By Bill Dorigan
Subject Matter Specialist
This article explores the meaning and practice of equanimity, a common translation for the word “upeksa” in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.33. The purpose of this exploration is to assist yoga teachers and practitioners in more effectively aligning with the Divine, experiencing a richer life, and more profoundly benefiting society.
The highest intention of practicing Anusara yoga is to align with the Divine. What does that mean? Sally Kempton offered a very helpful explanation, defining the Divine this way: an “ultimate Reality as one great divine Consciousness, with two inseparable aspects that are called Shiva and Shakti.” She described Shiva as the “ultimate divine intelligence” and “supreme Awareness,” and Shakti as the “intrinsic creative power” that manifests the entire material world, including each and every one of us, through her “divine creative energy.”
Referencing the Kashmir Shaivite philosophical system, Ms. Kempton explained how this Shaiva system of radical non-dualism recognizes this Supreme Consciousness “in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing … within all domains of experience.” Shaivites look for the divine in everything, not only in the sensory pleasures such as dance, art, music, and drama, but also in the “flawed humanness” of anger, fear, and depression, and the behaviors springing from all the “darker emotions.” Referring to Kshemaraja’s tenth-century text the Pratyabhijna Hridayam (The Heart of Recognition), Ms. Kempton emphasized that each of us are also living expressions of Supreme Consciousness in our individual, limited human bodies. We each live with an illusion of separation from Supreme Consciousness and, thus, from each other. In our human form we’ve forgotten our true nature as the Divine. We’ve lost sight of the idea that every human being shares this same true nature.
Aligning with the Divine, then, involves remembering this idea of oneness. It requires we develop the habit of looking first for the divine presence not only in ourselves but also in others, no matter what off-putting or offensive behavior might be present. Distasteful attitudes and behaviors, including racism, sexism, breaches of the law, lying, cheating, and even political ideals we find abhorrent, are each manifestations of Supreme Consciousness. Supreme Consciousness, the Divine, lives in the world through the full range of the human experience, – the happy, the sad, the angry and the loving, the mean and the kind, the shadows and the light.
To fully experience the Divine requires that we learn as much as we can about the full range of human experience. When appropriate for our particular situation, we learn by engaging with others, including specifically those with whom we are uncomfortable. As I discuss below, each such encounter allows us an opportunity to reexamine our own way of thinking and behaving, our own shadows. Maybe we’ll learn something. As Brenda Feuerstein wrote, “[w]e often learn the most from the things that contrast sharply with our own viewpoint.” To maximize our capacity for aligning with the Divine, we must learn to practice expansive engagement with the world.
Learning to view the world this way, with an intention of expansive engagement, requires a dramatic shift in attitude for many of us. Yoga teaches us how to accomplish this shift. As I emphasized in my October 2020 Samudra Shakti Online presentation, the core practice of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, ahimsa (Yoga Sutra II.35), involves far more than avoiding harm to another – the most common definition we hear in classes. It means love. Ahimsa requires that we learn to embrace “all creation for we are all children of …. the Lord.” The commentator Vyasa wrote that “the goal of the other yamas is to achieve ahimsa and enhance it.” Therefore, the love intended by this sutra, and in fact the entire eight limbed path of Patanjali’s yoga, is meant to be expansive, ever outreaching. Mr. Iyengar elaborated, that when practicing ahimsa a yogi “knows that his life is linked inextricably with that of others and he rejoices if he can help them to be happy,” showing those who have wronged him “by his love and compassion how to improve themselves.”
