Queer Dharma: Social Justice and Equanimity

“We can accept things as they are in this moment, and we must, for it already exists—while at the same time trying to prevent harm in the world in the next moment.”

Equanimity, Upekkha, in Pali, is a warm acceptance of reality as it is, rather than how we might like it to be. Rather than aversion, attachment, or indifference, there is a quality of acceptance and acknowledgement of the way things are and the way things have been. When I offer equanimity to others, this involves a gentle acceptance that someone else’s freedom is up to them, beyond my own control. The Buddha described the equanimous mind as abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility or ill will.

Equanimity invites a willingness to be with this moment as it is, without any notions of what it “should” be, with a sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity. Equanimity is the last practice of the Brahma Viharas, considered to have a balancing quality to compassion, sympathetic joy, and lovingkindness, with an understanding that everyone’s liberation is only and solely up to them, that no matter how much I wish compassion and love upon you, your freedom is yours. This is an unclouding of the mind, giving up our stories and ruminations, that may be unnecessary. We are encouraged to trust and surrender.

In the practice of equanimity, we endeavor to embody a vast perspective and wisdom. I think of Julia Bennett, a coworker of mine at Third Root and a Black queer woman in her sixties. Her politic is fierce; she is on the side of justice always. She is constantly learning how to ally with various communities, and she is very involved as a healing force in her own Black community. In moments when difficult things would happen in the world—from the verdict in the trial of Eric Garner’s killer to the death of Leslie Feinberg, Julia would always be touched by it and let her emotions flow, tears streaming down her cheeks. Julia often said, “I’m just tryin’ to be grown.” She embodied equanimity and being a student of life—an acceptance both of reality and of all the work that there is for us to do in the pursuit of liberation for all. When I become overwhelmed, caught up in “change now!,” I try to channel Julia’s energy, her fortitude, trust, equanimity, and commitment.

Social Justice and Equanimity

How do I accept reality as it is and not as I would like it to be, given all of the oppression and injustice in the world? And what would it look like, I wonder, to engage more equanimity in our justice movements? One quality of a bodhisattva that the Buddha discussed in the Karaniya Metta Sutta is to be “easily contented.” What would it mean to be “easily contented” (as the Buddha suggested) as a movement, an organization, a collective—or even as organizers, fundraisers, educators for justice?

I know that it is helpful to my nervous system, and to my spiritual path, to accept reality as it is. On the other hand, the existing reality breaks my heart. There are countless things that break my heart in our society today, which is what led me to become an activist when I was nineteen—to do what I can to change things. To accept reality—to accept this reality, to accept this reality as it is—feels like a condoning of the injustices in the world and an apathy toward social change.

A Queer Dharma Excerpts for WanderlustThere is an urgency to every social movement that I have ever been part of: racial justice, men working on misogyny, food justice, organic farming, environmental justice, queer liberation, and healing justice. This urgency drives us to not only change the next moment but also to change this very moment. This is not only unsustainable but unattainable. If racism exists in this moment, then it exists in this moment. Urgency creates an endless to-do list and a dynamic within social justice work that is stressed, rushed, and perpetually unsatisfied. This has led to social justice idealizing the martyr: someone self-sacrificing to the movement, working every possible moment of every day, showing up at every protest, negating their own needs (and often that of their families), not ever resting. I have seen the harm of this ideal break bodies down, because we don’t take care of them or release the tension that is building every day from the work that they are doing. We need to rest; we need time away—and that actually nourishes our social change work.

Tara Brach says, “We are uncomfortable in our lives because everything in our lives keeps changing—our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hang on to anything—a beautiful sunset, a sweet taste, an intimate moment with a lover, our very existence as the body/ mind we call self—because all things come and go. Lacking any permanent satisfaction, we continually need another injection of fuel, stimulation, reassurance from loved ones, medicine, exercise, and meditation. We are continually driven to become something more, to experience something else.” The work of equanimity is counter to our instincts; it forges a new neural pathway. This perpetuation of craving, of always wanting more or wanting different, doesn’t create happiness or liberation—it is a cycle of suffering. The patience, kindness, and spaciousness implied in the teaching to accept this moment is important for all of us—and important to social justice work in particular. It has allowed me to take a breath; otherwise I would resist and just keep moving.

After consulting many teachers on this question of equanimity and social justice, Larry Yang answered my inquiry about equanimity in a satisfying way. He said, “The scripture doesn’t say anything about the next moment.” We can accept things as they are in this moment, and we must, for it already exists—while at the same time trying to prevent harm in the world in the next moment. It helps me be with the oppression, the powerlessness, the despair present in this moment if I can feel empowered to change the next moment. I can offer compassion to this moment in human history if I know that I and comrades that I work with are doing everything we can on personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels to create justice and equity.

Sangha is a key component of equanimity work: none of us can do this work alone; we cannot face all of the suffering in the world in isolation—we need community, we need backup. Spiritual traditions involve community for support on the path, for assistance when we are discouraged, for guidance when we are lost. The sangha helps us be present in this work and feel that we are not alone, which allows us to personally continue and find inspiration and support in one another. Having spiritual community is also a way to practice how we show up in the rest of our lives. We know that whatever is inside of us will show up on our cushions and on our mats, and it will show up in whatever relationships we have. In a sangha, we share spiritual practices and commitments that create a container of trust for the individual work that we do—trust that we don’t necessarily have in the rest of our lives.

“The scripture doesn’t say anything about the next moment” encourages me to work on my own racism, misogyny, internalized gender norms, ableism, and countless other prejudices, to recognize culturally embedded patterns before they externalize into words, action, and livelihood.

From A Queer Dharma by Jacoby Ballard, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021
by Jacoby Ballard. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

Jacoby-Headshot-750-2Jacoby Ballard is a social justice educator and yoga teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah known for his playfulness, heart-opening, and commitment to change from the inside out. As a yoga teacher with 20 years of experience, he leads workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, teaches at conferences, and runs the Resonance mentorship program for certified yoga teachers to find their niche and calling.  In 2008, Jacoby co-founded Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, to work at the nexus of healing and social justice.

Since 2006, Jacoby has taught Queer and Trans Yoga, a space for queer folks to unfurl and cultivate resilience. Jacoby received Yoga Journal’s Game Changer Award in 2014 and Good Karma Award in 2016, and an award by Reclamation Ventures in 2021. He leads workshops and trainings around the country on diversity, equity, and inclusion and consults on DEI for yoga and meditation organizations. He is the author of A Queer Dharma: Yoga and Meditations for Liberation, released in 2021.

Website | Instagram