Enter into equanimity

Margaret Cullen
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Welcome everybody and we’ll just allow a few more moments for others to come into the space. So, welcome everyone. Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening, depending on where you are. This is a wonderful global gathering. My name is Jennifer Nadel, and I’m the chair of the Global Compassion Coalition, and it is so wonderful to have you all here. Do pop a note in the chat and let us know where you’re from. It’s wonderful to see people joining us from all over the world.

And we’re so delighted that Margaret Cullen has joined us today to share with us a practice on equanimity. I’m just I’m sure that most of you know of Margaret’s incredible work but for those who don’t I’m just going to tell you a bit about her. Margaret Cullen is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified mindfulness based stress reduction teacher. She was one of the first 10 instructors to be certified by the Centre for Mindfulness. For over 40 years, she has been pioneering mindfulness-based programs in healthcare, education, business, and academic settings. She introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction to the cancer support community in both Santa Monica and Walnut Creek, California. 30 years later, they are still going strong. It’s thriving. In 2009, she was invited to help develop compassion cultivation training at Stanford, where she went on to train teachers from all over the world. She now she’s led research programs with universities across America and taught many different groups of people from men with HIV to doctors to teachers, you name it, she’s trained them. She has an incredible wealth of experience. She’s co-authored a book on mindfulness-based emotional balance and is currently writing a book on equanimity, which is very fitting given today’s topic, and I will now hand over to Margaret for the next 15 minutes or so.

Thanks so much, Jennifer. Thank you, Christine, for your help in setting this up and for all of you who made the time to be here live. This was going to be a webinar, but I know a number of you are teachers and can appreciate that connecting with you and seeing some of you makes a big difference for me rather than just speaking to a camera. So I’m really grateful for those of you who are here. And I just want to do a very quick poll that Christine set up for us for me to get a sense, I know a few of you, but not everybody, of what your background is. So we’re gonna, Christine is gonna put a poll up with very quick answers, yes, no, or sort of, so I can get a little sense of your background specifically with equanimity. So let’s, oh, so I can answer this also. It comes up to me. Okay. And I’ll submit. And I can’t see the answers, Christine, can you? – I sure can. I’m happy to share. – Okay. – It looks like we have for the first question, majority yes. And that’s the, are you a meditation practitioner? – Okay. done an equanimity practice, it’s about 50/50. And is the concept of equanimity clear to you? Sort of is the highest answer. – I love that, perfect, okay, great. You know, I’m really excited about equanimity and it’s a bit of an oxymoron because equanimity doesn’t seem exciting particularly. And I would say of the four measureables in Buddhism, It’s really the least sexy one. It’s not very sexy. It’s not very exciting. And it also tends to be the most vague, which is why I put that sort of answer as an option up there. So that’s perfect that that’s kind of mainly where you all are in terms of equanimity. I think that’s where a lot of people are around equanimity. So my plan, I have about 50 minutes or so, And I plan to use all of those minutes and divide them more or less equally between talking about equanimity, practicing equanimity, and then discussing it, the Q&A, with those of you who are here. That’s the plan.

And in the talk about equanimity, I’m not gonna have a lot of time. So I’m gonna focus on what it is, what it isn’t, and specifically how it relates to compassion, because that’s what brings us all here in the Global Compassion Coalition. So I am going to use slides for my talk, but I winnowed them down. Hopefully I winnowed them down sufficiently. We’ll see. And let me know if that screen share is working for everybody. Is that– – Yep, looks great. Looks great, Margaret, thank you. – Thank you. Okay, I’m just gonna move my things around here a little bit. Okay, great.

So we’ll start with this word. This word that actually is a funny word. It’s not a word that we use in normal speech that much. He wasn’t very equanimous, or I need to cultivate more equanimity, it sounds a little pretentious, I think, a little contrived. It doesn’t just like slip off the tongue in normal conversation. One of many reasons why equanimity has kind of gotten short shrift. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, except to me, and maybe you’ll get a little more excited about it today. I hope so. And it’s a little, I don’t know, pretentious sounding.

So let’s look at it. What is equanimity? So generally speaking, it’s a mental state or trait. And the only difference, of course, between a state or a trait is time. Trade is enduring. State is passing, temporal. And it’s characterized by non-reactivity and clear seeing. And in Buddhism where it’s really very highly articulated and in my research, I think it’s the most highly articulated of all the traditions in Buddhism. It’s the last of the four immeasurables. They’re also called the heavenly or divine abodes. And mostly we talk about the first two, which are loving kindness. And of course the second is compassion. And the third is sympathetic joy. They do come in order. The last is equanimity. And the first three, you know, part of why equanimity isn’t as sexy as the first three, the first three are kind of juicy. They feel good. Even compassion, I’m going to talk about this more, Even compassion, although it’s related to suffering, it feels good. So for that reason, I tend to think of equanimity, the force of the immeasurables as the quiet virtue. It can be found in all the major religions and in philosophical systems like stoicism. It plays an interesting role. We don’t have time to get into that here, but it isn’t just a virtue in Buddhism. It’s a virtue in all the traditions.