This is a very critical point. The practice of yoga, the journey towards abiding in our own true nature (Yoga Sutra I.3), aligning with the Divine, necessitates learning how to expand our capacity to love everyone, not just those who look like us and think like us. This is the attitude shift we must strive to achieve. Dr. Edwin Bryant suggested that a person’s yogic accomplishments will remain limited until her or she internalizes ahimsa, as well as the other yamas, and put them “into practice.” Certainly this is the case if we wish to maximize our opportunities to connect with the Divine. Until we learn to view each person, regardless of their “missteps,” from an attitude of love, we will experience inner turmoil that blinds us to the concept that the other person, the one who so offends us, is also a living, breathing manifestation of Supreme Consciousness. A loving attitude clears away the mental, judgmental chatter that causes our blindness and ignorance, our failure to recognize our shared common divinity. A loving attitude creates an environment from which the Divine can more readily be experienced.
Asking us to love others, including those who may have done us great harm, and perhaps continue to do so, seems a bit much, doesn’t it? Just ask Gandhi. Viewing everyone with love perhaps seems a bit “kumbaya” – an often-disparaging term applied to efforts to bring opponents into some semblance of harmony. But that is in fact what yoga is asking us to do. To make this commitment to maintaining a loving mind more plausible, we can think of “love” in the same way certain modern behavioral psychologists view the term. They don’t use the word “love” as we might commonly consider romantic attachment, or the warm emotions we feel with family members, or even pets, we care so much about. Rather, they consider love to be those moments of positive connection between two people, even strangers. It is this heart connection, however fleeting, that allows us to taste and experience the Divine in that other person. It is this moment of connection that can cause us to turn towards them and briefly remove the emotional barriers that hides from us our common divine connection. (For a variety of reasons there are times when the healthiest and safest choice is to turn away instead of towards).
Examples of this “positivity resonance” as Dr. Barbara Fredrickson referred to these moments, include divorced spouses finding a brief but significant common heart connection at their child’s wedding, or a shared moment of pride when that child graduates from school. Such love includes a mutual feeling of awe among strangers when experiencing an impressive event. It includes a common hope many of us feel when a political election yields a certain result. It refers to spontaneous shared joy among thousands of strangers in a stadium watching a last minute come-from-behind victory by their home team. Other emotions such as gratitude, serenity, curiosity, humor, and inspiration, by way of example, can result in the shared experience of positivity resonance, experiences of love.
Patanjali understood the human tendency to allow our mental constructs to blind us to our ultimate objective of abiding in our own true nature, including those cases in which we are confronted with those whose values and behavior offend us. As a result, he shared with us existing Buddhist practices contained in Yoga Sutra 1.33. That sutra provides: “By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.” Equanimity, upeksa, is a practice that teaches us how to more expansively view others with whom we disagree in terms of values and behavior.
What does equanimity mean? Some commentaries translate the word to mean “indifference.” Perhaps for this reason, I sometimes hear teachers and students suggest that the term upeksa means that we simply turn away from those with whom we disagree. We are told to “keep our temper but disengage,” “just turn your back and walk away; ignore them.” Such advice might sit well with our human nature, the part of us that doesn’t want to do the hard work of turning towards the person who offends us. It may even superficially seem like the proper response in order to retain our calm, “yogic” mind, our perceived state of inner peace.
However, turning away from such people prevents the very Divine connection we seek. Turning our back or ignoring someone is inconsistent with ahimsa and the yogic duty to enhance love. How will disengaging from or ignoring them help us find the divine imprint in that person? How, as Brenda Feuerstein pointed out, do we learn from that person’s drastically different world view, and transform ourselves, if we don’t engage with them? And, in terms of advancing wellbeing in our society, how will turning away help them consider our values and behaviors as a more beneficial way for them to engage in the world? Supreme Consciousness lives in such people, concealed from us, and can only be revealed by engagement with them, not by turning away.
Fortunately, scholars and various commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, suggest a contrary approach – an approach that interprets upeksa as a practice of mindful and empathetic engagement with the “nonnvirtuous.” Dr. Douglas Brooks recently discussed this point within the context of the political divisiveness in the U.S. He described equanimity as a mindful and empathetic engagement, suggesting we practice “turning towards” others (samata), an “engaged equanimity,” as he calls it. He submitted that we respond to those with whom we adamantly disagree in a “measured and appropriate” manner. He urged us to never disengage, but, instead, “address our feelings, thoughts, and actions in ways appropriate to viable outcomes.” He warned that when we turn away from our thoughts and feelings, we “lose equanimity.” Such disengagement causes us to lose the opportunity to reflect and then turn that reflection into “construction action.”
