Around Christmas, I was listening to the radio and a story came on about a classical violist, Betty Hauck, who went through the experience of losing a significant part of her hearing. The story itself was interesting and moving and I would recommend listening, if you have the time. But in it, she said something that caught my attention and I want to talk about that.
After Ms. Hauck finally came to recognize that her hearing loss was a real thing that meant the end of her professional career, she said “I had decided I was going to treat my hearing loss as a neutral event, kind of take a Buddhist approach and think it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just something that’s happened to me.” But then, this didn’t really help, since it was actually a big deal for her to lose her hearing.
The thing that we do is to take an idea and try to put it on ourselves like a band-aid which only covers a problem and has limited utility. I don’t know what Ms. Hauck’s experience of Buddhism is, so I am not trying to comment on her – she seems to have done a fine job of handling this particular situation, whatever means she used. It seemed, though, that she was talking about the practice of equanimity and using the results of that practice as an ideal. We hear about an ideal and we try to put the results of the practice on ourselves and we usually fall a bit short like: “I should be patient or compassionate or wise, etc., and it turns out that I am not.” We imagine how an ideal might look, and we see that we are not like that.
Often when we do this, we get frustrated even to the point of quitting, or at least we feel like quitting. Or, what may be worse, we just don’t start. If we want to be compassionate or patient or equanimous (even-minded), or anything really, instead of just holding up the ideal and comparing ourselves to it, we have the opportunity to do the practice of teaching ourselves that quality itself.
Often the work that we need to do to cultivate a positive quality in Buddhism, is to get to know the aspects of our own mind which keep us from giving expression to that quality. We want to be even-minded? We have to look at what gets us upset and begin to work with and understand that.
For Ms. Hauck, although she tried to avoid it, she realized that, because her hearing was so significant to her, she had to accept her own grief and go through that, in order to find her equanimity on the other side. When she did finally go through it, she said she found the “sweetness on the other side.” It turns out that in her struggle with the situation she had completely put down her instrument, but after going through the grief, she is again able to play while accepting her limitations, and she is actually able to help others with her music.
One of the other problems that we give ourselves by just looking at an idealized picture of an aspect of practice, is that we limit that thing. The practice of the equanimous or even-minded aspect of meditation can look like a neutral or unfeeling sort of blankness and we might ask “why would I want that?” But, while I can’t claim to be an expert at it, the little equanimity that I have is anything but blank and only invites me to open up to the experiences of life that come my way. It may be hard to do the work of practice, but I would not trade the results of my practice for anything that I have yet to encounter!