So how does it function? There are different functions of equanimity. The most common function is to see the big picture with impartiality. what we think of when we think of the four immeasurables and equanimity in that context.

So how does cultivating equanimity mitigate against compassion collapse? Well, it widens our perspective. It promotes clear seeing. You know, it mitigates against pseudo-inefficacy. We’re not attached to outcome. Like, “Oh, I give up. I can’t help so forget it. I’m just getting myself out of the game.” This is really key with equanimity. I have no control over the outcome, but I’m never giving up. Very different approach, yeah? It promotes impartiality, so we don’t draw a line and say, “Only my loved ones get my compassion? It definitely increases our tolerance of suffering, of emotion, of being moved, of the suffering of ourselves and others. And again, it facilitates skillful action. What can I do rather than giving up? What can I do? I can’t solve the situation in Darfur. What can I do?

So before we do a practice together, just a couple of words of caution, always. So equanimity is not a shortcut. We can’t like go to equanimity in order to avoid or do a spiritual bypass around our feelings. We don’t avoid feelings. We can’t inflict perspective taking on ourselves and others. Just see the big picture or your mother saying, “You know how many children are starving?” And it doesn’t work. That just doesn’t work. You can’t inflict that on anybody. I also like one of my teachers, important teachers was Marshall Rosenberg, who used to say, equanimity, sorry, empathy before education. You know, before we take perspective and take stock, we need empathy for ourselves and others. And I would say empathy before equanimity.

Okay. So I’m going to stop the share there, and there will be time for questions after. We’re going to go right into a practice and I would like to suggest that you maybe just take a stretch first, maybe a little shake and kind of shake out this more conceptual approach to equanimity before we get into a practice, a brief guided practice of equanimity. So yes, feel free to turn off your cameras if you want, but see if you can stay with me. See if you can find a posture now that’s upright. That’s a different time of day for a lot of us. So find a posture that brings both uprightness and also comfort. and taking a couple of diaphragmatic breaths, letting the whole torso fill with the in-breath and emptying the torso completely of the breath, on the out breath. And after the third out-breath, releasing control of the breath, let it flow naturally, letting your eyes close or your gaze be soft and lowered, whatever’s more comfortable for you. taking a few minutes now to follow the natural sensations of the breath wherever they’re most predominant in your body. as best you can, bringing an attitude of kindness, patience, even amusement to the wandering mind. It’s inevitable, so why fight it? And the less you fight it, the less agitated it will be. And if you’re able to stay with the sensations of the breath in the body for a breath or to, see if you can notice the space between the breaths, that moment of equipoise that happens all by itself. And let this become the focus of your attention, the effortless spacious ease between expansion and contraction, between rising and falling, in and out.

Now taking a moment to meet whatever is arising in the present moment with a kind and clear awareness. This is an aspect of mindfulness that overlaps with equanimity.

Noticing the changing nature of experience, thoughts coming and going, feelings, sensations. Reflecting on how all created things arise and pass away, it’s their nature. Joys and sorrows, people, buildings, experiences that are pleasant, that are unpleasant, political reigns, leaders come and go, nations, even civilizations. Sensing into your own inner gyroscope amidst all that is constantly changing, the axis that you titrate towards your own true north. And experiment with silently repeating these phrases. Things are just as they are. All things are impermanent. The feelings arise and pass away. I’m safe in this moment. Noticing the implications for your current preoccupations. Things are as they are. All things are impermanent.

Now, bring to mind a recent interaction that might have upset you in some way, a disagreement, misunderstanding, and choosing something of mild to moderate intensity, not overwhelming, not a really big thing, something that feels manageable. And feel what arises in your heart and mind as you recall this incident. sadness, maybe confusion, anger. Now let’s just try on just as an experiment, perspective taking, to see what’s possible in this moment. Let’s say that you are an astronaut looking at the situation from outer space. You might recall the famous words of Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, who wrote about the blue dot we call home, a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam, where everyone you know, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. So from this perspective, more the upeka flavor of equanimity, what do you see? How does this situation look to you? Just to remind you, don’t inflict this perspective. If there’s resistance, stay with the emotion and meet it with tenderness and just drop the perspective. It’s an experiment in exploration. Coming back to the breath, letting go of the reflection.

