At Buddhist seminary near Vancouver in 1980, I requested a personal interview with my teacher, the late Tibetan meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I had been going through some hard times and was hoping for some direct, pithy advice.
We sat and talked for a while, and then he looked right at me and said, “When things are going well, don’t relax, and when they’re not, don’t panic.” That comment has stayed with me from then to now. It defines the quality of equanimity, a state in which we meet all varieties of experience with an open and unbiased mind.
Years later, when I saw Rinpoche several months before he passed away, he looked up from his bed and asked me, “How’s life?” Again, I had been having difficult times and said, “Life has had its ups and downs.”
He looked at me for a moment, paused, and said, “Which comes first?” Those were literally the last words we ever spoke. Those words stopped my mind — it was just not what I was expecting to hear, and not what I really wanted to hear.
What Rinpoche was telling me was that we get so invested in our own roller coaster ride — we are so attached to our ups and downs, to the drama, the theatricality of it all. He was alluding to the idea that we can actually experience the ups and downs of life without getting totally swept away by them.
Have you noticed that as life unfolds, it has a kind of matter-of-fact quality to it? Things simply are as they are; they happen as they happen. If our mother is sick and dying, she is sick and dying. In Buddhism, the as-it-is quality is called suchness – tathata in Sanskrit — as it is.
As human beings, we sometimes project heavily onto this suchness. It is simply part of our nature to dramatize our existence, but actually equanimity is part of our nature as well. It has to do with developing balance and stability as things change. It has to do with relaxing with change, accepting and moving with it.
Many traditions generally encourage us to contemplate impermanence and change at the beginning of a new year. It is a good time to let go of old “stuff” (literally and figuratively) that we no longer need, and open to new opportunities and experiences — hence the infamous New Year’s resolutions.
Cultivating equanimity allows us to let go of our old stuff, open to new “stuff” and appreciate the space in which all our dramas come and go. Usually we don’t appreciate this kind of space and only focus on the highs and lows — sometimes it’s literally all we notice.