Back in May, and again in September of 2015, I contributed to the Progressive Buddhism blog:
These had to do with my partner finding out she had breast cancer, and what she, and to a much lesser extent I, did to progress through the process. The gist of those blogs was to give some insight into the analysis of what was going on, and to give potential responses to what others might have said upon hearing the news that she had cancer.
One can imagine the tongue clucking, hand-wringing, verging on patronizing statements some people make when they hear the news. “But how are you? How are you really?” To which my response in the first piece was, “No, really, it's OK.” Later, in September, after she had completed radiation and was given a clean bill of health in follow-up oncologist visits, we could make the observation that, “Yep, it's still OK.” The conclusion that I came to from looking at what we did, said, and thought throughout those months was interesting.
It seems that at least on my part, what would have been an opportunity to go absolutely nuts, just wasn't there. Admittedly, I've only known a couple people with cancer, and so far as I'm aware there's only one I can think of who died from it, and that was a classmate who died of leukemia when we were 6 years old. It's entirely possible that because I had no horror story reference point, that I just didn't know how one is supposed to behave when one hears their partner has cancer. But between that and some events that have come along since, I'm fairly certain that my Zen Buddhist practice has figured into it.
The Four Immeasurables in Buddhist teaching are “Lovingkindness,” “Compassion,” Sympathetic joy,” and “Equanimity.” They are the virtues that we as Buddhists hold as ideals in our behavior—thoughts, speech, and actions. We don't always stay true to them, but once you've learned about them, you can't unlearn them. They're there like a bee buzzing around the dark corners of our minds, and can be just as annoying when the buzzing gets loud just when we don't want it to.
This past weekend, my partner and I were at our storage space, trying to condense it down to a smaller space. We have a rental truck, and we're shuttling items around, trying to separate out what we're going to donate from what we will need in the future. We finish our work on Saturday, I dead-lift a couple of book cases off the truck—one of which went up a flight of stairs—and then we head back over for more consolidation. I drive over to the storage space in the truck, and she drives over in her car. I park in front of the large space, she in front of the smaller one. I put my key in the padlock, and it was turning suspiciously easy. But, given my good fortune of the key moving smoothly for once, I continue turning it. And then it got a little too easy. It was as if I were unlocking air. And at that point I was, because the key had broken off inside the lock.
I'd like to say that my imperturbable nature was maintained. But that was not to be. A couple of shouted expletives, that feeling in the chest when you have something happen that is beyond unexpected, that all happened. But what was unexpected, turned out to be how quickly it actually passed. By the time I walked over to the other space to tell her the news and walked back to the still-locked space, the feeling of anger, panic, and that thing that happens in the chest just sort of dissipated. Got to the truck, sat in it, and figured out what the next step was—which was to call locksmiths.
As a note for future reference, locksmiths in Western Mass don't seem to work on Sunday. That being the case, it seemed like there would be no reason to hang onto a truck full of air for another day, so I drove it back down to the rental office. Then it dawned on me: People must leave padlocks on the back of trucks all the time, the rental guys must have bolt cutters! A second note for future reference, they don't have them. The guys at the office and I couldn't believe it, but that was the case. So the truck was left there.
Our Zen practice teaches us to feel fully whatever is going on at the moment. Key breaks, anger and disbelief are felt fully. But anger and disbelief pass quickly enough if we let them. Feelings, emotions, attachment, aversion, they are like a container of milk. I don't think many of us would want to keep the milk past its expiration date, but those emotions, sometimes we just want them to stick around until they are Gorgonzola cheese. Anger, righteous indignation, boastfulness, sometimes even those negative emotions have a certain draw to them: “Screw lovingkindness, right now I want to scream in rage!” “May all beings be happy? Hell no, all beings shall be subject to my wrath!” “I shall smite thee with my terrible swift tongue (or keyboard)!”
When we aren't angry, we don't really want to be angry, it feels too good just to feel good. Good is good, angry is bad. We feel the good fully...and then maybe even that sticks around a little too long, turning into a thought-induced state of cranial Velveeta. And then it becomes undeniable that the time for “good” is gone, and that swing can be even more disappointing than feeling good. There's what the Buddha called dukkha—that propensity we have as humans that it's never quite right, or at least not for as long as we'd like it to be, nor will it end as soon as we'd like if it's something we don't like. They were the “good old days,” maybe “the future is bright,” but usually not, “it's all good—even right now.”
But equanimity, that imperturbability, that willow-like bending but not breaking, is an auto-correct for when the pendulum starts swinging a little too wide—maybe so wide it's stuck at one extreme or the other. Equanimity isn't being detached in the sense of aloofness or indifference that is sometimes associated with it. Having a sense of equanimity isn't even going through all life's trials with that half-smiling look of a Buddha on our faces all the time. It doesn't even require us to forsake all preferences for feeling good or aversions to what doesn't feel good. Equanimity is the Middle Path for emotions. With equanimity, the emotions come when they come, they go when they go, and maybe we experience them a little closer to what reality is; It isn't really going to kill me if I don't get that pay raise, and I'm not really “Top of the world, Ma!”if I do get it.
But when we have that sense of peaceful calm equanimity, and that is really getting in the way of our real desire to just vent, rant, rave, throw things, spew venom and flames, and carry on like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, just because “we WANT to,” man, can equanimity suck!
To listen to the Dharma talk, click on the title, or navigate to: