Equanimity

You’ve been making your way through the Dark Night, and have been working through reobservation. Now a subtle but remarkable shift begins to happen: there is the clear sense that while all the aches and pains are still occurring, you have stepped aside and are simply watching them. Welcome to the stage of Equanimity.

The Buddha described equanimity as one of highest experiences a human being can have, a Brahma Vihara, or “divine abiding.” For someone who has just slipped into equanimity the idea that it is a divine abiding might not make a lot of sense at first, because it seems like nothing has really changed. You are simply watching everything in meditation just like you’ve always done, but now it just seems like you are doing it really well. But the reason that the Buddha pointed to this as a divine abiding is that in equanimity you are getting your first taste of real liberation.

This can actually be easy to miss, because the shift into equanimity is very subtle. Unlike A&P, which was stunning in its joy and otherworldly rapture, equanimity is very cool and calm. One gets the sense that everything is just fine as it is, and no matter what difficulty comes up in meditation you can observe it calmly and let it go.

Among some practitioners you will hear equanimity described as being one of two kinds, either “lower” or “higher.” While you will not find this division of equanimity in the ancient suttas or even in many of the commentaries, it makes a lot of sense once you have been through the stage yourself. This is because there is a gradual maturing of this stage, and the mature phase of equanimity feels very different to the meditator than the initial phase.

Lower Equanimity

Equanimity begins with a subtle shift that occurs during the Dark Night. At this point you are in the midst of reobservation, which feels as if all of the Dark Night is coming at you at once. You probably feel overwhelmed by the discomfort and are continuing to meditate despite how it feels. You are learning to accept the experience rather than fight it. If you are using the noting technique you will be noting “itching”, “frustration”, “aching,” “desire for it to be over”, etc. Then at some point you notice that you are no longer bothered by the negative things that are happening. They are still happening, but you feel fine anyway. What you are noting doesn’t change. The content of the noting is still negative. But somehow it doesn’t bother you. It is as if you have stepped back from everything and are now watching it from a slight distance. Needless to say, this can be a big relief.

Along with the realization that you are fine despite the negative feelings comes the realization that everything in awareness has become crisp and clear. Many meditators actually stop noting at this point because it is slowing down attention, which is now capturing virtually everything that is happening, observing it clearly and dropping it immediately on its own. Meditators describe this part of the path as the moment when the ability to see phenomena arise and pass away became effortless. It is as if everything is simply marching up and presenting itself to you. All you have to do is let it happen.

Astute meditators who are investigating their experience can get an important insight into the nature of suffering when this shift first occurs. In this initial step into equanimity the pain and discomfort of reobservation are all still occurring but you are no longer suffering from them. Why? Upon reflection the meditator realizes that only one thing has really led to this relief: there is a sense that the meditator is merely watching the experience, and is not really involved in it. It’s all just happening on its own, and the belief that it is happening “to me” seems to have vanished. That makes all the difference. Suffering goes away when the belief that it is happening to a self goes away too. This is a powerful insight that foreshadows enlightenment itself, and when it is fully understood liberation is close.

As the forward progress continues the aches and pains of the Dark Night fade away completely, and you move into full equanimity. What replaces the negative phenomena is a calm and clarity that is remarkable. However, although you may feel calm and clear, you don’t necessarily feel anything wonderful. There is no joy or amazement. People sometimes describe this phase of equanimity as “just sitting.” And that is exactly what it feels like. No bright lights or big surprises, but rather a simplicity and clarity that have never been experienced before.

Higher Equanimity

As the calm and clarity of equanimity sinks in, and the discomfort of the Dark Night fades away completely, the meditator begins to have some experiences that are reminiscent of A&P in that they are rather mystical.

Please keep in mind as I describe this that everyone’s experience of high equanimity is different, and while some people have mystical experiences so extreme that they literally hallucinate (check out Daniel Ingram’s description of “mush demons”) others like myself have very mild experiences. Neither is better or more desirable than the other and having a particular kind of experience will not move you through equanimity more quickly. Regardless of what you experience in equanimity the most important thing you can do is exactly what you have been doing that got you here: stay mindful and alert, allow the process to happen without forcing it, and balance concentration with investigation.

In high equanimity the meditator moves from “just sitting” to noticing a subtle and pervasive sense that the objects of meditation are vibrating. For example, you notice an itch on your cheek and it seems as if it is composed of thousands of fizzing bubbles rather than a single thing called an “itch”, you notice a feeling of tension in a muscle and it is almost sizzling with vibration, you notice a distant noise and it has a distinct humming quality about it like a microphone picking up dead air. For every object there is a clear visceral sense that it is vibrating.

