The world is burning, taught the Buddha. Even if we aren’t in the midst of a battlefield, we sense that this is true. Everything changes, passes. What can we possibly trust? Yesterday, my daughter and I went to see “War Horse,” Stephen Spielberg’s visually beautiful and unabashedly sentimental movie about a war horse in World War I, and about the power of love to prevail even in the midst of the savagery of war. I thought my anglophile daughter would be moved by the English sunsets and young English soldiers in the trenches, but I don’t think she was, at least not as much as I. I loved it. I cried.
I feel that the appeal of movies like “War Horse” is in the vicarious thrill of witnessing great feelings and deeds, unimpeded by inner and outer conditions, the way life really is. Spy movies and crime shows actually offer a related kind of satisfaction—they allow us to watch people doing nearly impossible things very quickly and well. This affirms the buried hope in us that there is a quality or energy in us that can meet conditions and prevail no matter what is going on. The great Shakespearean director Peter Brook once explained that he had actors flying across the stage on trapezes in his groundbreaking version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because he thought very quick, skillful movement conveyed the spirit in action. Watching it, we may feel something in our own hearts and minds elevate and quicken, the way we feel sometimes watching a cat move or the way I felt watching that beautiful horse gallop across no man’s land, away from the madness of war, never mind the barbed wire.
Yet as much as I love watching all kinds of movies, I also secretly know that my real possibility for freedom, the source of the energy that might lift me up out of the narrow and repetitive band width of my thought is not up on the screen but in that act of awareness that turns me back on myself—on the projector and the act of projection, if you will. The potential for liberation dwells in the gap between what we dream and what we see we really are in any given moment. A day or so ago, for example, my daughter and I were sitting opening a big pile of Parabola donation letters. I was full of gratitude and also full of the dreamy thought that Alex might see how fulfilling and meaningful this work is for her Mom, that she would glimpse something beyond the humble conditions and wages. Instead I heard this: “Why don’t you take this pile of envelopes and make sure they’re empty before we throw them away.” My capable daughter had swiftly and deftly taken the job away from me, organizing everything into neat piles, leaving me to check the trash…leaving me with a very familiar taste of ashes and a sense of coming out of the clouds and landing hard on the ground.
It is humbling, every time life reminds me that I’m not that swift at any number of practical things (and it happens with some frequency). The root of humble is from the Latin “humilis,” meaning low, from “humus” or ground, earth. It is also related to the Latin word for human and humane or kind, and this connection between down-to-earthness and kindness makes a great deal of sense to me, doesn’t it to you? Isn’t it a liberating joy to be around a person who doesn’t think he or she is above the rest of us? In other languages the connection between humble and the earth is the same. More and more, I see humility as a crucial quality for living and helping in this burning world.
Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble, nothing can touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know who you are.” I often think of the Buddha touching the earth before his enlightenment, asking the earth to bear witness, to sit with him. Humility or touching the earth, as Mother Teresa knew, is the best way to open the mind and heart and to find our balance in this shifting world. It is the best way the keep the big picture in view. In my own experience, being humbled can give rise to equanimity (eventually). This quality is held to be a very fine attainment in the Buddhist practice. It is a state of mind is grounded yet wide and free, lowly, but not low. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”
The English word “equanimity” is translated by two separate Pali words (Pali is a dialect similar to the one used by the Buddha). Each represents a different aspect of equanimity. The most common Pali word translated as “equanimity” is upekkha, meaning “to look over.” It means being able to see the way Mother Teresa said we can see when we are humble, without imposing our judgments and reactions on what we see, just peacefully abiding with what we see. It means peacefully and patiently keeping the big picture in mind.
Here is a little more on equanimity from Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal: “Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean ‘to see with patience.’ We might understand this as ‘seeing with understanding.’ For example, when we know not to take offensive words personally, we are less likely to react to what was said. Instead, we remain at ease or equanimous. This form of equanimity is sometimes compared to grandmotherly love. The grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren but, thanks to her experience with her own children, is less likely to be caught up in the drama of her grandchildren’s lives.
The second word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata, a compound made of simple Pali words. Tatra, meaning “there,” sometimes refers to “all these things.” Majjha means “middle,” and tata means “to stand or to pose.” Put together, the word becomes “to stand in the middle of all this.” As a form of equanimity, “being in the middle” refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This balance comes from inner strength or stability….”
In my experience, balance or stability comes with humility, with touching the earth. It is hard to fall off the earth. Echoing Mother Teresa again, equanimity in the Buddhist tradition is held to be a protection against the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. There are moments in life that are so humbling that the mind and heart open completely to the truth of the impermanence of our lives and all the qualities we usually cling to. Letting go of our usual defensive reactions can bring an extraordinary sense of equanimity, of calmly and humbly opening to the mystery of life. Never mind how others may judge us.
The two slightly differently forms of equanimity, seeing the big picture and finding our balance in the midst of it all, come together at moments. There are moments, as Mother Teresa points out and as I saw glimpses of it in “War Horse,” when we let go completely of any hope for gain or praise or anything else. These moments are completely under the radar of the worldly winds of fame and ill repute (and part of the vicarious thrill of movies like “War Horse” can include comparing your pretend fineness to the cowardly behavior of others). And yet, sometimes when we are engaged in the most humble and unsung of occupations or actions, we may experience an unusual degree of peace and freedom. We may even feel like war horse, galloping free across no man’s land.