“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (King James Version)
Every time we attempt to keep something that makes us feel good, it somehow slips through our fingers. The feeling we used to have when we’d meet our sales quota no longer gives us the same jolt. Likewise, as we attempt to ward off unpleasant experiences, we get caught in an array of patterns and behaviors that limit us. If we experience panic whenever we are called on to speak at a meeting, we avoid meetings altogether. These are extreme examples of some things that we subtly do all the time. We’re trying to maintain an eternal state of happiness, peace, joy, ease, power, prestige, etc. And, at the same time, we are trying to ward off fatigue, depression, irritation, anger, anxiety, doubt, etc.
Unfortunately, the universe does not function the way we’d like it to. Life has more of a cyclical nature. The Buddha made this a central part of his teaching. He called this law of change, Impermanence, and pointed out that all conditions are highly unstable and in constant flux. All things change, disappear, and eventually no longer satisfy us. All things are born, live for a while, and eventually pass away. This is reflected everywhere: in the life of planets, the human body, a rose; in the rise and fall of conquering nations; in the condensation of water from the ocean into clouds, from clouds to rain, from rain to rivers and lakes, and then back to the ocean again.
We all experience cycles of success (when things come relatively easily to us and we thrive), cycles of failure (when nothing seems to go right), and disintegration (when we have to learn to let go in order to make room for something new to happen). The compulsion to derive a sense of self worth and identity from our achievements makes it hard—if not impossible—to accept the cycles when we are not productive. We cannot always function at high levels. Sometimes we are creative and generative, and sometimes we are not. There are no magic bullets or tricks we learn that will ever make us fire on all cylinders all the time. We experience periods of creativity, but we also experience stagnation, too. A down cycle can last for moments, hours, or even years.
We forget that, at some point, sometimes sooner and at other times later, all experiences fade. Instead, we agonize about things that are completely out of our control. Of course, when we can influence something, we can actually help to shape an outcome, but much of life is beyond the sway of our will. The Buddha’s approach to working with that which is beyond our control is called upekkha. Upekkha translates as equanimity, a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in the insight that all things are unstable, that nothing is constant, and this unpredictability is impersonal.
The Taoist tradition tells the story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
The story above can be a little deceiving. On first glance, it may look as if the farmer is apathetic, but upekkha is not an emotional emptiness, a sort of lack of enthusiasm. Instead, it is non-reactivity, non-judgment. The old farmer’s equanimity was formed out of the presence of his mind, the willingness not to get lost in the habitual interpretation of what is good or bad, right or wrong, but, instead, to remain open to the unfolding and mysterious nature of life.
The point of upekkha isn't to turn away from life. Instead, it's about avoiding being trapped in clinging to what feels good and attempting to avoid what doesn't. When wanted things happen, we get to enjoy them, to relish in them, but we also recognize that they're temporary. They won't be here forever, so we do not lose the balance of our mind as they fade or change. The same is true of those moments and periods where we are not well, when we experience pain, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. Whatever the experience, we recognize that, “This too shall pass.”
From the standpoint of impermanence, we should not ask why bad and good things happen to us. Wanted and unwanted events do not point to either a beatific or malefic influence beyond us. Change, from the Buddha’s standpoint, is a basic law of the world—not unlike gravity or relativity—and, thus, is impersonal. From this neutral standpoint, the question to ask is not, “Why is this happening to me?” but rather, “How do I work with it skillfully?”
For all of us, life can be a roller-coaster ride. We do not always have a say over its vicissitudes. One method of holding onto our sanity is learning how to ride the horse in the direction it’s going. The more we understand the fallacy and implausibility of eternal pleasure, ease, strength, clarity, power, etc. on an experiential level, the more peace and acceptance we develop around discomfort and the less grabby we get when these qualities slip through our fingers. In short, paying attention to pleasant and painful sensations and everything in between both polarities in a non-reactive way makes us suffer a lot less.