After last week’s exciting foray into the Scriptures with the practice of Havruta, this week I decided to explore a practice that is a goal and ideal of most religious traditions, something that is an essential component of living a balanced and contented life in a turbulent world. This week, I explored a practice of equanimity.
Equanimity refers to a state of mind that allows us to remain calm and true to ourselves, values and beliefs in the midst of life’s many ups and downs. Someone who masters equanimity is even-tempered, acting with integrity no matter what is happening around them. A tall order to be sure. If the ideal is to “be like the mountain,” strong and secure throughout the centuries and the never-ending onslaughts of sun, rain, snow, wind, and sleet, most of us are more like autumn leaves, blown about, torn, and sopping wet.
Because all of us, no matter how privileged or secure we are in life, will experience disappointment, loss, grief, ill-health, crises of faith, and so on, it’s no surprise that equanimity is an important value in the world’s major faith traditions. In the interest of time, I’ll focus here on the two traditions that have most strongly shaped my understanding it.
The tradition that has had the most robust teaching on equanimity is unquestionable Buddhism. According to a wonderful and accessible introduction to the topic from Tricycle Magazine, there are two major metaphors that ground the concept of equanimity in the Buddhist tradition. The first is “to look over,” as though looking down on a scene from above, seeing ‘the big picture.’ It is about seeing with understanding and without getting caught up in the drama. This suggests that perspective-taking is an important part of equanimity. The second metaphor is “to stand in the middle of it all,” which suggests an interior strength and stability. It’s reminiscent in this way of a flag pole or ship’s ballast, being a solid anchor which keeps other things or people from flying away or tipping over amidst the storm. Put together, these metaphors teach that equanimity “is the capacity to not be caught up with what happens to us.” We might therefore associate it with such concepts as integrity, confidence, strength, and well-being. It is attributes like these that allows us to be grounded in who we are, in what matters, and what is True through such vicissitudes as success and failure, pain and pleasure, fame and disrepute, love and hate, praise and blame, health and ill-health. In other words, it’s about freedom from the ego.
As a Christian, when I think about equanimity I return to the teaching of Jesus, who encouraged his followers to focus on God rather than their immediate circumstances. After famously urging them to “consider the birds of the air,” who are fed despite not growing food and “the lilies of the field,” who are ‘clothed’ beautifully despite not spinning or sewing, he says:
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ …. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt 6.30ff).
The Apostle Paul described such a life of deep trust in God when he wrote from his prison cell:
“Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil, 4.11-13).
The Christian spiritual tradition has taught that life is a battle against what it calls (borrowing from Stoic philosophy) the passions, those inclinations and desires that trap us and that rob us of our true freedom. And so, this element of traditional Christianity teaches us that equanimity is true freedom. This reminds us that the freedom we need is freedom from ourselves as much as from external circumstances.
An important final consideration here is that equanimity is not apathy. This can’t be stressed enough. The calmness of heart and mind that it aspires to is not dry, abstract objectivity or cold aloofness. Nor is it a disengaged indifference. It is rather what allows us to love and care for the world more fully and honestly, unfettered by our own preferences and baggage.
What is it?
Because equanimity is such a huge idea — the Bhagavad Gita even calls it the core of all sacred practice — there are many ways I could have gone with the practice this week. I decided to keep it as simple as possible:
- Watchfulness: When I feel a strong reaction to something in my environment, thoughts, or circumstances, identify it before reacting to it.
- Perspective: Step back from it and look at it from the broader perspective.
- Gounding: Bring to mind my values and beliefs.
- Acceptance: Accept the existence of the situation, forgiving reality for being exactly as it is.
- Response: Respond to the situation with grace.
It was good timing that I had planned on doing this practice this week because it was a week that gave me lots of practice with it! From an unexpected shift in work responsibilities, to a challenging disappointment in my dating life, to conflict in one of my friend groups, to the continued onslaught of deeply concerning political and ecological news, I had to work hard this week to keep my head and heart above water. Within this rather messy week, I do think the practice was helpful. I’m emerging from the week feeling strong and committed, when I could have easily felt blown apart. It took work, but this practice this week helped me do the work.
I wrote the other week in my reflection on Monitoring that “Character isn’t defined by what we do when we’re at our best, but by what we do when we’re not.” This idea came to mind again as I was reflecting on this week’s practice. Just as monitoring helps me to live into my values rather than into the passing whims of the ego and senses, I found the most helpful way to regain a sense of equanimity in a difficult week was to remind myself of my values, of who I am at my core. It’s a bit like a tree in a windstorm. When I’m focusing on the immediate situation and my feelings about it, it’s easy to feel blown about, like the leaves and furthest branches of a tree; but when I’m focusing on my core values, then I’m far less jostled about; the deepest values — which for me are about my faith — are the roots, grounding me to what is most secure. This is very much the way Jesus and Paul talked about equanimity, as trust in God — trust in what truly matters — in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
As I reflect on it, the metaphor of the tree is also helpful in the Buddhist understanding of equanimity too, for it demonstrates how the ego fools us into thinking what’s most important are the surface and superficial things instead the deepest things. The more we live into the ego, the more we live in an upside down world, trying to ground our lives in what is weak and passing, while ignoring our deepest truths.
By my count this is the fourth practice I’ve explored this year that has tried to answer the question of what to do with our thoughts and feelings as they arise. The first was to identify the narrative accompanying those negative thoughts and feelings in the hopes of undermining them. The second was to ‘drop the story and feel the feeling’; its goal was to experience what needed to be experienced as fully as possible, thereby allowing it to dissipate on its own. The third was a form of Tonglen practice, which sought to transform those strong feelings into a ground of compassion and empathy. This week’s practice is an interesting contrast, seeking to lesson the amount of reactivity we experience to our circumstances in the first place. I think all four can work together well. All four are ways of recognizing the ego’s lies and to live a truer, more authentic, and more loving life.
This isn’t to say that it’s easy. Practicing equanimity takes a lifetime and is unquestionably the most difficult human experience to cultivate — one interpretation of the Hindu Scriptures I came across this week suggested that to truly attain equanimity is to attain union with God. And so it’s a bit of a mockery even to suggest that a week’s focus even scratches the surface of what it means. This week’s practice was only a beneficial foretaste, the barest of introductions.
The last thing I’ll mention here is that I was grateful to see that all of the religious traditions agreed in insisting that equanimity is not apathy. This is for two reasons. First, if we’re going to even begin to address some of the issues facing our world, we need people willing to care more not less. We need people who have the vulnerability to step into the middle of the mess without being caught up in the drama. In short, we need true, deeply engaged, equanimity. And second, when I was first beginning to deal with my anxiety many years ago now, I had a false start with equanimity that did work to cut me off from my feelings and desires for a time. Having learned about cognitive distortions and the practice of challenging the thoughts behind my feelings through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), I went too far with it. While it was incredibly successful in enabling me to live a bigger life, my inexpert application of these ideas caused me to cut myself off from my feelings and desires, as though I didn’t have the right to be invested in the outcomes of my life. And so one of my major life projects the past few years has been to keep the positive lessons learned through that experience, while relearning how to experience my experiences, feel my feelings, and desire my desires fully.
This is the challenge of equanimity, the challenge of life itself, really: having the strength and vulnerability to live life in all its fullness while holding it with an open hand. I appreciated the focus of this practice this week, as challenging as it was, for reminding me of who I am and what I believe and know to be true so I can cultivate to that true, authentic, integrated, deeply rooted, well-watered, flourishing life.