Equanimity: Staying Engaged without Being Overwhelmed

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

I would really like to be able to genuinely smile when things are going wrong. One of my teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh was able to do so even in the most horrific circumstances. He was helping the injured and the innocent in the war in Vietnam, straddling between the two sides.  He was exiled from Vietnam.  And yet, he exudes equanimity.

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 the 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.

Equanimity is the middle ground between being indifferent and overwhelmed. When things are too much, we can close-down and stop caring. That is my tendency, especially with the war in Ukraine.  I may look like I are equanimous, but if you look closely, you’d see how much tension and tightness my body is carrying. My calmness is due to coldness of heart, I am closed to protect myself.

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. This is me relating to Covid vaccines. I am solidly for everyone getting vaccinated, almost to the point of being self-righteous.

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 repulsion. 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.


Where are you on the continuum of disengaged to overwhelmed on the war in Ukraine? What can you do to ease your fear or anxiety? 

Stay Engaged Without Becoming Overwhelmed
  • Awareness
  • Pausing
  • Investigating
  • Resourcing Ourselves
  • Taking Action

Awareness – Become aware of the reality of the external experience and your internal reaction to the experience.  You may view this a the Recognize and Allow steps in RAIN.

Recognizing the way things really are and coming to terms with the limit of our influence. Once we see what is there, we can learn to accept the reality, we may not like it, but we don’t put our head in the sand, or try to push it away. It takes practice to gain confidence in recognizing and accepting what is.

Pausing – If the thoughts or feeling cause a little discomfort, simply taking three breaths may be enough for you to be able to respond skillfully.  However, if the discomfort is strong, you may need to schedule a time to sit with it and complete the steps below.

Investigating – To investigate with wisdom, we start by confirming what we can change and what we can’t. We are not gritting our teeth to get through it, that is aversion.  Instead, we are accepting the fact that we don’t have control. We explore how we can be with 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. The wisdom we gain protects our mind from the discouragement and frustration when our lack of control clear.

You are not investigating how it happened or who is right or wrong. The following questions may help:

  • Why did this trigger me?
  • Is there a story behind my reaction?
  • Is this story true and helpful?
  • Do I have any influence or control over this?
  • Why am I struggling with this?
  • What might a skillful response to this situation be?

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 

The wisdom we gain by investigating can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions but remain balanced in our relationship with them. We can also understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them so personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising.

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.

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.

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 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. I am still getting swayed and caught every time I see the news on Ukraine. 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 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.

Equanimity Meditation