Many years ago, a wise farmer had a trusty stallion. The horse was invaluable for the heavy work around the farm. But one day someone left a gate open. The horse was gone. The farmer’s neighbours shook their heads and commiserated: “What bad luck!”
“Maybe” replied the farmer.
A few days later, the horse returned to the farm, bringing with him a wild mare. The farmer led the stallion back into his field and the mare followed. The villagers congratulated him: “now you have two strong horses! What wonderful luck!”
“Maybe” murmured the farmer.
His son set about breaking in the new horse. But the following day she threw him, breaking his leg. Now he was unable to work on the farm. “What dreadful luck!” said his neighbours.
“Maybe”, said the farmer.
The following week, the king declared war on an adjoining kingdom. Soldiers came to the village looking for recruits. They rounded up all the young men, other than the farmer’s son. He would be useless in battle. The villagers moaned: “you are so lucky! We do not know if we will ever see our sons again!”
This is more than a story about good and bad luck. It demonstrates the wisdom of equanimity. The farmer keeps his cool through the ups and downs of his fortunes.
I imagine we all can recall experiences that looked promising but did not turn out well. And we may have read about someone who won the lottery, only for their life to go off the rails. Or know someone who got together with a desired partner, but it did not make them happy.
How often does something happen that seems wonderful? At first.
Shortly after leaving art school, I landed a post as a visiting lecturer at a prestigious college. Conscious of my youth and inexperience, I could not believe my luck. But I soon found myself enmeshed in internal politics. The course leader was trying to make changes which the other tutors were resisting. My appointment added fuel to an already heated situation and I was not welcomed by my new colleagues. Unequal to the stress, I left before a year was out.
And sometimes an experience seems disastrous at the time, but something good comes out of it.
I teach mindfulness for long Covid recovery courses. And sometimes I hear someone state that long Covid is the best thing that could have happened to them. How can such a statement be true? This is an illness that drains your energy, and makes it hard to think straight or function in daily life. I cannot speak for the individuals. But I have some idea what they meant. Normal life is not always great. It can feel like a hamster wheel. Adverse events can force you off the hamster wheel because you can no longer keep going. Sometimes this can be a relief. As one door closes, another may open.
The farmer’s equanimity showed in his response of “maybe” in the face of life’s ups and downs. He could see that life always includes difficulty but things shift and change. He was able to remain calm in the turmoil of events in his life. He was able to see a bigger picture.
When I take a closer look, it is hard to judge anything as wholly good or bad. As if reality can never quite fit either label. Difficult experiences have fostered greater maturity. Getting what I thought I wanted did not always bring the happiness I expected. We never know how life will unfold, but we know that it will bring both pleasure and pain.
But equanimity is not being indifferent to events. It is more a patient embracing of how the world works. Buddhist teachings list ‘eight worldly winds’. These are pleasure and pain; fame and insignificance; gain and loss; status and disgrace. We are all likely to have each of these experiences at different times in our lives. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes spectacularly. The advice is not to take these fickle, changeable experiences too seriously. Each can shift into its counterpart in a heartbeat. If we wish to take this advice, we need to keep that bigger perspective.
And not only in the face of difficulty, but even when things are going well. So, we can enjoy our successes but without getting carried away by them. They may not last! Nobody has it good all the time. What appear to be good times turn to bad and back again. Understanding this, we can loosen our grip on our desires. This allows a quality of patient acceptance: this is the human condition. As we embrace the whole range of experience, a level of resistance and struggle melts away. Being aligned with the reality of life brings peace.
The Sufi poet, Rumi, goes to the heart of the matter:
Your grief for what you’ve lost holds a mirror up to where you're bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look and instead, here's the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birdwings.
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