Sitting Like a Mountain

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Recently, I traveled to Maine to spend a long weekend with family, including my mother, whose dementia is getting worse. One of Mom’s dementia symptoms is paranoia, which was pronounced during this visit. Aware of our mother’s fear and suffering, my sister and I tried all the ways of being with her we’ve learned over the last four years: singing together, letting her feel our presence with gentle touch, encouraging her to express her feelings freely, and redirecting her attention away from recurring fearful thought spirals. This time nothing seemed to help; the difficult patterns persisted even during meals, which our mother usually enjoys.

I returned home, feeling discouraged and dreading the scheduled Zoom call with my mom this week. I’m noticing how the collective suffering around us now adds cumulative psychic weight to individual encounters with personal suffering, making it harder to release.

In an effort to calm myself before the call, I read a Lion’s Roar article from August 2015 by Sharon Salzberg called “How to Foster Equanimity: Sit Like a Mountain.” I felt drawn to the organic solidity of the mountain image. Salzberg writes:

The fourth Brahma Vihara is equanimity, where the predominant tone is one of calm. In this spacious stillness of mind, we can fully connect to whatever is happening around us, fully connect to others, but without our habitual reactions of rushing toward what is pleasant and pulling away from what is unpleasant. Developing equanimity, in effect, is how we can forge a space between fear and compassion and between sorrow and compassion. This is how we cultivate lovingkindness without it turning into impatient entreaty or demand, “Get happy already, would you!” This is how we expand sympathetic joy.

Without equanimity, we might offer friendship only as long as our offering is acknowledged and appreciated, or as long as someone responds in kind. We would offer compassion to ourselves only when we weren’t overcome by pain, and compassion to others only when we weren’t overcome by their suffering. We would offer sympathetic joy only when we did not feel threatened or envious. When we cultivate equanimity, our tremendous capacity to connect can blossom, for we do not have to push away or cling to anything that may happen.

Salzberg’s words about forging a space between fear and sadness, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other, speak to me deeply. This week I have been mothering myself, singing my favorite songs to myself, writing in my journal, and sharing my feelings and good food with friends. I have tried to take care of myself the way I wish I could take care of my mother. The Zoom call with my mother was challenging, as I expected. At the same time, I felt supported by my practice and connected to my aspiration of cultivating equanimity. Also, because we were on Zoom with a clear time limit, I felt able to stay in a calm, solid space, sitting like a mountain while being present with my mother’s suffering. Someday I hope to embody those qualities with steady compassion and consistency.

This Thursday night, we will enjoy our regular sitting and then share about our experiences with suffering and equanimity. Please consider these questions:

  • How do you take good care of yourself and others in the face of both the world’s suffering and your own?
  • What does equanimity mean to you, and how have you experienced this quality in your life?

You are warmly invited to join us!

Below is the conclusion of Sharon Salzberg’s article.

Eliza King

An excerpt from “How to Foster Equanimity: Sit Like a Mountain” by Sharon Salzberg (Lion’s Roar, August 2015)

Practice sitting like a mountain sometime, allowing all images and feelings and sensations to come and go, as you reside in steadfastness, watching it all arise and pass away.

Sometimes in teaching meditation we say, “Sit like a mountain. Sit with a sense of strength and dignity. Be steadfast, be majestic, be natural and at ease in awareness. No matter how many winds are blowing, no matter how many clouds are swirling, no matter how many lions are prowling, be intimate with everything and sit like a mountain.” This is an image of equanimity. We feel everything, without exception, and we relate to it through our own strength of awareness, not through habitual reactions. Practice sitting like a mountain sometime, allowing all images and feelings and sensations to come and go, as you reside in steadfastness, watching it all arise and pass away.

We Can Do It
Abandon what is unskillful,
One can abandon the unskillful,
If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do so.
If this abandoning of the unskillful would bring harm
and suffering,
I would not ask you to abandon it.
But as the abandoning of the unskillful brings benefit
and happiness,
Therefore, I say, “abandon what is unskillful.”
Cultivate the good,
You can cultivate the good.
If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it.
If this cultivation of the good would bring harm
and suffering,
I would not ask you to cultivate it.
But as the cultivation of the good brings benefit
and happiness,
Therefore, I say, “Cultivate the good!”
—The Buddha

This passage is one of my favorites from the Buddha’s teaching. I think it beautifully exemplifies the extraordinary compassion of the Buddha. The mind of the Buddha sees not good and bad people, but suffering and the end of suffering, and exhorts those heading toward suffering through greed or anger or fear to take care, to pay attention, to see how much more they are capable of, rather than condemning them. He sees those heading toward the end of suffering through wisdom and lovingkindness and rejoices for them.

It is a passage that inspires our sincere efforts. In the end, these ideas of how to live a better life aren’t something to admire from afar or hold in an abstract way. We need to experiment with them, breathe life into them, see how they affect our minds and hearts, and see where they take us. Turning our lives in the direction of kindness can be done . . . It can only bring benefit and happiness. I can do it. You can do it. Otherwise, the Buddha would not have asked us to do so.