Equanimity

You might call equanimity the grandparent’s perspective.

A grandfather or grandmother looks over their grandchildren with an attitude that combines the previous three Brahma Viharas (love, compassion, sympathetic joy) but grandmother’s love is not blind, she is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses, the challenges and accomplishments of her grandchildren.  She is sympathetic in joy when they succeed, concerned and compassionate when they face difficulties but she’s not partial or pulled off balance; neither is she neutral or indifferent.  The Grandparent’s overview is the addition of wisdom to the three other Brahma Viharas.

The Sanskrit word for equanimity is upeksa. The root upeksh means ‘to look at or look over, to perceive, to notice, to wait on patiently’.  The prefix upa can mean “higher” (“upper”).  These definitions are hinting at a state where you feel near to everything or everyone without partiality, overlooking the whole picture without excluding anyone or anything.  This is connectedness, a type of higher union with all phenomena.

So it is rather unfortunate that some Buddhists translate upeksa as “detachment” or “indifference” because this conveys an attitude of aloofness or distance, which is not the true meaning of equanimity.  Equanimity is non-preferential interconnectedness, union with all…. You might even call it the opposite of detachment.

The Buddhist dictionary equates upeksa to tatra-majjhattata , which literally means ‘remaining here and there in the middle’ or ‘equanimity, equipoise, mental balance.’

I like to think of upekkha as the perspective of the grandparents sitting on the porch watching over all their grandchildren playing on the lawn below.  If a child gets hurt, there is concern.  If someone is happy, that joy is shared by the grandparents but it is always balanced and never disproportionate.  Now draw back this perspective, imagine you’re grandparents to the entire community you are living in.  As your perspective gets wider and wider you include more and more people (and plants and animals, rocks and water)….You see the necessity for balance and wisdom.

This is the wisdom of the Elders.


Many years ago, I had the good fortune to sit next to Algonquin Chief William Commanda at an informal lunch hosted by Cultural Survival magazine in Boston.  There were some loud people talking around our table but Grandfather Commanda was very focused and quiet.  We were eating outside on a porch.  I was watching Chief Commanda very carefully while he ate, and happened to notice him carefully moving his teacup over a flower.

This was curious behavior.

He was also whispering…

When I looked closer, I could see that there was a spider on the rim of his cup.  As he leaned away from the table, his head down low, he put the rim of the cup near one of the leaves so the spider could step off onto the plant.  Just under his breath I could hear him say, barely in a whisper, “There you go now, brother.”

With his head down low, still near the flowers and with the others around the table telling jokes, oblivious to what Grandfather Commanda was doing, he again spoke so quietly I could barely hear him.  He wasn’t looking at me or at anyone at the table, he had his back to us; he was looking at the spider walking on a leaf.  I think I was the only one to hear him and to the best of my recollection these were the only words he spoke during the entire lunch.  (And this was barely a whisper.)

He said, “It’s a moral crime to build the dams that flood the land, because that kills the bees and the ants and the spiders.”

That’s all he said.

He was not “detached.”

Chief Commanda always speaks in such a tender and considerate tone, but he is no pushover; he is enormously wise, and he is a strong leader.  And what his words emphasized to me was the importance of seeing the big picture.  This is the importance of equanimity, the balance and wisdom that comes from seeing the big picture.

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