Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Practicing Equanimity in Times of Terror

A few weeks ago, my friend Hokai shared on Facebook this incredible Fiona Apple video, her version of the classic Beatles song, "Across the Universe." I became slightly obsessed with it, and watched it repeatedly.

The original Beatles song, which some critics have argued was more the product of hippie-era drug culture than any kind of authentic spiritual practice, does seem slightly naive today (as my friend pointed out when he shared the video). But what Apple and her director Thomas Paul Anderson did with the song in this video took it in a whole new direction.

Apple's unyielding, peaceful, undistracted focus amidst the chaos and violence taking place all around her has, I feel, something deceptively simple and instructive to say about the practice of equanimity in difficult times. It reminds me of the legend of King Ashoka of ancient India, who looked out with sadness and horror over the desolate battlefield strewn with the corpses of his troops and enemies, and saw a monk walking through the fray with an aura of peace and dignity about him. Seeing that monk's equanimity was the spark that led to Ashoka's own spiritual awakening. As legend has it, he went on to become a benevolent ruler and did many noble and compassionate things, like building some of the world's first hospitals.

This week, the news coming out of Japan -- the earthquake, the tsunami, the ongoing nuclear crisis that seems at this moment to be heading towards catastrophe -- has rocked everyone's equanimity. Like so many others, I've found myself glued to the awful news reports; my emotions have been locked in a seemingly endless cycle of hope and fear, even at times despair. I've found myself wondering once again how to continue practicing equanimity in the light of such tragic and fearful circumstances.

Last night, I turned back to Fiona Apple's video for consolation, and for a reminder. For all its brilliance as a music video, a more cynical person than me could easily dismiss her message as a glib, staged celebrity portrayal of the practice of equanimity -- like the song itself. And, from a certain perspective, that may be so -- but it doesn't bother me. Surely the practice it is pointing to is still a relevant reminder, even in times like these -- perhaps most of all in times like these. If, after all, our practice of equanimity disappears when things look really bad, then what is it good for?

A word of caution: in traditional Buddhist teachings, it is said that equanimity has two obstacles or enemies -- near and far. The far enemy -- which is easier to recognize because it's so obviously the opposite of equanimity -- is losing your cool, getting swept away in aggression or attachment. But the near enemy -- which is harder to recognize because it can look superficially like equanimity -- is indifference, not giving a shit, a "couldn't-be-bothered" attitude. There's a lot of that sort of thing going around these days, too, but that's clearly not what is meant by the practice of equanimity.

In a way, it seems like a perfect koan: how to let the suffering of the world into your heart and to respond in whatever way is most helpful, while not getting swept away in attachment or hope and fear.

What do you think? What is the role of equanimity in times of tragedy and terror? How do you maintain your balance when the world around you seems to be in chaos?