One morning earlier this summer, I found myself standing atop an unstable blue object known as a BOSU Ball. Invented by David Weck in 1999, the BOSU Balance Trainer is an inflatable rubber hemisphere attached to a rigid platform. The central component of a “mindful approach to exercise,” the BOSU Ball is designed to improve the body’s sense of balance while strengthening its stabilizing muscles. I was standing on the BOSU Ball because I’d been having knee pain, and our family doctor had recommended physical therapy. In turn, the affable but exacting physical therapist with whom I was working had prescribed the BOSU Ball. “Don’t fall off,” he cheerfully warned, having just assigned me thirty squats. Miraculously, I managed to comply.
In a manner analogous to that of the BOSU Ball, Zen practice also aims to strengthen our sense of balance, physical and emotional. In Zen teachings, the capacity to maintain one’s equilibrium, especially under stressful, uncertain, and unstable conditions, is known as equanimity, a translation of the Sanskrit word upeksha. The traditional posture of sitting meditation—knees down, back erect, head balanced on the spine—supports the cultivation of upeksha, as does the practice of walking meditation, which trains the practitioner to walk with dignity and steady awareness. But these forms and practices, however essential to Zen discipline, are but the outward expressions of an inner poise. And at the heart of that inner poise is a balanced, inclusive way of experiencing the world.
In his explanation of upeksha, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh examines the roots of the term and its deeper implications:
[Upeksha] means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means “over,” and iksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.
As is evident from this explanation, the word equanimity means more than remaining calm under pressure, though calm is a part of it. True equanimity is grounded in a fundamental opening of the heart and mind. It arises from and is sustained by a radically egalitarian social attitude.
Upeksha is one of four such attitudes in Buddhist teachings, the other three being loving-kindness (metta), compassion(karuna), and sympathetic joy(mudita). Known as the Four Immeasurable Minds, these attitudes may be developed through daily, systematic practice. Specific methods vary according to content, but their general form remains essentially the same. We begin by focusing on ourselves (“May I be balanced and at peace”) and from there proceed to address a loved one, an acquaintance, a stranger, an enemy, and “all sentient beings.” Simplifying that sequence, Pema Chodron recommends, for equanimity, a three-stage recitation: “May I dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice. May you dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice. May all beings enjoy the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.” “It is always fine,” she adds, “to use your own words.”
It is indeed fine–and perhaps preferable—to use one’s own words, but where equanimity is concerned, we must also be careful not to misinterpret the quality we are attempting to cultivate. As Thich Nhat Hanh notes above, true equanimity is not a cold indifference to others’ suffering. Nor is equanimity a passive, see-no-evil neutrality. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer puts it, equanimity is an “active, loving, eyes-wide-open regard for all beings—equally.” The practice of equanimity does not oblige us to regard Hitler and Neville Chamberlain as moral equivalents—or, to take a contemporary example, to view the actions of Bashar Al-Assad and his political opponents as equally culpable. What it does demand is that we remain, in Fischer’s words, “fully present, fully alive, right in the middle of things,” and that we meet even the most adverse situation with a warm, calm, and balanced attitude. Far from encouraging a callous detachment or false neutrality, the practice of equanimity fosters empathy for our fellow human beings, including those we most dislike, while allowing us to retain our personal integrity.
For most of us, that is a formidable challenge, but the potential rewards are no less considerable. In Buddhist teachings, equanimity is regarded as the highest of the Four Immeasurable Minds. It is said to perfect and consummate the other three. The American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describes equanimity as “a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.” Brought to fruition in the fullness of time, equanimity establishes an “unshakeable freedom of mind,” emancipating the practitioner from “all points of self-reference” and “the demands of the ego-self,” which tug us this way and that. No longer in thrall to those demands, we come to embody what Thich Nhat Hanh has called the “wisdom of non-discrimination,” which dissolves prejudicial attitudes and removes erected boundaries between ourselves and others. Should we eventually attain that wisdom, we will not only have restored our sense of balance and secured our emotional footing. We will also have brought a humane, equanimous perspective into our everyday lives.
 BOSU Fitness website.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 161-162.
 Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty (Shambhala, 2002), 78.
 Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “Equanimity.”
 Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Toward a Threshold of Understanding.”