Parenting, publishing, taking the metro to work each morning – I have found that every aspect of life benefits from the practice of equanimity, described by Kalu Rinpoche in The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, as a state of mind in which “you are not overpowered by emotional afflictions such as desire, hatred and stupidity, but instead remain in the natural state of the mind.” Without mindfulness practice to ground me in equanimity, I all too easily get swept away by the emotional currents around me. In parenting in particular I have a real tendency to get caught up in whatever is going on with my children and husband. I have nicknamed this “empathetically induced anger”, though it’s simply lack of equanimity. A phone call from an upset teacher, a email from a stressed spouse, a child crying about something his or her sibling has done, and suddenly my own mind is about as far from peaceful as could be imagined. Almost immediately I feel corresponding physiological changes in my body and soon I am mired down in the very hell realm that I’d like to be able to raise those around me out of.
I wrote In the Garden of Our Minds and other Buddhist stories over a period of years where I was struggling to maintain my own sanity while also co-parenting two very energetic children and working full-time. The dialogues and practices described in the book are based very closely on ones I experienced and developed during that time. Parenting has been the most challenging experience of my life; it requires such a high number of on-the-spot reactions. For instance, it is one thing to consider questions about life and death in the abstract, but I have found a much higher degree of pressure when the questions are being posed by small sentient beings who I’ve vowed to raise and nourish and who are looking to me for specific answers about what I believe – and why. And there is no test of mindfulness and equanimity like parenting. I can have the most positive intentions in the world as I calmly breathe my way up the driveway, but if I walk through the door into a room full of people on edge and cannot maintain my peaceful mind, I will soon find that my own seeds of anger are not seeds at all, but little grasping vines ready to rise up and choke away every last good intention.
Taking time to practice equanimity through meditation is a gift I have only recently been able to give myself. The practice brings a distance and tranquility that helps me to not get “caught up” in the tumult around me. As Kalu Rinpoche says, “When this peaceful mind is present, the emotional afflictions are not able to arise.” If I am able to maintain a calm mind, the emotional chaos around me is at the least not exacerbated and may in fact actually decrease. In moments of emotional crisis at home, I am often overwhelmed by panic about what I should do or say. Mindfulness practice has taught me that the most productive, relevant, and important thing I can do is to simply follow my own breath for a while. The Buddha said that someone else’s anger is like a dagger laid at your feet; you are the one who makes the choice to pick it up and stab yourself in the chest with it. If you can simply let it rest there, like an unwelcome gift, it can do you no harm.
Years ago, in Robert Fulghum’s book, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, I read the following poem, said in the book to be from a scroll in a Japanese monastery:
There is really nothing you must be.
And there is nothing you must do.
There is really nothing you must have.
And there is nothing you must know.
There is really nothing you must become.
However. It helps to understand
that fire burns, and when it rains,
the earth gets wet. . . .
To me that sums up the experience of equanimity and the quality of mindfulness that I am every day trying to practice in my life.