Joy & equanimity


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.

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, impartial, equitable view of 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.

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 have a more comprehensive view, and are less prone to be upset or shocked by the ups and downs of daily existence.

Keep in mind, however, that the Buddha, ever the realist, includes the states of equanimity and peace, within his broad definition of dukkha – because ‘whatever is impermanent is dukkha.’ This reminds us that nirvana itself, is a process – an unfolding engagement with the ebb and flow of experience – doing our best to live our lives with equanimity and compassion.