not caring: the creativity of upekkha

I’ve always puzzled at the high placing given to equanimity in the Buddhist canon. After all, being steady is kind of boring. Not being swept up on the highs of life and down on the lows would make for a pretty dreary universe. It also seems a little cowardly. As if too much emotion either way up or down was something to fear.

But I’m now realizing that equanimity or upekkha (to give it its more accurate and less flip-floppy Pali term) is actually the key to lots of things. And actually is rather exciting and revolutionary.

A friend of mine many years ago, long before I’d started meditating, talked through the benefits of his years of therapy. ‘In the end’, he said, ‘the most important thing was learning not to care.’

At the time I remember thinking how horrible and heartless that sounded. But now I realise he was entirely right. A life where you’re always caring what other people think of you and your behaviour is inauthentic, is miserable and is ultimately cowardly. He was right, a truely free and happy life is one where you have enough power and self-regard not to care what others think of you and create your own life regardless.

Of course I don’t mean not care for people, not look after them or love them. But no genuine love is possible if you’re constantly worried about what others think of you.

Gradually, gently, freeing yourself from this dependence of what other people think of you is upekkha. It’s wonderfully liberating.

It’s the deep seat of creativity for example. You can’t create something new and wonderful in the world if you’re worrying about what others might think of it all the time. It ends up some rehashed committee piece where you weren’t even on the committee.

The Buddha talks about the Eight Worldly Winds that are constantly blowing whether you’re enlightened or not. Praise and blame are two of the eight winds. Praise and blame come to everyone – Buddhas included – and they are constantly blowing one way or the other.

There will always be someone who’ll love what you do and there will always be people who’ll hate it. Caring about either is dangerous.

When I first started in television and started getting fan letters, a sage actor friend of mine picked up a pepper mill in my kitchen and said – ‘If this pepper mill was on telly, it would get fan mail and hate mail too. Automatically. It’s nothing to do with you.’

Of course, I wanted to believe the fan mail was for me. Was true and accurate. But actually its just as inaccurate and unimportant as the hate mail and criticism.

Always seeking praise and believing people 100% when they praise you is phoney. Always trying to avoid criticism and trying to discredit 100% of any criticism that comes your way is phoney too. Praise and blame are external to your life. They come from someone else‘s life. They come and go like the weather. Equanimity allows you to go on creating without reference to the random changes of meterology.

The most freedom comes when you learn to displease your teachers by doing what you know is good. Similarly, the day you can tear up what you know is bad regardless of the gushing praise lavished on it, is the day you become truely powerful.

Of course, it’s painful to give up our addiction to praise, to getting pats on the backs when we do something good.

Look at the sort of industry I chose to work in… Television is almost entirely caught up in the winds of praise/blame, fame/infamy, success/failure. And I’ve been in painful convulsions on the prongs of all of them. Hating it when jobs have gone elsewhere, when commissioners haven’t liked what I’ve done. Ecstatic when things go my way, when I get a new job or a flattering email.

I will probably always feel these things. But I don’t have to believe them. It the fine distinction equanimity allows.

That letting go of praise and blame, of people pleasing, of guilt at failure, and panic at success is liberating. It’s upekkha. And it’s far from grey and undifferentiated. In fact it’s the opposite. That miasma of anxiety, that constant caring about other people’s opinion, that‘s grey and undifferentiated. Upekkha is actually much more vital. You feel the highs and the lows because they’re yours and they’re authentic. You do things (even if you’re making a mistake) because you believe in them and you’re not constantly worried about other people’s opinion. Even if you make a complete ass of yourself, that’s fine. You can be equanimous about that too.

Thanks to Tim for the cartoon. It made me laugh. As did this.

14 Comments

  1. Reinier

    March 12, 2008 at 9:53 am

    This reminds me of the idea of impression management, which
    I think everyone experiences, is something whose weight I
    have resolved to limit in my daily interactions with people.
    Growing up in an Asian culture where machismo prevails,
    I’ve been shown the necessity for a man to not show his
    emotions. Not until a few years back when I was in college,
    that I decided to abandon this forced stoicism in all my
    relationships.

    In friendships, I would remain silent on issues that I may
    have found hurtful to avoid being perceived by others and
    by myself as weak. If somebody did something shitty to me,
    I would just joke about it and not really confront the
    issue to the friend and to myself. In college, I saw
    the deficiency in this attitude: By caring what others
    think of me, I had started to espouse a mindset that
    was unhealthful and truly un-me.

    I saw that I had been doing myself a disservice by not
    vocalizing my true sentiments, by not embracing what I
    honestly believed I should do. Since this realization, I
    have felt, like what you mentioned, freer. I do care for
    my friendships, but I’ve learned to not short-change
    myself and my friends by paying such high regard to
    the impressions I’m constantly giving them. After all,
    they’re friends for a reason.