And now take a moment for another reflection, considering how much of our own happiness or suffering is more a result of our own thoughts and actions and circumstances than what others wish for us. We all have people who love us, friends, parents, partners, children, but ultimately we are responsible for our own happiness and wellbeing. This is also true for our loved ones. Loving others inevitably opens us to feelings of helplessness when our loved ones suffer. No matter how fortunate their lives, there will be periods of pain for everyone we love. We can love them, but in the end, their happiness and suffering depend more on their own thoughts, actions, and circumstances than our wishes for them. Recognizing this reality without forsaking any love at all, recalling a loved one who’s going through some difficulty, and feeling into this phrase. happiness and your suffering depend more on your thoughts and actions and circumstances than my wishes for you.#

Recognizing this, I will continue to wish for your happiness and hope that you find the deepest source of that happiness. I will care for you, but I cannot protect you from suffering. May you find balance and peace and expanding these wishes as we close. May we bring compassion and equanimity to the events of this world. May we keep our hearts and minds open to life, to the poignancy of this life, and to one another so that we may see the deepest possible truth and respond with wisdom. And may our practice together be of benefit to all beings everywhere without exception.

And whenever you’re ready, you can open your eyes. Cue for your attention and practice through a little bit longer than I intended. I thought I had my timing a wee bit better, but there still is time for questions and comments, and I’m very open and interested in any reactions at all that you want to share or questions that you have.

Monica, I’ll just jump in and say thank you. That was an incredibly beautiful practice, and I loved everything you said about equanimity, about how it was in the center of everything, not in that detached place of non-feeling. And I also wondered about the role of denial of people just not actually knowing what they’re feeling. You talked about indifference, but what kind of role does denial play in inhibiting the compassionate process?

I don’t know about data about denial, but I can certainly speak from my own experience. And I do actually know, I can’t cite it specifically, but there’s a lot of data around the importance of introception and emotional intelligence. So I think we can extrapolate with confidence and certainly intuitively say that denial is the enemy of equanimity and compassion and would feed compassion collapse. And there’s so much interesting research now on the importance of introception or really knowing what’s going on in the body. And the body is the main place where we feel our feelings. And that’s where we tend to get cut off from our feelings. That’s really where denial happens is that classic quote of, you know, Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body, right? I’m over here. Denial often happens through intellectualization, right? It’s cutting off the body, which is the reservoir. We, you know, we can learn a little through the mind, but it’s mostly through the body.

So yeah, I think of denial as a form of suppression. And it’s often a habit. We sometimes think of denial as a choice when in fact denial is often a habit that’s learned from childhood, that’s taught. “No, you don’t feel that way.” Or a family says those feelings aren’t okay. So then denial becomes something more of a habitual process than a choice, which is, I think, is very often the case at great cost, you know, cost to our health, to our personal well-being, let alone our capacity to care for others.

And that feeds into a wider question about the extent to which the culture that we find ourselves in either amplifies or encourages equanimity and compassion. It does. And another interesting distinction that came up with the Matthew Brunsilver quote and my thinking about social media, especially and the challenge of it, how much it challenges our equanimity is that it feeds into melodrama. And melodrama doesn’t mean feeling more. And that’s a really fun, fascinating, very subtle kind of teasing apart of what’s the difference between the melodrama, the kind of overblown reaction, and the actual being moved by the heart, which is often a quieter, we might even say deeper emotional response, that melodrama kind of, what do I want to say, paradoxically moves us out of our feelings. We’re feeling it, we’re experiencing it, but it’s almost more like a soap opera on TV where we’re getting kind of falsely hyped up and we’re in a very reactive mode rather than connecting with our deeper feelings. I’m not sure I fully have the language for it yet, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about these days. Thank you for the question. I don’t know if the answer made sense.

No, it made complete sense, and it makes me think, you know, obviously at the Global Compassion Coalition we’re interested in how do we alleviate compassion on a global scale, and it makes me think about the extent to which many of our nations are operating in a field of melodrama and certainly our political space is operating in a field of melodrama, and of course, you know, that involves our ego, and we have adrenaline feeding the system, and it makes me think of the Wizard of Oz, that, you know, there are these huge flashes and bangs, but behind it all is just this tiny little person who’s feeling maybe just as something as simple as disappointment or sadness that they can’t tolerate, and so instead the soap opera is projected onto all of our lives.

Exactly. Thank you. That’s exactly how it looks to me, that oddly the soap opera is a protection against vulnerability. And vulnerability, from my perspective, is the feeling tone of equanimity. It is actually vulnerable. It is the willingness to experience life at its most tender without going into denial, reactivity, soap operas, melodramas, or the kind of ego reactivity of the ego. It’s staying with the vulnerability that is underneath all of that. It’s very tender equanimity, actually.

That’s such a beautiful description. And at the beginning, you started your talk by saying it was the unsexy part of the process. But there’s something so delicately beautiful about what you’re describing that has more beauty to me than all the flashiness of compassion and loving kindness. Something so nuanced.

Yeah, they all fit together, of course. And their Venn diagrams, they overlap like crazy, and they have lots of connections. And we tease them apart as a way in. The same way there are all these different doorways into equanimity, there are all these different doorways into the heart, into this fundamental dimension of being that we all prize that gets expressed through compassion, through loving kindness, through equanimity, through celebrating the well-being of others.

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