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I grew up with oak trees. Every autumn brought cascades of falling leaves and crops of acorns that the squirrels, my brother, and I would collect. When I was around five, an acorn rolled under the baseboard heater. I found it later and popped off the cap. What I saw inside stopped my mind: it was full of squirming maggots. I remember clearly the vivid visual image, and how spacious it felt. It was the first time that I was aware of being aware, without an “I” to be found. This profound nonconceptual experience has stayed with me.

The Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, teachings in Buddhism are called the Middle Way, whose view is “not even a middle.” Through experiential insight, we seek to go beyond all conceptual extremes. This approach emphasizes compassion and the wisdom that realizes the interdependence of all phenomena and their emptiness of inherent existence. The Mahayana teaches us to transcend any dualistic labels, clinging, or aversion. This is the ground of equanimity.

If you want a stable structure, you must first create an even base upon which to construct a strong foundation. Contemplating equanimity helps us to see the peaks and valleys of our beliefs and the biases we have for and against the people (and other phenomena) in our lives. With their vibrant diversity, all sentient beings are equal in being interdependent, empty of true existence, and deserving of love, compassion, and joy. Understanding equanimity deeply is the key that unlocks the limitless potential of the other three Immeasurables.

Applying the Middle Way, we let go of our attachment to people or experiences as being good, and our aversion to people or experiences we think are bad. We cultivate impartiality toward everyone and everything. This is radical acceptance and inclusivity, not passive mental dullness or ignorant whitewashing. We see how we superimpose our relative beliefs onto others, and then we refrain from filtering our experience through the lens of our implicit prejudices. In the openness of nonconceptuality, we discover the space to choose our response.

When we can go beyond concepts, we can relax and be boundless.

Contemplation exercise

1. To start your session, find a quiet space. Set a positive intention.

2. Do a few minutes of calm abiding meditation, and then slowly recite three times: “May all sentient beings dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.” (Memorizing it is encouraged.) 

3. One classical image for this contemplation is a feast to which everyone is invited. No exceptions. Start with your loved ones. Then extend the mental invitation to everyone in your life, regardless of your feelings for or against them. Include people you don’t know and even those you don’t like. Open your heart to all beings and invite them to dinner. Notice how that feels.

4. Conclude with a few minutes of calm abiding meditation. Offer any goodness from the session to others.

 Nick Vail
Nick Vail

Nick Vail is a second-generation Buddhist who lives in Seattle. A single parent, he enjoys quality time with his son, playing the guitar, singing, dancing, and meditation.

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