The Buddhist meditation on equanimity teaches a technique to eliminate bias and expand our love and concern from family and friends to strangers and even enemies. It tames our fierce attachment to loved ones and our anger toward enemies for a stabler, happier mind and a more just and equitable world.
An artist, before she starts a painting, primes the canvas so that it’s equally receptive to all colors. And this meditation does the same for the mind. It primes the mind so that we come closer and closer to equalizing our feelings and our respect for everyone. So that we might become the happiest and most beneficially effective human being that we possibly can.
Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. “Maha” means great, and “yana” means vehicle. This form of buddhism is called “the great vehicle,” not because it’s the best, but because its scope is the greatest amount of beings: all beings everywhere of any kind.
In this tradition there’s a motivation to equally wish all beings to be happy and to be free from suffering. But before we can do that, just seeing ourselves as equal to others is a powerful first step.
By habit, most of us see ourselves as a little more important than everyone else. Our family is a little more important than others; our friends; our workplace; our town, our city, our country; all each a little bit more important.
So, this is a meditation to get to the first step. Before trying to be infinitely generous or compassionate, simply realizing the equality of everyone, that everyone deserves happiness and doesn’t want suffering.
Stabilizing on the breath
Begin by putting yourself into a meditation posture. And then, for a minute we’ll stabilize our mind by focusing on the breath.
Put all your attention on your breathing, at your nostrils or your abdomen. And if thoughts and feelings and perceptions arise, just let them naturally fade away on their own without giving them too much attention.
Let your mind become your breath. See how, in fact, from the psychological perspective, everything is made of mind. All we have is our inner experience. Your breath is actually the mental reconstruction of the perceptions that our body delivers to our brain that we then call the breath. We forget most of the time how even this perception of our own body is a mental experience.
So for one minute, focus on your breath.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Analytical meditation on equanimity
Now, start by imagining that there are three spots for people to sit in front of you, and we are going to fill them in, left to right.
On the left, picture a friend. Sometimes a partner or parent is tricky to use, because our feelings for them are complex. They can be both a friend and an enemy. If that’s so for you, you can think of a child, or even a pet, where your good feelings for them are simpler and less conditional.
A friend is someone who benefits you, who you have warm feelings toward, who you go out of the way to see and to help, and who helps you.
Let your natural feelings toward the friend fill you. You may notice how you want them to be happy, how much they make you happy. And also notice how you have a strong, clear belief that he or she is my friend. Almost as if it had always been so.
Now, in the middle, picture an enemy. What’s an enemy? An enemy is someone who is unkind to you, who hurts you, who makes you angry, who doesn’t give you what you want. You may have an actual enemy in your daily life. And if so, picture that person.
If not, choose someone from the greater world around you, someone you perceive as an enemy to kindness, equality, or to others’ happiness: political leaders, corrupt businesspeople, people harming the planet. Choose a specific one and materialize that person sitting before you.
If you feel able, you can try and push the boundaries of your equanimity to consider a criminal who’s destroyed someone else’s life or property, or even taken another’s life; a police officer who’s violated the rights, the trust, the lives of the community he serves; or people that hold racist and sexist views.
From the perspective of finding true mental freedom, for truly eliminating bias from our mind, we eventually need to be able to accept, to empathize with, even those people who we despise the most, who have caused us the most pain.
And if you can’t do this right now, choose only a modest enemy. But some day consider taking them up as subjects of your meditation, not for their sake, but for yours, to find this profound sense of forgiveness and understanding of the causes and effects that lead people to do the worst things.
Most religions talk about the importance of loving your enemy, of forgiving those that have trespassed us. But could we really do that?
This part of the meditation offers a concrete method to gradually move toward that unshakeable place of an unbiased mind. A mind, that when we see it, causes us profound respect; like the respect we feel for Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Martin Luther King Junior, or Nelson Mandela.
Once you’ve chosen them, examine the enemy – the person who hurts you, who hurts others, who makes you angry. Allow your feelings toward this enemy to arise and really feel them without judgment.
Now on the right, materialize a stranger. But choose a specific stranger, not just the vague idea of one. Think of someone you passed in the street, bought your coffee from, saw in the car beside you; someone with a specific face, body, clothes. Materialize them here on the third seat in front of you.