  2. Valou

    March 12, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I admire your wisdom. That’s food for thought. That drawing looks like it was made for you except that the man meditating is not as gorgeous as you were in Amanda.

  3. Valerie W

    March 12, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    I told you a while back that when I hit fifty, I said the
    with everything, I’m gonna do what I want, say what I want
    and be what I want. Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.
    I do the best job I can, and try full fill my life. Our early
    life is so wasted worrying about other peoples opinions
    that we tend to miss great opportunities. Life is an
    experiment always going on. I think its not so much not
    caring as not letting the caring influence our actions.

  4. rr

    March 12, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Wonderful, thank you. I was alarming the spawn only yesterday with my exigesis on the perils of being a journalist when in that environment (in my experience at least) you’re only ever as “good” as your most recent piece of work but you’re always, indelibly, as bad as your worst disaster.

    They, of course, did not take my homily to heart but merely wished immediately to know what my worst disaster was.

  5. Michael

    March 13, 2008 at 1:14 am

    Thank you for your insight.Reading your piece today was so absolutley fitting as I try to push through new ideas in the workplace. My day will now end on a good note.

    Love the short movie and the pictures!

  6. Elizer

    March 13, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Salamat (“thank you” in Tagalog). After the most
    frustrating year, I am gradually seeing the fruits
    of “letting go of the praise, of the blame, of the
    people pleasing, of the guilt at failure & the panic
    at success.” The energy that was once used to the
    constant unnecessary caring has now been focused to
    better activities outside of the confined corporate
    office atmosphere.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. By the way,
    both cartoons made me laugh too. I needed that.

  7. frater gymnos

    March 14, 2008 at 7:04 am

    well, i wont go on and on with praise you’re probably wise not to take much notice of… but in my spiritual greed, i was wondering if there is a better link to find the eight “winds” (the one above doesn’t work for me…

    but i can’t help but gush so…
    your article has helped me profoundlly on a day which i wasn’t sure i would be able to handle.
    i’ve smiled all day – after several days, weeks of not liking myself very much… and the notion of this “not caring” has helped me refocus my priorities – and even understand how to begin to dismantle a “block” which has been keeping me from seeing clearly what my next step is in life: the joyful step which was right under my nose.

    so, again, thanks.

    and i probably don’t need to ponder those eight winds right now… the wisdom of the concept of uppeka should keep me occupied – in ways pleasant, and in ways not so – for quite a while.

    thank you thank you thank you.

  8. Addison DeWitt

    March 14, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    I think the Dalai Lama is going to hit the roof when he see’s those cartoons.
    My chakras tell me that there will be riots in downtown Tibet, because as you know Ive got the
    chakras and my chakras never lie .

  9. Addisson DeWitt

    March 15, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Riots in Tibet last night . My chakras were right after all.

  10. Tim

    March 17, 2008 at 2:31 am

    This reminds me of a Housman poem:

    From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
    The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither: here am I.

    Now—for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart—
    Take my hand quick and tell me,
    What have you in your heart.

    Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
    Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

    Apparently the Greeks
    had 4 more winds than the Buddhists.
    There is a beautiful version of this set
    to music by R. Vaughn Williams.

    Thank you for the Rilke interpretation.

    P.S. I really hate your pepper mill.

  11. Bryan Marley

    March 21, 2008 at 5:22 am

    Hi Alistair! I am truly impressed by your conviction, devotion, artistry, and the degree of civil thought put into each and every one of your blogs. Not only are you handsome, talented, and Buddhist . . . you are seemingly enlightened. Kudos! Thanks for the experimental nature that you were born with, and the spirit within you!

    Blessings!

    Bryan D. Marley
    (Sand Springs, OK, USA)

  12. Emma

    March 22, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    I’m sure you’ve read this, but just in case…
    I love Paul Rudnick.

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/09/26/050926sh_shouts

  13. Dead Fish in the Washing Machine « Cosmodaddy

    March 28, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    […] the Washing Machine I don’t want to be the dead fish in the washing machine. My teacher Alistair Appleton uses that metaphor I think to describe a mind which is lacking in equanimity. And it’s […]

  14. Luis

    March 31, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Well this post certainly came in handy in the last few days.

    I knew someone, who I considered to be a really good friend, and confided in him things I’ve never said to anyone.

    Dude stabbed in the back.

    Yes, I was very angry and even said some hurtful things in retaliation, but now I’m realizing his behaviour had nothing to do with me, and to keep dwelling on it keeps his brand of poison in my soul.

    I wish him nothing but peace, love and happiness for the future…and may karma come back to kick his arse 10 fold. 😉

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