The point of equilibrium

Excerpt from “Finding the Center” in chapter 2 of “Untangling Self” by Andrew Olendzki:

At some point all this tranquility devolves into sleepiness, laziness, or a sluggishness of mind where it seems a struggle just to remain conscious. This too is natural, and it does not mean you are doing anything wrong. Having established these two end points on a continuum, practice involves moving back and forth between them until one finds the point of equilibrium. You can get a sense when the mind is too active, at which point you let go of your attachment to the stimulant du jour and allow the mind to rest. And when you feel it getting drowsy, it is time to sit up straighter, take a deeper breath, and give yourself a little mental kick into wakefulness. Eventually, becoming familiar with both ends of this specturm, you will find the midpoint where the mind is simultaneously tranquil and alert.

Moving perpendicularly, we then notice that the mind is drawn habitually toward those objects of experience it finds gratifying. This need not be full-on lust or the irresistible drive of addiction; more often it is a gentle inclination toward what we like. The senses revel in sensation, the mind delights in momentum, and we are usually “leaning in” to the next moment and faintly grasping after the next experience. Notice this, and softly back away from it.

In the other direction we can also observe the tendency to pull back from the things we don’t like or don’t want. Much of what we encounter can be experienced with a subtle sense of annoyance or dissatisfaction. “Yeah, I’m noticing the breath all right, but I don’t like that pain in the back and wish it would just go away.” Can we also bounce between these two walls, between the impulse to like and not like what is happening? The experience of pleasure and pain is inevitable, part of the hard wiring  of the body and mind. But the wanting and not wanting that arises with these feeling tones are optional emotional responses that can be modified by conscious intention.

The midpoint between sense desire and aversion is equanimity, a state of mind that is evenly balanced. It is fully engaged with experience, but it neither favors nor opposes what is happening. We are aware of what is arising and passing away without any inclination to change it into something else. When this equanimity is coupled with a mind that is both tranquil and alert, we have found the still center of the mind. You may well have to bump into all four walls over and over in your search, but you will surely know when you find this “sweet spot” — because it feels wonderful.

The doubts that obscure ordinary mind states and keep us from this center point — doubts about whether we have the right teacher, about whether we are doing the practice correctly, and many others are dispelled for the moment, and all is illuminated with trust and confidence. The body feels entirely comfortable, even if gravely afflicted. The mind feels clear and powerful, even it if is normally battered by anxiety or fear. The still center of the mind is a place of universal refuge that can be accessed again and again once one learns the way there. And even if the experience vanishes as soon as it occurs, which it is very likely to do, you can retrace your steps to find it again. You may even learn how to hover there indefinitely …

This is not nirvana, but it is its base camp. It is a stable, peaceful refuge from which one can explore the inner landscape of experience and see things more clearly, as they actually are.

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