Notice your feelings toward the stranger, feelings of indifference. You hardly notice them and don’t care much about them. Since they don’t benefit me or harm me, they’re of little importance to my life.
Now, when we analyze our feelings for these three people, we see that they are based on what each one of them does or doesn’t do for us. And for most of us, we see each of these people as fixed. There’s little sense that they’ll ever change from being a friend, enemy, or stranger.
But are these relationships as stable as they seem?
Let’s start with the friend.
Are friends stable?
Bring your attention to the friend on the left. Have you ever had a friendship that ended? Even just with a few words. Can you imagine just one sentence that your friend before you could say to make you think of him or her as an enemy?
Like if they said, “I hate you.” Or if they criticized you. Or if they declared their allegiance to a different political party. Our close friends know all the things we’re most sensitive about. And if they wanted to, they know how to hurt us the most.
For a moment, imagine this happening with the friend before you. How would your feelings change toward them? If it continued to happen, gradually they’d shift from this category of friend.
Can enemies change?
Now bring your focus to the enemy in the middle. Have you ever had an enemy that turned into a friend? Do you remember how it happened? Was it something they said or did? Even something small? Or did you become united through some greater common purpose?
For your current enemy before you, imagine that some common interest brings you together, like being with an enemy colleague at work and someone attacks the office, or with a contentious neighbor, when there’s an earthquake. You’d work together like friends to protect each other.
Try imagining your enemy saying just one kind word about you—how your heart would soften. Or if that doesn’t register with you, or if the enemy is someone more distant, like a political leader, think hard to imagine what they could do to make you stop feeling like they were your enemy – would they have to apologize? resign? Would they have to renounce all their prior beliefs and dedicate their lives to a purpose that you believe in? Imagine this actually happening, right now, and see how your feelings would change, even to the person you most despise in the world.
How strangers become friends or enemies in an instant
Now turn your mind to the stranger on the right. Imagine one act of kindness from them. If it was the barista at Starbucks, imagine them giving you your drink free. All of a sudden you’d look at their name tag, remember their name, you’d start telling people “I have a friend at Starbucks!”
Or imagine the opposite, one mean act, just one dirty look. That person would become your enemy. You might even boycott the whole shop, or even the whole brand, and promise never to go there again.
Recall how your friends and enemies were each all once strangers. Try to really imagine how you felt about them, what it was like to look at their face, the one you now treasure or despise, when you felt nothing toward them; the time before they became your friend or enemy.
Now step back to see all three clearly in front of you. See how fragile and changeable the relationships are. This isn’t a bad thing. This isn’t a good thing. It’s a true thing. Think how it’s the nature of reality for relationships to change.
Only our mind keeps the idea of an unchanging friend, enemy, or stranger. And this biased notion causes us pain and suffering. Because it’s not aligned with reality. No one is solidly a friend, enemy, or stranger. These relationships are always changing.
How others see our friend, enemy, or stranger
Now let’s step out of our self-centered view.
Consider the two people on the right: your enemy and the stranger. They each have people who love them more than anyone. They have a mother, a father. They likely have a partner who’s devoted to them. They may have children who look up to them more than anyone in the world, who rely on them for survival.
And your friend, your dear one has enemies, people who specifically dislike them: ex-lovers, competitive colleagues; and also broader, vaguer enemies, people who hate them just for their beliefs or their way of life. Just as each of us has those we hate abstractly for their beliefs or their way of life.
How friends, enemies, and strangers see themselves
And how do the friend, enemy, and stranger see themselves? Each of them wants to be happy just as much as you do. In this way, we’re all equal. And they each equally each don’t want to suffer. We all have the potential to fill our minds with love and kindness.
The biased judgments we set on people are superficial, based only on our narrow self-centered viewpoint. Everyone deserves our love and compassion.
But before we get there, just equalizing our feelings, acknowledging our shared rights, needs, pains, and joys, creates a more peaceful state of mind, and a more powerful way of effectively engaging in the world.
Could we hold this more equal way of seeing people all the time? Could we remind ourselves of what we just went through on the cushion as we encounter people through the rest of the day? Hold this intention for a moment as you come out of the meditation and go into your day.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio