Kaira Jewel Lingo is a dharma teacher who began practicing mindfulness in 1997 and teaches Buddhist meditation, secular mindfulness, and compassion internationally. After living as an ordained nun for 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community, Kaira Jewel now teaches in the Zen lineage and the Vipassana tradition, at the intersection of racial, climate, and social justice with a focus on activists, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, artists, educators, families, and youth. Based in New York, she offers spiritual mentoring to groups and is author of We Were Made for These Times: Ten Lessons in Moving through Change, Loss and Disruption from Parallax Press. For more information on Kaira Jewel, please visit her website.
This is a shortened version of Kaira Jewel’s dharma talk, Equanimity and Inclusiveness in a Time of Polycrisis, from the Return to Wholeness: Opening to Wisdom and Love retreat at IMS.
Tripping Over Joy
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.
We are in a time of polycrisis. It is a time of intersecting, multiple pandemics, breakdown, disruption, uncertainty, and division. In these times, equanimity is an important practice.
So, what is equanimity? It’s the last of the four brahma viharas. There’s metta or lovingkindness, karuna or compassion, mudita or appreciative joy, and upekkha or equanimity.
In Sanskrit, equanimity is upekṣā, and in Pali, it’s upekkhā. They are translated as equanimity, non-attachment, non-discrimination, impartiality, tolerance, or letting go. The word is formed from the prefix “upe”, which means over or all around, and the root, “ik” or “ish”, meaning to look or to see. It’s this sense of seeing the full picture like you’re on top of the mountain and you can see all the sides.
Gil Fronsdal says upekkhā refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation—the ability to see without being caught by what we see. This way of seeing gives us a great deal of peace.
He refers to the way this word was used in India colloquially, which was to see with patience or understanding so that we don’t take offence at things when they aren’t personal so we’re less likely to react. We can remain at ease and centered because of how we’re looking.
He says that this kind of equanimity is like the love of a grandparent for their grandchild. The grandparent has the experience of raising their own children so they’re less likely to be caught up in the drama of their grandchildren’s lives. It’s not indifferent or uncaring. It’s affectionate and it offers a tangible presence just like a loving grandparent. It’s free of reactivity and anxiety, and full of love and strength.
It’s one of the four faces of love and it has a uniqueness because it also brings balance to these other forms of love. Just like these other forms of love help equanimity not fall into indifference or coolness in an unhelpful or closed off way.
In The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity, Nyanaponika Thera talks about how equanimity is connected to these other three brahma viharas or immeasurable kinds of love:
“Love imparts to equanimity its selflessness, its boundless nature, and even its fervor. For fervor too, transformed and controlled, is part of perfect equanimity, strengthening its power of keen penetration and wise restraint. Compassion guards equanimity from falling into cold indifference, and keeps it from indolent or selfish isolation. Until equanimity has reached perfection, compassion urges it to enter again and again the battle of the world in order to be able to stand the test by hardening and strengthening itself. Sympathetic joy gives to equanimity the mild serenity that softens its stern appearance. It is the divine smile on the face of the enlightened one. A smile that persists in spite of his deep knowledge of the world’s suffering, a smile that gives solace and hope, fearlessness and confidence.”
And then he shares how equanimity helps the other three.
“Equanimity rooted in insight is the guiding and restraining power for the other three sublime states. It points out to them the direction they have to take and sees to it that this direction is followed. Equanimity guards love and compassion from being dissipated in vain quests, and from going astray in the labyrinth of uncontrolled emotion. Equanimity being a vigilant self-control for the sake of the final goal, awakening, does not allow sympathetic joy to rest content with humble results, forgetting the real aims we have to strive for.”
So equanimity gives an even-mindedness rootedness to the other three. It gives them an unwavering, courageous capacity.
Another way of understanding equanimity is what my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (teacher in Vietnamese), emphasized: it is also the practice of inclusiveness. I appreciate Thay’s emphasis on inclusiveness because it brings equanimity into engagement with the world in a different way. He emphasized the need for openness, for not being ideological, dogmatic, or imprisoned by our views. Being inclusive means spaciousness, offering space, giving ourselves space. It’s an ability to hold everything.
But how do we face this world that is so complex and in moments of overwhelm not let it take all of our space?
Thay shares this: “When I was a novice, I could not understand why if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calm and strength, that is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there, compassion. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.”
This smile of the Buddha is rooted in equanimity, in being able to see all around with patience.
I remember having a similar moment of existential angst for myself in meditation. I was practicing with this exercise: “Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment.” And I thought, with all that’s happening in this world—the violence, hatred, inequality, all the preventable tragedies—how can we say this is a wonderful moment?
I felt lost as I sat in the question of this conundrum. I also saw that the suffering and pain is real and increasing. And, that there are many beings who are supporting other beings in every moment. There are hearts of compassion that are opening to relieve suffering, people standing up to injustice, acting courageously, selflessly, out of wisdom to care for others, to relieve suffering, teach, show a different way. There are people caring for the planet, for other species, and species caring for other species. In every corner of the planet, there are those doing things no one else wants to do, caring for forgotten people and places.
When I took in that larger picture, I was able to see that this present moment is wonderful. Suffering doesn’t have to disappear for beauty and wonder to be there. Life is about all these things. It’s about holding all of that. There is terror, pain, injustice, and there is also love and wisdom, and they coexist. Often, if we bring our practice of compassion and wisdom to the pain and suffering, we can transform that into incredible energy that is deeply transformative.
Inclusiveness comes from deep insight, this ability to stand in this place of strength. In his Four Sublime States, Nyanaponika Thera writes about two insights that equanimity is based on. One is the understanding of karma—how our actions of body, speech, and mind produce fruits that are inescapable. And the other insight is that of not self. These are what allow us to manifest equanimity in the world.
He writes, “To establish equanimity as an unshakable state of mind, one has to give up all possessive thoughts of mine, beginning with little things from which it is easy to detach oneself, and gradually working up to possessions and aims to which one’s whole heart clings. One also has to give up the counterpart to such thoughts, all egoistic thoughts of self, beginning with a small section of one’s personality, with qualities of minor importance, with small weaknesses one clearly sees and gradually working up to those emotions and aversions, which one regards as the center of one’s being. To the degree we forsake thoughts of mine, or self, equanimity will enter our hearts.”
After the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, my dad and I were reflecting on how there was ample warning, and yet it wasn’t prevented. We were reflecting on the mind that engages in such violence. My dad is a Christian minister and a Buddhist dharma teacher. He said, “When we see ourselves as victims, that’s the separate self. That’s this holding on to this notion of self. And when we see ourselves as beloved, that is no self.”
When we see ourselves as beloved, we are loved, and we are also loving. We are full of metta and we see ourselves in everyone and everyone in ourselves. And we have a force with which to meet ignorance, discrimination, and violence in others, so that it doesn’t cripple us by making us hateful.
When we see ourselves as beloved, we have no enemies. This was Thay’s gift to all of us. During the Vietnam war, he said, other people are not our enemies, a human is never our enemy. Only delusion, hatred, and ignorance are what we need to put our attention towards uprooting. Because even if we eliminate a person, ignorance, hatred, and confusion will continue.
If we see ourselves as beloved, not as victims, we can encounter those who we disagree with, or who we are morally opposed to, without malice or dehumanizing. That’s the power of equanimity and inclusiveness.
I woke up at three this morning and I was so angry at a company that I have been a customer of that I feel has really screwed me over. They said, nope, sorry, we can’t do what we told you we could do after I had spent over a month and significant resources reorganizing my communications systems based on what they promised. They told me this just like that, as if it were no big deal. So, I’m fuming and composing a WTF response and thinking, “Whoa, and I have to give a talk on equanimity tomorrow!”
I’m aware of the importance of speaking out to say this uncaring way of treating people is not okay. But underneath that I also want them to be the best company they can be—to live up to who they’re supposed to be. I’m trying to figure out how to stand up for myself, hold them accountable, and see the whole picture with patience. And see also—with humility—what were the things I missed in this interaction that it would be good for me to reflect on and learn from.
My great grandmother, Mudro, lived to be 101. (We called her Mudro because one of the grandchildren couldn’t pronounce “mother”). She outlived five of her six children but was not a bitter person. She grew up in Mississippi and Oklahoma and had many stories to tell about life in the South. She was a refugee seeking asylum in the North, as so many Black people were. And there too, she encountered Ku Klux Klan violence in Michigan, and had to escape to Illinois. Despite the crippling poverty that she and her children endured, I never heard bitterness in her voice. I think she saw herself as a beloved.
When I think about this company, I’m trying to channel my great grandmother and the strength it took for her to survive the life that she had, and to be someone who was happy, loved to tease, tell jokes, make you laugh. She had a twinkle in her eye and was clear minded until the day she died. One day, she just decided to stop eating. That’s how she died. That’s serious equanimity.
With equanimity we have the chance to practice letting go. That’s what connecting to this truth of not self is, letting go of all the places where we’re caught. It helps us to take this bigger view. Knowing that we each have our own journey, and we can’t always know what someone else’s journey needs to be, much less our own. Beauty, happiness, wonder, connection, belonging, and separation, depression, anxiety, and despair are all part of a human life. We touch great freedom when we can accept that we don’t get to control how things are. And that suffering can be an important part of our path. We don’t get to avoid pain, but how we deal with it can be skillful or not. And if we have some measure of equanimity, we can avoid adding onto the suffering. We see we’re not in control, and it helps us let go.
Listen to the complete talk here.