By Kellie Schorr
In the Deep Midwinter is a four week series on the Four Immeasurables as a Buddhist meditation in the tradition of Advent, a Christian season of introspection the weeks prior to Christmas.
Like most people who go to stores for things like food, socks and printer ink, since October I’ve been listening to songs about sleigh rides, a heroic reindeer who saves the holiday despite being relentlessly teased and excluded, and an enlightened snowman who realizes he’s impermanent and decides to have fun while he can.
I have to admit, I like Christmas songs—particularly now that the magic of Pandora and my prolific “down thumb” have saved me from ever hearing Christmas Shoes or Little Drummer Boy.
My favorite holiday song is any instrumental version of Carol of the Bells. It reminds me so much of our human folly in a season supposedly dedicated to peace. It’s frenetic and driving, pushing the melody forward at a relentless pace. It rings with joy and confidence, but it’s a little bit menacing as well.
Those bells always seem like a cascade of joy and a harbinger of the unknown all at the same time, like a blended concoction of A Christmas Story and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Yet they ring, ring, ring, ring. They will not be stopped or swallowed by larger or louder instruments. They will not rest (or let you rest) until they are heard. Unashamedly bold, and a little creepy, it’s a perfect song for Christmas.
When you think about it, there should be an edge to a Christmas song.
For Christians who celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent as the “Day of Love” and proclaim that through love this baby in the manger will bring change to the very world we live in—that’s dangerous business. People don’t change well, and it almost always comes with a price. Change isn’t made of good intentions. It’s made of the kind of courage that goes to the edge of possibility.
For Buddhists who practice the Four Immeasurables, we are also involved with change.
Equanimity (Upekkha) is when we walk out on the rim of our humanity, take it all in and find the heart of balance in the center of the chaos. We don’t live in a balanced world. It takes a commitment to awareness as relentless as those bells to help us ground ourselves in peace.
Although we are taught to extend the immeasurables to all beings, there’s a natural progression we generally take early on our path.
Loving Kindness often starts with our peers—a wish for them to be happy.
Compassion targets first those who are worse off than us—a desire for them to be free from suffering.
Sympathetic Joy aims our hope at people who seem to have it as good or better than we do—a happiness in their good fortune.
Equanimity comes along and tells us we need to see all three of those groups equally. There is no-one beside us, below us, or above us. We are all the same.
It’s a revelation. It’s a revolution. It’s peace.
The word “upekkha” that we translate as equanimity means literally to “look over”—to balance at the top of a mountain surveying everything as it truly is and, in that moment, to be enlightened by the sameness and connectedness of it all. When that happens, true peace rings from your heart to anyone who can hear it.
Our world is so full of noise. Political noise, personal noise, persistent noise—it makes it hard to hear anything, let alone a bell. Anthony De Mello described the difficulty of awakening in this loud world like this:
“You know, all mystics—Catholic, Christian, non-Christian—no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.”
Anthony de Mello, Awareness
As we wrap up this dark season of waiting and working for the light, we approach our own awakening in familiar settings—gifts and memories, frolic and feasts, Santa, saints and silent nights. Then as we sit and extend our love to the world around us, the one thing we will continue to hear are those bells.
According to the lyrics of the song, the message of the bells is “Christmas is here,” but to me, the truth swelling from every tintinnabulation is…“All is well.”
All is well
All is well
All is well.
Editor: Dana Gornall