In recent weeks I’ve heard several different people speak to the importance of embracing the deep quiet of winter in the northern hemisphere. The colder weather and shorter days invite us to slow down, to burrow deeper, to sleep more. When we listen to this instinct, our bodies and spirits have an opportunity to rest and recuperate. Regardless of whether you live in a part of the world where this winter transition provides space for silence, the passing from one calendar year to another offers a time to pause and reflect.
We are approaching the end of our second year of a global pandemic. Last year at this time a number of people were feeling relief for the end of 2020 and saying a celebratory farewell to a year that brought deaths, economic hardship, isolation, and loss of control. While at the end of last year many people expressed optimism about what the new year might bring, this year I’m seeing a more grim sense of heaviness and exhaustion. Many people are feeling defeated by the rates of COVID transmission rapidly rising once again. We are feeling worn down by a year where we have seen unprecedented climate disasters throughout the world, by a year where we continue to experience the effects of the deep roots of racism in our country. We are experiencing moments of sorrow, depression, resentment, anger, or other challenging emotions: each a manifestation of our collective grief.
It is important to make time and space to witness what this grief feels and looks like inside of us and how it shapes our thoughts and actions. Yet, sometimes we are afraid to slow down. When we slow down for long enough to just sit in silence, what comes in with that silence is not necessarily pleasant. When we slow down for long enough, we might be confronted by a flood of uncomfortable emotions we’ve been trying to keep out. This is part of what we work on during meditation practice, and it can be helpful to make space for additional spontaneous moments of practice in the midst of our daily lives.
What if, instead of entering 2022 at a run, with a list of resolutions and goals for the future, we were to enter the year with a vow to slow down just enough to develop equanimity? Equanimity is one of the Four Brahma-vihara or Four Immeasurable Virtues in Buddhism. True equanimity, or balance, gives us the ability to accept whatever arises in a moment without being caught up by what we see. It helps us recognize the big picture and our place within that big picture. Equanimity will be essential as we work toward healing our world in the coming year.
As we work toward cultivating a particular virtue, we should work toward recognizing its opposite in order to avoid it. The opposite of equanimity, craving or clinging, is easy to recognize. We should also work to avoid the “near enemy,” a quality that might appear similar to one of the Four Immeasurables on the surface but is, in fact, a harmful quality. The near enemy of equanimity is indifference. To develop true equanimity, we first work on developing the other three Immeasurables: loving-kindness (friendliness), compassion, and sympathetic joy. Starting with loving-kindness, we generate wishes of safety, mental happiness, physical happiness, and ease for those who are close to us, for those we are challenged by, and for ourselves. The ability to generate true loving-kindness for ourselves starts by recognizing our own grief. When we can recognize where and how we are holding grief in our body and mind, we can begin the process of healing. At the same time, we work to recognize the grief of others, including those we care about and those we resent. As we practice this over time, we come to see the common roots of our grief. We experience the interdependent nature of our collective experience and move toward collective healing.
When I sat down to compose this month’s newsletter, I had intended to write about the importance of practicing gratitude for the year that is ending, of practicing gratitude when it’s most difficult to do so. On the surface it might seem that the practice of caretaking our grief is at odds with generating gratitude. Yet, when we move beneath the surface, we find that both of these practices are really about seeing what is present in the world. Opportunities for gratitude and grief often converge in one moment.
Being fully aware, we recognize the physical sensations and emotions, including grief or pain, we are experiencing in our body. We notice all of this without pushing it away but also without clinging to it. We simply breathe and see what is there. We also expand our attention to what exists around us at the same time. Perhaps we notice the steaming mug of tea in our hand, the laughter of our child echoing from the next room, the dry socks on our feet, the sunlight breaking through a grey sky and casting a thin beam on the table. Each of these is an amazing gift, worthy of our gratitude. Each of these coexists with our grief. Inside every moment we can find the distress of this world and also its beauty. It’s when we can make space for both of these at once that we can truly find peace.
Wishing you all a heart-mind filled with healing and gratitude as we move into the new year.