Happiness, equanimity & non-attachment

We have discussed dukkha/suffering a number of times, and it is important to balance this discussion with a consideration of joy and happiness. There are many forms of happiness – each is dependent on context and circumstance. We may feel happy in the presence of those we love and care for. We may feel happy when we’re in pleasant surroundings or in pleasurable situations. We may feel joy when we hear good news or when we achieve a goal or find success or share the achievements and successes of others. Sometimes, we feel happy just to be alive, to feel the breeze on our face and to experience the sights and sounds of the city or the countryside around us.

It is wonderful to feel happy and joyful, and to share happiness and joy with others. It is at times of happiness and joy that we may feel an absence of suffering – indeed happiness and joy may appear to be the opposite of, or transcendent to, suffering. Therefore, it may seem reasonable that the goal of Buddhist practice is to achieve happiness and joy. But, though the Buddha embraces and celebrates joy in his practical teaching, he also points out that these states of being are impermanent, just like every other state. Therefore, to crave or place too much emphasis on these states, let alone set them as a goal, is to invite disappointment and dissatisfaction. As Walpola Rahula points out, the Buddha reminds us that even happiness and joy should be considered as forms of dukkha, as everything that is impermanent can give rise to suffering.

It is also worth bearing in mind, that if joy or happiness were to somehow become permanent, or to continue beyond their natural duration, we would tire of them, we would doubtless become bored and jaded. Any state of being prolonged for too long loses its magic and intensity – even joy and happiness. To some extent, it is the brevity and transient nature of such states that gives them their special place in our hearts. Permanent joy, like permanent excitement or sorrow, is a contradiction in terms – the permanence, in a way, cancels out the joy, excitement or sorrow.

So, if happiness and joy, wonderful as they are, are not the ultimate goal of Buddhism, what is? Many would say that the peace of mind which arises when we let go of craving and reactivity is as close as we’re likely to get to nirvana or enlightenment. Certainly, the Buddha emphasised the importance of parinna – a dispassionate holistic understanding of each moment of experience – being mindful (in its fullest sense). Important aspects of parinna are conveyed by the English word, ‘equanimity.’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘equanimity’ as: ‘1. Fairness, impartiality, equity; 2. Tranquillity of mind or temper, composure.’ The adjectival form is, ‘equanimous.’ To develop a fair and impartial way of approaching a given situation, is something the Buddha encourages his students to do – through mindful meditation and other means. To understand what is going on, as far as we are able, within the context of contingency and ever-changing circumstances, is a key aspect of the practice of mindful meditation. To ‘be fair’, is to recognise the rights, joys and sufferings of other beings, as carefully and clearly as we recognise our own – to be fair is to be compassionate.

Equanimity also includes the important practice of maintaining an impartial way of experiencing – not being too swayed by, or drawn into, or attached to, the emotions, sensations and thoughts, that arise from moment-to-moment. Maintaining a compassionate disinterest in what occurs, whether it be excitement, joy, sorrow or boredom, enables us to experience these states without clinging to them. One of the key features of mindful meditation is realising that we can change the way in which we experience, in such a way that suffering, in all its forms, is eased and lessened. By letting go of our tendency to hang on to experiences, to cling to thoughts, feelings and sensations, we can develop a more sustainable mode of experiencing – a way of experiencing that involves less turmoil, less conflict, more peace and balance.

Developing tranquillity of mind and maintaining composure, enables us to accept the ever-changing nature of human life and to experience joy and happiness with gratitude, even as we know these pleasures will not last for ever – both for us, and for others. Developing equanimity also enables us to be less affected, confused and hurt, by the difficulties, conflicts and uncertainties of life – we are more supple in the way we experience, and are less prone to be upset or shocked by the ups and downs of daily existence. Daoist practitioners employ the metaphor of the willow tree that bends and sways with the wind, not against it; or the metaphor of water that flows around rocks and yet is eventually stronger than the rock – eroding and shaping it. Flexibility, in the end, outlasts rigidity. Just as composure and equanimity can be sustained, even as we negotiate the hard boulders of life. However, keep in mind that the Buddha, ever the realist, includes even the states of equanimity and peace, within his broad definition of dukkha – because ‘whatever is impermanent is dukkha.’ This reminds us that enlightenment itself, is a process – an unfolding engagement with the ebb and flow of experience – doing our best to live our lives with equanimity, understanding and compassion – experiencing the delightful intensity of joy and happiness without wishing they would go on and on. Mindful meditation may help us to experience non-attached happiness – or joy without craving and clinging – being at peace with what comes and goes.