"Mindfulness and metta get the most airtime, but equanimity is the real goal and fruit of Buddhist practice. Indeed, mindfulness is but the means to the end of attaining unshakeable composure: mindfulness practice leads toward a state of open presence in which we are acutely aware of every sensation, emotion and thought but do not react to them. And outside the retreat setting, mindfulness and metta manifest themselves as the ability to remain poised amid the little catastrophes of daily life.
"But isn't metta an unconditional friendliness toward people, experience, and events the crown jewel of the Brahma Viharas, the four prime virtues of Buddhism? Not really. Equanimity, or upekkha (also translated as 'dispassion'), is the ground not only for metta, but also for karuna (compassion) and mudita (sympathetic joy). Without a strong basis in equanimity, metta can easily lapse into sentimentality or attachment (a danger abetted by the usual translation of metta as 'loving-kindness,' a word that sets its emotional pitch too high). Similarly, unless they are grounded in equanimity, karuna and mudita can readily dissolve into pity or exuberance if empathy gives way to identification with the suffering or happiness of others. So although metta, karuna, and mudita are all essential and intrinsic aspects of the enlightened mind, equanimity is first among equals, incorporating and perfecting the other three prime virtues, which cannot be developed or practiced without it.
"Indeed, equanimity is known as the 'crown of the Brahma Viharas' precisely because it is indispensable in becoming liberated. According to the Buddha, it is 'dispassion' that releases us from the craving that causes suffering. This stands to reason: only a mind that is balanced, spacious, and stable stops grasping after pleasure and fleeing from pain. For this reason, equanimity is also called the 'gateway to the unconditioned.' In fact, moments of deep awakening, in which the mind accesses 'path consciousness,' are always preceded by a more or less well-developed state of equanimity. Hence it could be said that the whole purpose of Buddhist practice is to arrive at this state.
"Still not convinced of equanimity's importance? It is the power of equanimity (rather than mindfulness per se) that you will need on your deathbed and also after death, when all the old familiar landmarks are swept away. 'Keep your cool, and all will be well' seems to be the consensus of those who claim to know. But that is precisely the challenge of the pre- and postdeath states! Unless equanimity has infused your bones beforehand, it won't be there when the cockleshell of ego founders in the sea of mortality.
"But what is equanimity? It is not merely keeping a stiff upper lip or having a rhinoceros hide. Nor is it maintaining a stoic indifference to pain and pleasure. Still less is it feeling a pitiless detachment from the human condition. Rather, it is something far more positive, implying tremendous strength of character and mind. The dictionary definition is good as far as it goes, calling equanimity 'the quality or characteristic of being calm and even-tempered; composure.' Also, 'mental balance and evenness of temperament, usually as a characteristic state.'
"To achieve this much would already be remarkable, but the equanimity of a buddha is yet greater, precisely because it is allied to metta, karuna, and mudita. Hence it manifests as a radical openness to the whole catastrophe of life a soft receptiveness that allows us to see experience clearly and to feel experience deeply but that does not react for or against it. (Contrast this with our habitual state of mind: whatever we cannot ignore or deny, we love or hate and behave accordingly.) But how is this radical openness expressed in practice, both on retreat and in daily life?
"First, equanimity is spacious. Imagine a pebble dropping into a cup full of water: SPLASH! Now imagine that same pebble or even a rock falling into a pond: barely a ripple. And it takes an asteroid to roil the ocean. In the same way, the mind of equanimity is vast, remaining composed even under duress. So when difficulties arise, they make wavelets, not tsunamis.
"Second, equanimity is panoramic. When you have tunnel vision, everything coming down the tracks looms large. The same event viewed from a mountaintop is no big deal. Thus equanimity lets us take in the whole show, rather than fixating on the tiny part that is painful or difficult.
"Third, panorama implies perspective. When we have equanimity we know that Rome was not built in a day, that a journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step, that this too shall pass, that empires rise and fall, and so on. In short, we don't take things personally, because we know in our bones that life is so much bigger than ego's petty concerns and limited views. Above all, with equanimity we understand that pain and difficulty are an intrinsic part of life, so we don't struggle against them.
"Fourth, however, equanimity is more than a point of view, because it is the art of retaining ones mental and emotional balance amid the ever-changing circumstances of life. A rider is said to have a good seat when her fanny sticks to the saddle no matter what the horse does. This image captures the dynamic quality of equanimity: can our hearts and minds stay firmly seated when the horse threatens to shy or bolt? After all, any fool can stay cool in routine circumstances; the challenge is to remain poised when pain, difficulty, failure, or calamity strike.
"Last, this dynamic quality is the reason why the image of the mountain, one of the traditional metaphors for equanimity, is misleading. Equanimity is not unshakeable because it is a rigid, immovable mass immune to all disturbance. Rather, it is strong because it is resilient. Like a good tire, it easily absorbs the shock of life's little potholes. So equanimity is like Bibendum, the fat and jolly Michelin man, who cruises down the pike of life bouncing off things that are too big to bounce off him.
"An anecdote will illustrate the astonishing power of well-developed equanimity. The master invited a young monk to attend him on a journey to a branch monastery. It was the taxi ride from hell. As the demented driver took suicidal risks, both monk and master hung on for dear life. Out of the corner of his eye, the frightened monk could see that the master's knuckles were as white as his own. When they finally arrived safely an hour later, the monk stumbled out of the taxi all but paralyzed with fear and barely able to stand. The master bounded out seemingly unperturbed. Looking up at the trembling monk with a big smile, he said only, 'Scary, wasn't it?' and went about his business. For the master, an hour of abject terror was no big deal!
"Of course, the ability to take terror in stride is the thousand-pound weight, and the master had gained such strength of heart and mind only through many years of pumping iron in Gautama's Gym. In other words, like everything else connected with meditation, we only develop equanimity the hard way, through great effort and perseverance.
"To be specific, we must keep pushing the envelope, for the pith of meditation training is to expand continuously what we can accept or endure. This is precisely what letting go means. If we willingly go just beyond the edge of what is bearable and then bear it over and over and over we gradually train ourselves to the point where nothing is unbearable. Thus we remain poised and composed no matter what.
"It goes without saying that we will often fail. Riding is hard: to stay in control of a thousand pounds of barely tamed instinct takes considerable training and tact. The reigning world champion of dressage, the most difficult equestrian art, was all but conceded the gold medal at the upcoming Olympic Games; she went for a casual ride two weeks beforehand, got thrown, broke her wrist, and watched the competition from the stands. If it can happen to her, the best rider in the world, then it is bound to happen to us. In fact, we only develop equanimity by getting thrown, figuring out what we did wrong, and then climbing back on the horse with the resolve to do better. Eventually, we learn to keep our seat as we canter across the moor of samsara, relishing both its awesome beauty and its terrible desolation.”