Consider Dr. Georg Feuerstein’s commentary in which he, like Dr. Brooks, urged a mindful and empathetic engagement of those with whom we disagree:
The term upeksa requires a brief comment. It does not stand for mere ‘indifference’, as I.K. Taimni and many other translators would have it, but is denotative of a more subtle and positive attitude, namely a dispassionate but nonetheless empathetic witnessing of mandate events.
In a later commentary in which he adopted a non-dualist view of the Yoga Sutras for purposes of the commentary, Dr. Feuerstein referred to equanimity as a “quiet acceptance” that “affirms the unity of all beings.”
This engagement with empathy and introspection is consistent with the view of other commentators on the Yoga Sutras. For example, while himself translating the word upeksa as meaning indifference or apathy, Mr. Iyengar explained in Light on Yoga that upeksa is:
[A] searching self-examination to find out how one would have behaved when faced with the same temptations. It is also an examination to see how far one is responsible for the state into which the unfortunate one has fallen and the attempt thereafter to put him on the right path. The yogi understands the faults of others by seeing and studying them first in himself. This self-study teaches him to be charitable to all.
Like Drs. Brooks and Feuerstein, Mr. Iyengar asked us to try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and then make an effort to engage (attempts “to put him on the right path”) that is based in our own self-study and Dr. Georg Feuerstein’s “empathetic witnessing.”
Mr. Iyengar elaborated on these points in his commentary to the sutra itself, pointing out that practicing equanimity as empathetic engagement, coupled with self-study, creates a “mental adjustment” that can benefit “the well-being of society as a whole.” Dr. Edwin Bryant concurred, noting that upeksa (and the other three attitudes identified in this sutra – friendship, compassion, and joy) “prescribes a kind of mindfulness or mental cultivation off the mat.” Dr. Bryant wrote that practicing these attitudes, including removing intolerance towards those with whom we are in disagreement, is “perfectly compatible with engaged and benevolent social action in the world.”
How does practicing upeksa as empathetic engagement with self-awareness expand well-being in the world? In his commentary on Yoga Sutra 1.33, Reverend Jaganath Carrera wrote that the ideal motivation for effecting a shift of viewpoint in another lies in a “mind possessed of equanimity” that is full of compassion, understanding, and a desire to create harmony.
Another commentator, Rohit Mehta, expanded on the value of putting another at ease, even when that person has behaved in a way discordant to our value system. He wrote:
Upeksa is not indifference. To show a real regard and consideration for those who may have failed or may have fallen – this is the meaning of upeksa. Usually we overlook our failings, many of them; but we are unable to overlook even a slight failing of the other. To make the person who has failed feel quite at ease in our company is a great spiritual value.
Practicing upeksa, equanimity, as empathetic engagement with self-awareness is an important practice for those involved with social action movements. Ravi Ravindra wrote that “the practice of yoga is meant to lead to more and more sensitivity to all our surroundings and relationships, and to develop an increasing understanding and compassion.” He wrote that upeksa is:
“[M]uch closer to impartiality than to indifference. When we are impartial, we do not take events personally, that is, we do not just take our own interests and ideas into account. To see more and more impartially is to take more and more into account.”
He suggested that we try to consider the other person’s behavior by understanding their situation and background and appreciate that they need our “sympathy and goodwill. He concluded that we often become so occupied with ourselves and our preferences that we “do not see others “as autonomous persons who have hopes, wishes, fears, and a depth within.” In short, we lose sight of the idea that the “other person” is every bit a manifestation of Supreme Consciousness as are we.
