we get, so instead of reacting to them with denial or anger or gloom, we should use the situation as a learning experience and adjust our path and our actions accordingly.
Perhaps the premier teacher of equanimity was the Stoic philosopher Epictetus whose entire teachings centered around the concept. Epictetus taught us that there are some things that are within our control, and some that are not. Attempting to manage those things that are not within our control leads to frustration and unhappiness, and we live our lives as servants to those who do control the things we want. We are slaves as long as we are attached to obtaining things that are not within our control. Would we not prefer to live freely?
Happiness and success come from working on those things that lie within our control, which may naturally increase the things that we actually can influence. If we wish to change those things that are within our control, we must first accept “what is” in order to accurately assess the current situation and decide upon the best course of action to bring about the results we seek. Such an accurate assessment is not possible when our thoughts are clouded by anger and resentment, and our actions are restricted by attachments and the fear of loss. The antidote is renunciation which is defined by the zen master D.T. Suzuki,
Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world,
But accepting that they go away.
Greed, lust, and anger can be countered externally by the realization of oneness and livings a life of balance, but first there must be an internal acceptance of things that can only be accomplished with equanimity – accepting change as the only constant. We become accustomed to ignoring the frustration with outcomes that are not within our control and appreciating events as they occur. We recognize that extremes arise from erroneous thinking. We realize that there is an ebb and flow to all things in life, and that clinging to any one quality or situation or outcome belies the natural unity of opposites.
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinion for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
The most effective tool to be used for equanimity is an open mind. This is the essence of the I Ching tranquility hexagram: staying true to our core principles within while entertaining all possibilities without – not accepting everything at face value, but considering that other points of view are valid.
The older we become, the more difficult it is to keep an open mind. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung explained this best,
The nearer we approach to the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in entrenching ourselves in our personal attitudes and social positions, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behaviour. For this reason we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them. We overlook the essential fact that the social goal is attained only at the cost of diminution of personality. Many – far too many – aspects of life which should also have been experienced lie in the lumber-room among dusty memories; but sometimes, too, they are glowing coals under grey ashes.
The human tendency to become entrenched in one’s opinions and beliefs is becoming even more alarming and disturbing today, as more of us relinquish the responsibility for personally interpreting information concerning current events, and lazily rely on the options provided by both traditional media outlets and the seemingly endless offerings available on the internet. Few websites or mainstream media remain impartial and unbiased, and we tend to choose those sources that express ideas and opinions that are already congruent with our personal beliefs and points of view.
In our world where society seems so easily polarized, and defending a firm opinion is prized as a sign of strength – and changing one’s mind a sign of weakness – it is becoming both increasingly difficult, and necessary, to maintain an open mind. Rather than become entrenched in the points of view we develop with life’s experiences, we need to heed the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Successful plans of action require an accurate assessment of our current situation, an inventory of those things that are within our control, a thoughtful consideration of all possibilities, acceptance of whatever outcomes result, and a willingness to make the appropriate adjustments. This is equanimity.
Just reside in the center of the circle,
And then forget that you are there.
-Hua Hu Ching