Another important characteristic of this stage is that the vibrations are very fine and subtle. Reflecting on the speed at which things are vibrating, you’ll be amazed that you can detect them at all. Interestingly, while this would certainly qualify as a mystical experience, the crazy joy that first accompanied a mystical experience like this back at A&P is absent. The meditator is watching all of existence vibrate and hum along with a deep and noble calm that gives this stage its name. Along with this vibratory quality it is not unusual for meditators to experience lights and other similar phenomena that are like the A&P. Rather than be fascinated by them, you will simply notice that they too are vibrating.

As this experience matures another important shift occurs, and it is a very subtle one: it no longer seems as if the objects alone are vibrating, but rather that the entire field of awareness itself is vibrating. When this occurs the meditator begins to take the whole field of awareness itself as the object. All the things that are normally taken as objects still pop in and out of awareness, but now they are only part of what now constitutes the object, which is the vibratory nature of the whole field of awareness itself.

At this point you may be asking yourself what is meant by “field of awareness.” Admittedly, it is a pretty geeky term, but it is a very useful one to know at this stage of development. A useful analogy is a movie projected onto a screen. You can pay attention to anything in the movie, the characters, the scenes, the dialogue, etc., but the one thing all these things have in common is that they all are happening on the screen. When the mind shifts from taking individual things in the field of awareness as the meditation object to taking the entire field of awareness itself as the object, it feels as if you have gone from watching the movie to looking at the screen. There is a pulling back, a sense that you are taking it all in at once.

As one continues observing the entire field of awareness hum along in high equanimity, a substantial increase in concentration occurs. You’ve already acquired a good deal of concentration in order to get this far, but now it jumps in power quite a bit. Part of the reason that this happens is that in higher equanimity the mind stops moving from one object to the next and begins to focus on a single object, the field of awareness itself. Please keep in mind that this happens all by itself. There is no special technique or effort involved. At this point very little effort is needed and all that is required is that you allow the process to happen.

In theory, at this point the mind naturally takes a characteristic that all the objects and the field of awareness have in common and focuses in on that one thing, and as a result concentration increases even further and the meditation becomes very deep. Which characteristics can the mind take? It can focus in on the fact that the stuff you are aware of is clearly not you, or that everything is impermanent and whizzing in and out of existence, or it can focus on the characteristic that doing anything except letting go of any of it is very uncomfortable. Voila! – the three characteristics. When attention syncs up on on one of the three characteristics, concentration jumps, the power of the mind jumps, and the mind is readying itself to jump to something beyond awareness – Nirvana is at hand.

This is why the three characteristics are also known as the three “doors” to Nirvana. The reason why the three characteristics are so important is that in these final moments before complete cessation they are the only things that are stable enough to be taken as objects. If you are focusing on the entire field of awareness as it zooms in and out of existence, the only thing to take as an object is one of the three characteristics. Again, this is not a conscious process, and it is happening on its own at this point. You are just along for the ride.

That is the theory, and it makes sense, but in practice what it actually feels like is that the vibratory nature of everything gets stronger and stronger. You do feel as if you are focusing in on something, but in the moment you would not likely point to one of the three characteristics as the object of meditation (though some folks do). Rather you would simply say that the fact that all of awareness was humming in such a profound way was fascinating and you were zeroing in on that humming quality more and more.

As the mind gets stronger and stronger a few things begin to happen. The first is that the meditator begins to feel some excitement and anticipation. It is as if the mind knows that something profound is about to occur and is getting ready. This excitement can be an obstacle to progress, and I know this first hand. I stayed in high equanimity for some time, revisiting it over and over, and each time I became so excited and anticipated it so much that, like a kid in a candy shop, I couldn’t help myself and would impulsively try to hold onto the experience – bad idea. The forward momentum stalled under my interference and the concentration fell apart. After a while I got the message and learned to keep myself calm and focused on the moment.

The anticipation is a good sign though, and along with it you will experience a few other things that let you know you are very close. The whole field of attention begins vibrating in a way that is stronger and more clear in the mind. Some people describe a “tapping,” “silent popping” or “rushing in and out” that occurs at this point. What is happening is that the mind naturally begins to focus on the moments in the vibration when there is nothing rather than something. As equanimity matures the mind begins to focus in on the absolute moment of complete extinction. When the “nothing” in the vibration becomes fascinating, you are getting very close.

In the commentaries this point is described as the mind “inclining toward Nibbana.” At any moment your mind will fully sync up with the complete cessation of things, and when that happens, you find an amazing thing: not only do the objects of meditation disappear into a blissful nothingness – so do you. What this teaches the mind and the imprint that it leaves on one’s view of the self is extraordinary. The next section of the path is called Cessation, and it is all about this life-changing moment.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on June 21, 2011, in buddhism, Compassion, Dharma, Enlightenment, Meditation, Mindfulness, no-self, vipassana, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Ron, another great article, Thank you. I’ve never seen equanimity explained this way, but it is the closest to what my experience was that I have read. You provide more concrete examples of experiences then most descriptions I’m aware of.
    You also avoided the vague “open” feeling that supposedly arises, or “where” the “focus” is. Those descriptions may work for some, but I really have no idea what they are talking about. Just a difference in perspective I assume.
    Thanks again.

