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On not caring: the creativity of upekkha

Updated: May 3, 2022

From the date on the cartoon, this blog was originally written in 2008. An almost mythically long time ago. But the thoughts on caring still seem relevant. Perhaps even more so in this Instagram age where everyone cares so very much if people ‘like’ them. It’s worth persevering to the end for the very funny second cartoon!

I’ve always puzzled at the high placing given to equanimity in the Buddhist canon. After all, being steady is kind of boring. Not being swept up on the highs of life and down on the lows would make for a pretty dreary universe. It also seems a little cowardly. As if too much emotion either way up or down was something to fear.

But I’m now realizing that equanimity or upekkha (to give it its more accurate and less flip-floppy Pali term) is actually the key to lots of things. And actually is rather exciting and revolutionary.

A truly free and happy life is one where you have enough power and self-regard not to care what others think of you

A friend of mine many years ago, long before I’d started meditating, talked through the benefits of his years of therapy. ‘In the end,’ he said, ‘the most important thing was learning not to care.’

At the time I remember thinking how horrible and heartless that sounded. But now I realise he was entirely right. A life where you’re always caring what other people think of you and your behaviour is inauthentic is miserable and is ultimately cowardly. He was right, a truly free and happy life is one where you have enough power and self-regard not to care what others think of you and create your own life regardless.

Of course, I don’t mean not care for people, not look after them or love them. But no genuine love is possible if you’re constantly worried about what others think of you.

Gradually, gently, freeing yourself from this dependence on what other people think of you is upekkha. It’s wonderfully liberating.

It’s the deep seat of creativity for example. You can’t create something new and wonderful in the world if you’re worried about what others might think of it all the time. It ends up some rehashed committee piece where you weren’t even on the committee.

The Buddha talks about the Eight Worldly Winds that are constantly blowing whether you’re enlightened or not. Praise and blame are two of the eight winds. Praise and blame come to everyone – Buddhas included – and they are constantly blowing one way or the other.

There will always be someone who’ll love what you do and there will always be people who’ll hate it. Caring about either is dangerous.

Praise and blame are external to your life.

When I first started in television and started getting fan letters, a sage actor friend of mine picked up a pepper mill in my kitchen and said – ‘If this pepper mill was on telly, it would get fan mail and hate mail too. Automatically. It’s nothing to do with you.’

Of course, I wanted to believe the fan mail was for me. Was true and accurate. But actually, it’s just as inaccurate and unimportant as the hate mail and criticism.

Always seeking praise and believing people 100% when they praise you is phoney. Always trying to avoid criticism and trying to discredit 100% of any criticism that comes your way is phoney too. Praise and blame are external to your life. They come from someone else‘s life. They come and go like the weather. Equanimity allows you to go on creating without reference to the random changes of meteorology.

The most freedom comes when you learn to displease your teachers by doing what you know is good. Similarly, the day you can tear up what you know is bad regardless of the gushing praise lavished on it is the day you become truly powerful.

Of course, it’s painful to give up our addiction to praise, to get pats on the backs when we do something good.

Even if you make a complete ass of yourself, that’s fine.

Look at the sort of industry I chose to work in… Television is almost entirely caught up in the winds of praise/blame, fame/infamy, success/failure. And I’ve been in painful convulsions on the prongs of all of them. Hating it when jobs have gone elsewhere when commissioners haven’t liked what I’ve done. Ecstatic when things go my way when I get a new job or a flattering email.

I will probably always feel these things. But I don’t have to believe them. It’s the fine distinction equanimity allows.

That letting go of praise and blame, of people-pleasing, of guilt at failure, and panic at success is liberating. It’s upekkha. And it’s far from grey and undifferentiated. In fact, it’s the opposite. That miasma of anxiety, that constant caring about other people’s opinion, that’s grey and undifferentiated. Upekkha is actually much more vital. You feel the highs and the lows because they’re yours and they’re authentic. You do things (even if you’re making a mistake) because you believe in them and you’re not constantly worried about other people’s opinions. Even if you make a complete ass of yourself, that’s fine. You can be equanimous about that too.

Thanks to Tim for the cartoon. It made me laugh. As did this one too.

I’d love to know your thoughts about caring what people think about you. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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