Early this year, I made the decision to let go of something that meant a great deal to me. This particular something was a situation I wished was different. A situation that I could accept at an intellectual level, but emotionally, I just couldn’t deal with any longer.
After struggling with this for months, finally I was able to let go.
Letting go is new to me. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to let go of all the coping strategies I had developed over the years. Strategies like building walls in order to shut out everything and everyone, running from the things that scared me and numbing pain and unhappiness with exercise. For the first time, I could see clearly that rather than protecting me, all these strategies had actually achieved was to make me isolated, unreachable and exhausted.
In deciding to rid myself of these strategies, I vowed to be more mindful of what was going on around me and more available to experience, good and bad.
Twelve months ago I had never even heard of equanimity. It was only after listening to a particularly moving Dharma talk given by Maria Straatman that I realised that this thing, this quality I was so ardently seeking for myself, had a name.
“Equanimity is the ability to be in front of something that you do not want to be in front of. It’s the capacity to be with pain, your own or others’. It’s the capacity to be present with joy, even if that’s scary to you.
Equanimity is the ability to stand in place and be present for what arises.”
– When Things Don’t Get Better by Maria Straatman
I soon found that the best time and place to practice equanimity is during meditation. I think the most confronting and difficult thing about meditation is that there’s no place to hide. When I first started meditating 12 months ago, I was a somewhat reluctant participant for this very reason. For me, this was an uncomfortable few minutes spent either secretly napping or openly trying to squirm away from my own ugly thoughts. I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t concentrate for any longer than about two minutes.
I persisted for a little while, then lost interest. Then I started up again, before again losing interest. And on and on it went.
But then I read something by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk who has written many wonderful books about meditation and mindfulness. The first thing I discovered about him is that he is big on mantras – he basically has one for everything. But it’s his most simple mantra, his “entry-level” mantra, if you like, that completely changed meditation for me.
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out
– Thich Nhat Hanh
You know when you’re trying to learn some kind of physical movement and you just can’t get it? Ten different people can demonstrate it, but you just can’t transfer what you’re seeing into what you’re doing. You start to think you’ll never get it. You start to think you’re so far off it’d be easier to just give up. Then someone comes along who has the exact technique, the exact words you need to hear in order to change not everything, but just one little thing. And that one little thing is what makes the whole thing possible.
This was how it was for me. Two simple lines was all it took for me to be able to focus on my breathing.
I had actually started to believe that meditation was like some exclusive club to which I would never be granted admittance. But learning this mantra, it was like the doors had suddenly been thrown open for me.
I now meditate twice a day and attend a class once a week, but I use the breathing mantra all the time. When I’m stuck in traffic, when I’m working on something difficult at work, when I’m waiting in a ridiculously long queue. Anytime I start to feel myself getting frustrated, I recite the lines and focus on my breath.
A lot of people think meditation is about zoning out or switching off, but it isn’t. If anything, I regard it is a heightened state of awareness and probably when I am at my most focused.
Don’t get me wrong, the ugly thoughts still come. But instead of trying to avoid them, now I’m able to meet them, right there. I’m able to acknowledge whatever comes up – fear, sadness, anger, anxiety – then easily return to my breath by reciting those two lines in my mind. “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”
Equanimity is not about avoidance and it is not about indifference. As Maria Straatman points out, you can be equanimous and still have a broken heart. I have meditated while frustrated. I have meditated angry. I have meditated with tears streaming down my face. All of those sittings had value.
Meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg describes it beautifully: “Sit like a mountain. Sit with a sense of strength and dignity. Be steadfast, be majestic, be natural and at ease in awareness. No matter how many winds are blowing, no matter how many clouds are swirling, no matter how many lions are prowling, be intimate with everything and sit like a mountain.”
The thing I love most about meditation is that it does not require you to be anywhere or any way in particular. Right now, exactly as you are, is perfect.
A few weeks ago, I was walking along the beach when I passed a young woman sitting cross-legged in the sand with her dog by her side, looking out over the water. She looked perfectly at-ease and I remember thinking, “How wonderful”. I think we so often feel the need to fill silence with noise and stillness with movement, that sometimes we forget what it’s like to just be.
In the words of Maria Straatman, “So we take a place, we touch the ground and we stay in the room.”
This is why we practice.