    • “Some people describe a “tapping,” “silent popping” or “rushing in and out” that occurs at this point.”

      Could these be like visual blips? This is something I often see when I meditate with eyes open: the visual outside world seems to disappear for a fraction of a second here and there.

      • Hey Omni,

        Is this off the cushion? If so, then I’m not sure that is what it is. I forgot to put this in the essay, but while in most other stages you cycle up to your cutting edge a few times a day, in my experience the tippy top of equanimity didn’t work that way. It only happened when I was in deep concentration and that just wasn’t really possible in daily life. I wonder about your experience though… it sounds like it could be an A&P pulse happening, but to really work out what it is we would likely need to have a long conversation about it. Either way, if you are having that experience, then you are doing something right!

    • Thanks Rev – You described my goal for this site right there. I want to describe this stuff clearly and simply, and take the mystery out of it. Essentially, I want to describe it in a way that would have helped me when I first started.

      As for the “open” aspect of EQ, I always wondered about that as well because people sometimes describe in that way in lower EQ (which makes sense to me) but sometimes it is described that way in higher EQ (which does not jibe with my own experience at all). Next I’ll post about cessations, and we’ll see if it makes sense to most folks – thanks for reading!

  2. Ron,

    this is an awesome description! very clear and tangible! how do i know? well, it lines up with my own experience 🙂

    i love the way you distinguish between lower and higher equanimity. in my case, i don’t experience “high” equanimity during actual sitting practice. however, i do experience this high equanimity during lying down meditation. i guess it’s because i’m able to fully relax why lying down than sitting.

    my experience is just the way you described it. everything in the field of awareness is vibrating! sometimes the vibration is very fine, like soothing electrical currents running up and down the body. sometimes it has wave-like qualities, as if i’m lying down in the middle of the ocean and going along with the waves, or as if i’m like a seaweed underwater being blown by underwater currents. it has a soothing massage-like quality to it. and i try to ride it to the best of my ability. whenever i plunge into this state, i try to note if Shinzen-style (e.g. expansion, contraction, flow).

    however, just like you, i err on the side of excitement and anticipation, “like a kid in a candy shop.” and then what happens next is that the experience turns into a lucid dream (or a pseudo-OOBE). awareness shifts into the dream realm where i know i’m dreaming and then i do crazy stuff, like flying and going through walls. i guess i need to familiarize myself with the higher equanimity stage so that i won’t get excited that much and just stay in that state of high equanimity.

    this experience reminds me of what U Ba Khin calls, “activating impermanence”. it has something to do with the Buddhist concept of “kalapas”. here’s an interesting article about it.
    see http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khin/wheel231.html

    i think U Ba Khin’s description rocks! (note: for those who don’t know, U Ba Khin was S.N. Goenka’s teacher).

    keep on writing, Ron. your clarity is much needed in the mushiness of pop-Buddhism 🙂

    ~C

  3. i have a question i cant get an answer to for a long time : because i always hear about the importance of a continues “practice” and with the least amount of breaks in awareness

    what is the minimum “time” to gain some insight :

    1 . is a 5 minute meditation practice usless ? what about noting a single thing “itching” “thought” “sound” ect ? what about noting “lifting” “lowering” ?

    what is the biggest break i can have between awerness for it to have some value in insight – if i do 5 minute meditation a month – is it usless ? what about noticing a single thing a month ?

    2 . can i “fall back” from an insight phase to drop from 2-15 step back to 1 ? or is it just advancing along the path from 1-16 and than repeating it without any “lose” of “advancement” ?

    • I wouldn’t call 5 minutes of meditation useless unless it’s just daydreaming. If you really are looking at present-moment mind and body phenomena with clarity, even for just five minutes, it will likely be a good thing for you. Will it lead to awakening? Probably not. You’re going to need longer stretches than that, but if you have five minutes and want to use it meditating, to me that is a smart choice.

      You can fall back, so it is important to keep a regular daily practice. The good news is that once you’ve initially broken through an insight stage, it is not as difficult to get back to it the second time even if you fall back. The key is momentum. Keeping up a good pace of forward progress over time requires regular, daily work.

      • so what is good in doing 5 minute meditation (talking about 5 minutes in a long time with no close other meditations) if it wont lead to awakening ?

  4. Can I just hurry up and be a sakadagami already?

    It’s a bit frustrating to know you’re right on the precipice of 2P, and to know exactly what needs to happen, and to remember that trying to make it happen doesn’t work, and that in fact any attempt at voluntary behavior is exactly the obstruction standing in the way of the path, and despite all that, to be trying to make it happen anyway!

    If I remember right, the next phase is “insight into the fact that trying to stop doing any voluntary behavior is oxymoronic”

    #sotapannaproblems

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