Cultivating Equanimity

Tis easy enough to be pleasant, when life flows along like a song; but the man worthwhile is the one who will smile when everything goes dead wrong.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox

If you prefer to listen

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, equanimity means “calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation”— though that general definition doesn’t capture the true essence of this powerful meta-virtue. Equanimity is a wisdom that protects our mind from discouragement and frustration when our lack of control is clear. It’s being willing and able to accept things as they are in this moment—whether they’re frustrating, boring, exciting, disappointing, or painful. It’s the mindful presence that neither grasps nor resists experience. That keeps us from overreaction, allowing us to see the bigger picture.

Equanimity is often thought of as “indifference,” being detached and unconcerned with other beings.  Indifference is the near-enemy, true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent.  Equanimity doesn’t mean not caring. The calmness of equanimity is not due to coldness of heart but to clarity of understanding.  When we open our hearts, we can connect to all things, and that’s as it should be. But we need to balance that connection with a clear recognition of the way things are.  So, we see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter how obsessed we might become with trying to. 

Equanimity does not mean you can’t enjoy the pleasant. What it really means is to not be ruled by passions, desires, likes and dislikes. Equanimity is the middle ground between being indifferent and overwhelmed. When things are too much, we can close-down and stop caring.

At the other end of the continuum, we are overwhelmed by the experience, so we move into fight or flight. Our prefrontal cortex shuts down. And our vision narrows, making us closed-minded.  We cling to our opinions and beliefs so much so that self-righteousness takes over. We set ourselves solidly for or against policies or people.

In the middle ground, the calm comes from a clarity of understanding. When we open our hearts, we connect to all things. And we balance that connection with a clear recognition of the way things are.  We see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter how obsessed we might become with trying to.  Equanimity protects us from overreaction to both our joys and our sorrows.

Equanimity is like the eye of the storm, the calm center, that is grounded in the knowledge that everything is constantly changing and much of it is out of our control.” Christiane Wolf

Our wiring is not to be equanimous – we are wired to react to unpleasantness by pushing it away and to pleasantness by trying to hold on to it.  But the push-pull drama called the pursuit of happiness doesn’t lead to satisfaction, but to craving or aversion. We think things are not right or there is something bad to avoid. Equanimity undoes that errant thinking. It frees us from that dichotomy of good and bad that will hound us forever. In letting go of what “should be,” we realize contentment.

Three Steps to Becoming More Equanimous
  1. Teasing Out the Facts
  2. Resourcing Ourselves
  3. Taking Skillful Action

Teasing Out the Facts – Become aware of the reality of the external experience and your internal reaction to the experience.  Tease out the facts from the stories. We cannot change the facts of the past, but we can change the stories we tell ourselves about those facts. We explore how we can tell a more empowering story about the painful experience, not how we can make it go away. We learn how to step back and see the bigger perspective, so we don’t take things personally.

I told you the story of my father saying “What’s that B doing there?” That was the fact. The story I added on was that he doesn’t think I am good enough. I have to get straight A’s to be good enough. I am not enough. But I could have told a more empowering story, that he thinks I can do better. He is product of me but he thinks I can do better. That is just a little story so it is easier to tease out the facts from the story.

Some of our stories are more complicated, so it is harder to tease out the facts from the story. We may have to do it over and over, teasing out a little of the story at a time. This morning I was teaching in the prison and a guy asked “Don’t we need someone else to tell us what is fact and what is story?” My answer was no, because then you are listening to their story.If they are trained on how to tease these apart, they can ask you questions. But it is up to you to do it. You have the wisdon inside to know what is fact and what is story. And he looked at me like I had two heads. It sounds unreal, but we all have this inner wisdom that we know what is right and what is wrong. We know what is fact and what is story. But we cover it up because we are comfortorble with the stories. And maybe the facts are painful.

Just open, relax your heart, forgive, laugh or do anything you want. Just don’t push it back down. It was stored with pain, it’s going to release with pain. It only hurts for a minute and then it’s over.” Michael Singer

So we want to explore what is fact and what is story so we step back and see the bigger picture.We want to turn off the flashlight on this problem, where we are just seeing the problem. And we want to turn on the floodlight so we can see everything that is going on around it. That way we won’t take everythinng so personally..

Another question that was asked was “Don’t you want to figure out how to change it?” My answer was not yet. We first have to be with it, see what is fact and what is story and then later, our inner wisdom is going to tell us what to do. So we have to ask:

  • What are the facts?
  • Do I have any influence or control to change this in the future?
  • What story am I adding to the facts?
  • Is this story true and helpful?
  • What might be a more empowering story based on these facts?
  • Only when you have answerd the above questions, ask: What might a skillful response to this situation be?

When there is a problem, we want to fix it. What we are doing here is looking beneath the problem to discover the root. We have been putting bandaids on the problems and it has not fixed it. When we tease out the stories from the facts, we get down to the root of the problem.


Think about a story from your childhood. Not a traumatic one, but one that causes a little discomfort. Now state the facts of that story. At the first pass, your facts will likely contain some story. Look again until you get down to the bare facts. Remind yourself that the rest is just the story you made up. Think about how you could rewrite that story without changing any facts to make it more empowering.

The wisdom we gain from teasing out the facts from the stories protects our mind from the discouragement and frustration especially when we see our lack of control.

Equanimity, in its most basic understanding, is all about “letting go”.  “Of what?” you may ask.  Of trying to control what cannot be controlled including all the inevitable changes that are a part of life.” Jack Kornfield 

Equanimity does not mean never being knocked off kilter. We will be knocked off kilter a lot in our lives. It means being okay with the internal rollercoaster and having a willingness to go along for the ride. We need to resource ourselves to grow that willingness. Without equanimity, we are tossed about by the waves, often crashing into the circumstances of our lives. With equanimity, we are not trying to stop the waves, but learning to surf.  We are not trying to push the waves away, we are learning to go with them.

2. Resourcing Yourself – You can’t be skillful on an empty tank.  Do what you need to do to provide yourself with the motivation and energy to respond skillfully.  This may be spending time in nature, noticing what is good in the world, getting support from family or friends, or thanking yourself for the growth you have had. It might be talking with other people who are dealing with the same situation.

The balance of equanimity comes from inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like a ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds. As inner strength develops, equanimity follows. We can remain centered when surrounded by turmoil. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging at it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence.

3. Take Skillful Action – Finally take skillful action. Once we are surfing, we can make choices: not to get even, not to react quickly, not to lash out, not to punish, not to hurt, not to close our minds and our heart. Determine what influence or control you have over the situation. If none, sit with the feelings. Once we sit with the feelings it gets easier to let them go.  If you can influence or control the situation, figure out the most skillful way to do so and follow through.

Equanimity is the ability to see without being caught by what we see; a calm presence that is aware, open, engaged but not swayed or caught by the experience of the moment. Equanimity means engaging with experience but not reacting to our reactions to our experience.

With equanimity, we can have a heart that is ready for everything – no matter what happens in our life, we have the capacity to respond from a place of tenderness and inner freedom.  Equanimity frees us to cherish our life moment by moment.  In the moments we are not fighting, judging, and grasping, but just being, we gain the deepest wisdom. We can create an equilibrium in our body where we’re not disturbed, and we’re not zoned out to avoid being disturbed. Our brain is relaxed and calm, engaged and alert.