In conclusion, yoga, asks us to make a dramatic shift in our attitudes towards those with whom we disagree, including those whose words and deeds we find highly offensive. We need to cultivate an internal mental and emotional environment conducive to connecting, or aligning, with the Divine in all Its forms. Until we undergo a “radical change” in our perceived relationship with people by demolishing “the boundaries between oneself and others,” we will never fully experience our divine nature. Dr. Miller advised that when we practice upeksa, “impartiality toward all living beings – oneself, friends, strangers, enemies – the emotions of love, compassion, and joy are stabilized and universalized, enduring under any circumstances.” This emotional stabilization is the very mental and emotional environment that frees us to truly recognize and experience -“align with”- the Divine in even the most trying of circumstances.
- Kempton, Sally (2011). Meditation for the Love of It. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., pp. 112-113.
- Kempton, p. 113.
- Kempton, p.113.
- Kempton, pp. 114-118.
- Kempton, pp. 115-116.
- Kempton, pp. 115-116.
- Feuerstein, Brenda (2011). The Yoga-Sutra From a Woman’s Perspective. Traditional Yoga Studies E-books, p. 5. (Neither of the two Feuerstein E-books referenced in this article are currently available in hardbound or paperback).
- Iyengar, B.K.S. (1979 ed). Light on Yoga. New York, NY: Schocken Books, p. 31.
- Bryant, Dr. Edwin F. (2009). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York, NY: North Point Press, p. 243.
- Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 32.
- Bryant, p. 243.
- Fredrickson, Dr. Barbara (2014 ed). Love 2.0. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA), LLC, p. 17.
- Dorigan, William E. (2019). A Manual for Wellbeing – Using Yoga to Enrich Your Life. Middlesex, VT: LuHen Publications, LLC, pp. 25-49 (detailing theories of positive emotions and positivity resonance discussed by Drs. Fredrickson, Martin Seligman, Daniel Goleman, and others).
- I refer to the four brahma-viharas taught in Buddhism. Brahma-viharas has been translated to mean “divine abidings,” the “stations of Brahma,” and are sometimes referred to as the four faces of love.
- Bryant, p. 128.
- “[E]quanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous.” Bryant, p. 128 (commenting on Yoga Sutra 1.33).
- Brooks, Dr. Douglas R. (2020, November 19). “A More Engaged Equanimity.” Rajanaka Adesa. http://rajanakadesa.blogspot.com/2020/11/a-more-engaged-equanimity.html. Dr. Brooks reference to the word samata as an engaged equanimity comes from the use of the word in The Bhagavad Gita, II.48: “samatvam yoga ucyate” – “yoga is equanimity. Brooks, Dr. Douglas R. (2019). The Bhagavad Gita in Translation with Introduction Student Edition. Bristol, NY: Srividyalaya Publications, pp. 120-121.
- Feuerstein, Dr. Georg (1989 ed). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, p. 48.
- Feuerstein, Dr. Georg (2011 ed). The Yoga-Sutra Nondualist Interpretation. Traditional Yoga Studies E-books, p. 50. (Neither of the two Feuerstein E-books referenced in this article are currently available in hardbound or paperback).
- Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 27.
- Iyengar, B.K.S. (2002 ed). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. London, Eng: Thorsons, p. 86).
- Bryant, p. 130.
- Bryant, pp. 129-130.
- Carrera, Rev. Jaganath (2015). Inside the Yoga Sutras (2015 ed). Buckingham. VA: Integral Yoga Publications, p. 83.
- Mehta, Rohit (2011 ed). Yoga, The Art of Integration.” Wheaton, ILL: The Theosophical Publishing House, pp. 59-60.
- Ravindra, Ravi (2015 ed). The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Fergusons’s Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada: Shaila Press, p. 35.
- Ravindra, pp. 35-36.
- Ravindra, p. 36.
- Ravindra, p. 36.
- Stoler Miller, Dr. Barbara (1998 ed). Yoga Discipline of Freedom. New York, NY: Bantam Books, pp. 38-39.
- Miller, p. 39.