Upeksha is the fourth advice of Patanjali in retaining serenity of the heart-mind. I hesitate in using the word indifference as a translation, as indifference can mean apathy or not caring. It seems passive, to not do anything. Upeksha is a Sanskrit word in which upa means over and iksh means to look. To look over is to be able to see the whole picture instead of what is just immediately in front of us. To look over is an effortful path of acknowledging that there are several sides to a story, multiple dimensions to a person's character, countless histories layered over a situation.
A friend was telling me that during the time he attended a yoga retreat, there was this big news. A man who had raped and murdered young girls was due for an execution. The facilitator of the retreat asked them to pause and ask for the liberation of the victims, their families, and the person who committed this crime. Being a father himself, he was aghast at the suggestion. Why would he wish for the liberation of someone who had done such horrible things? It felt personal. He identified with the situation as the father of the victims. Most of us can understand his reaction. Most of us share the same sentiments. We feel that our anger and even desire for vengeance are justified. How could we not feel the way that we feel?
The teaching in upeksha is equanimity, that we are able to look over the situation in entirety, to relate to the suffering not only of the victims but also of the perpetrator, to identify with all who are involved in the situation and not only the ones easy for us to identify with. Upeksha is equanimity in wishing for the freedom of all beings, not only towards those whom we deem as worthy. Upeksha is even-mindedness in seeing that the perpetrator of the crime is a sentient being too who suffers just like us. Upeksha is the effortful path of removing the divide between the self and the other, especially when the other threatens our identity of being "good". We do not like identifying with what we label as "bad" because we refuse to acknowledge that that potential to hurt others exists in us as well. We find it easier to not forgive others. We find it easier to hold on to our judgment and anger. We fear that if we let that go, it means we do not care enough for the ones who suffer.
We can certainly hold on to anger and judgment. Many of us do. But the anger and judgment can consume us and put us in the place of victimhood. Then that does nothing to advance our project of serene intelligence. My teacher Sharon Gannon says, "One thing is certain: an enlightened being and a victim—never the twain shall meet—they cancel each other out. A yogi is someone who is focused on enlightenment."
The knowledge of what upeksha is would be for naught if not put into practice. As a Jivamukti teacher, I spend a lot of time articulating concepts of yoga teachings, but faced with a real-life situation, I sometimes struggle with practicing what I preach. Recently, I came upon a children's book called "I Want to Be Bacon When I Grow Up" that upset my equanimity of mind. I felt angered by the insensitivity and the ignorance, appalled by the idea that children are going to be brainwashed into believing that innocent sentient beings would willingly choose to suffer and die- for someone else's pleasure! Indifference towards the wicked, said Patanjali? My thoughts and actions went to a place as though I have never heard those words. I was very busy judging the authors as wicked. I spent a lot of time going to Amazon not only to write a negative review myself but to go through all the other negative reviews so I could feel self-satisfied in my self-righteousness. Was I right to feel the way that I felt? I believed my sentiments were justified. Did I have serenity of mind? The answer is a resounding no.
A story about the Buddha occurred to me which I think is a practical tip in exercising equanimity. A person went to the Buddha, very angry, cursing him, spewing out a lot of negativity. The Buddha remained calm. The person was surprised that his anger was not reciprocated. This is what the Buddha said: If you show up at my home with a gift and I receive that gift, the gift stays with me. But if you show up at my home with a gift and I choose not to receive that gift, the gift stays with you. Anger and consequently all negativity are like those gifts. They are presented to us but we have a choice not to receive them. We can say, no thank you. Return to sender. This way, the practice of equanimity is in seeing that we do not have to react to what is immediately in front of us. We can look over the situation and decide to not take on the negativity and the anger and the burden and the weight of the world. It is not passive and it is not apathy. It is an effortful path of choosing to solve our own problems, drawing boundaries, and allowing others to be responsible for their own problems. It is letting go of that divide between the self and the other, and with it the need to judge. I have been vegan five years and non-vegan the thirty years before that. For most of my life, my actions were exactly the same as that of the authors'. I need to look past my initial reactions and look over the big picture.
Possession is an affliction so pervasive in our present culture. I own this and that. This is my property, my car, my watch, my phone, my money, my idea. We are so used to owning we think we have to own everything that presents themselves to us, even anger and judgment. Next time our serenity of mind is challenged, we can practice what the Buddha taught, and choose not to accept that gift. We can ask ourselves: Do we really need to own it?
Upeksha or equanimity is the fourth element of love, after maitri or friendliness or loving kindness, karuna or compassion, mudita or sympathetic joy. It is the loop that closes the infinity of love, to not favor one over the other, to not judge, to not possess. Equanimity is to identify not only with a few, but with all. Equanimity is the state of heart-mind that embodies the mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. May all beings- with no exception- be happy and free.