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Meeting Suffering With Imperturbability – Upekkha – The Buddha’s Teachings on Equanimity

upekkhaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. upekkhañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yo paṭigho so pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of equanimity. For when you are developing the meditation of equanimity, irritation will be abandoned.”

Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62)

Upekkhā, or equanimity, is perhaps the most neglected of the brahmavihāras, simply on account of its neutrality. Whereas loving-kindness, compassion, and empathetic joy carry positive, even desirable connotations, equanimity is by definition neutral and seemingly unexciting. However, when cultivated wholeheartedly, upekkhā is among the most valuable qualities of the mind and heart, as it allows us to remain confident and unperturbed in the midst of suffering.

Of course, being imperturbable does not mean that one is indifferent, emotionally blank, or otherwise unmoved by the suffering that surrounds us. On the contrary, upekkhā is mindful non-reactivity and non-impulsivity – the capacity to respond to suffering in a balanced, harmonious, and wholesome manner, keeping one’s composure in times of hardship.

This state of balanced equanimity is especially helpful in the face of unpleasantness. Rather than add fuel to the fire, piling more coal or timber on top of a flame, one can take a step back from whatever sensation arises with the aid of upekkhā and assess the situation with an unbiased, non-judgmental mind – from the vantage point of mindfulness. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough how equanimity is not a form of indifference, surrender, or giving in to suffering. Rather, it is being able to discern the cause of suffering mindfully, without adding more fuel to the fire in the process.

At the semantic level, the Sanskrit etymology of upekṣā (ऊपेक्खा) can be traced to “upekṣ,” meaning to consider carefully, and the verbal root “ik,” to look at. In Buddhist practice, this careful consideration and quality of observance is rooted in mindfulness, remembering to pause rather than reacting impulsively.

In one discourse, the Buddha describes equanimity, upekkhā, thus:

“He who sees clearly with discernment the abandoning of greed & distress is one who oversees with equanimity, which is why the monk on that occasion remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”

Ananda Sutta (SN 54.13)

In this sutta, “putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world” means being unaffected by these extremes, letting them pass through without being perturbed by them. This places upekkhā high among the qualities cultivated by the enlightened ones.

In fact, of all the brahmavihāras, only equanimity is classed as as a factor for awakening (upekkhā-sambojjhaṅga).

“There is the case where a monk develops mindfulness as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening…persistence as a factor for Awakening…rapture as a factor for Awakening…serenity as a factor for Awakening…concentration as a factor for Awakening…equanimity as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk — in dependence on virtue, established on virtue, having developed & pursued the seven factors for Awakening — attains to greatness & prosperity in terms of mental qualities.”

Himavanta Sutta (SN 46.1)

Meeting suffering with equanimity gives rise to dispassion. With the mind secluded and not drawn out by the various externalities of the world, one may cultivate the deepest and most imperturbable equanimity, among the seven factors of awakening that characterize the Buddha’s and his disciples’ enlightenment.

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