The tea time conversation this last week turned into a lively discussion of our transient mindstates. Every day, we see our thoughts coming and going, and with them our moods rise and fall. As practitioners encouraged to develop wholesome thoughts and patterns, it’s easy to be confused as to which direction ‘wholesome’ lies in. We may find ourselves unimpressed with our surroundings and our level of comfort, and ask ourselves – Is this Dispassion? Is this seeing suffering? Is it supposed to feel like this?
And not just dispassion – what of the perception of impermanence, or goodwill, or knowing cessation? How can we tell if this passing thought of mine is a profound one seeing through to the nature of reality or just the same old chattering of the mind?
Without investigation, there’s no way to know. What might be the framework of a really profound thought in one person could be the sign of aversion in another. What’s more, trying to intentionally develop states like metta or compassion often bring into view their enemies – attachment and pity – and what should be an otherwise bright state remains murky.
The best test we’re offered is to see where the thoughts lead. When we think this way, do other wholesome thoughts increase and unwholesome ones decrease? Then the root is probably good, however the immediate impression. But if we find there’s more annoyance, aversion, frustration, possessiveness … then we might be taking the wrong approach. It might be a passing thought best left alone.
Another great tool is to look right past the thoughts themselves to the mood of the mind. We might be thinking, “This is impermanent.”, but the mood of the mind is contracted. Or, “They are great!” but we sense there is greed and envy and self-defeat. Since thoughts come from the mind, and the mood sets the direction of our thoughts (not the other way around!!), learning to assess the flavor of our mind is a great way to contextualize what’s popping up in it.
One of the most helpful states for learning to gauge the mind is Equanimity. Upekkhā in Pāli, this mental state is the emotion of balance, and being able to perceive both attractive and repulsive things without being shaken. When this is developed and cultivated, whatever the thought that arises we’ll have enough time to contemplate it without reacting. And maybe the mood of the mind is dour, and our ‘dharmic thoughts’ are really just hints of aversion. Equanimity can even allow us to accept the state of our mind now without criticism. “This too shall pass,” is the underpinning of Upekkhā.
Furthermore, developing Equanimity helps us weed out its enemy – Apathy. One is a bright state of acceptance, while the other is a determined lack of care for both good and bad things. When we’ve overcome our apathy, each mind state is met with the willingness to see and work with what’s arising.
These are just some thoughts – for more reflections on Equanimity, you can check out a dhamma talk professionally filmed and edited by the Indonesian vihara’s photography enthusiast Andy: