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. Equanimity is a deep delight born of peace.
Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) says “upekkha”, the Pali word for equanimity means, “You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.” From that vantage point one accesses another aspect of equanimity, “samatajnana” or the wisdom of equality. Thay says that is “the ability to see everyone as equal and not discriminate between ourselves and other people.” When embroiled in conflict, the equanimous will maintain impartiality in an effort to truly understand others’ points of view. They drop their discrimination in order to truly love. In this way, the self, the ego, diminishes and they become one. Thus, according to Thay, equanimity is a way to connect.
Upekkha has been mistranslated as “indifference,” which has caused many in the West to believe, mistakenly, that Buddhists are supposed to be 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. Rather, it means balancing that connection with a clear recognition of the way things are. So, for example, we see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter how obsessed we might become with trying to. What it really means is to not be ruled by passions, desires, likes and dislikes.
Three Qualities of Equanimity: balance, wisdom, and taking the next right step.
Balance comes from inner stability; remaining centered when surrounded by turmoil.
The Buddha taught that we are constantly being pulled in one direction or another by things or conditions we either want or hope to avoid. To develop balance, we work with the eight worldly winds: praise and blame, pleasure and pain, success and failure, gain and loss. The wise person, the Buddha said, accepts all without approval or disapproval.
This balance 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.
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.
Wisdom: As Thay said, equanimity requires “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him.
Wisdom 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.
Another way wisdom supports equanimity is in understanding that people are responsible for their own decisions, which helps us to find equanimity in the face of other people’s suffering. We can wish the best for them, but we avoid being buffeted by a false sense of responsibility for their well-being.
Equanimity will possess power if it is rooted in insight. What is the nature of that insight? It is the clear understanding that the various experiences we undergo result from our karma – our actions in thought, word and deed. This leads us to…
The next right step. The confidence to take the next right step which comes from our mindfulness practice. Equanimity is not passive. It is responding with courage and clarity.
Four Ways to Cultivate Equanimity: mindfulness, working with difficult emotions, reducing reactivity, working with eight worldly winds.
Mindfulness Equanimity has to be based on vigilant presence of mind, not on indifferent dullness. Our mindfulness practice allows us to develop equanimity as we learn to see with awareness and compassion. 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 any phenomena, any experience of the moment. With mindfulness, we start where we are, naming what is going on and opening to how it feels in the body. We will get pulled away as we are rigged to try to control the experience, usually by self-judgement. Our mindfulness practice helps us to stay with what is really here, not lost in the stories in our mind.
You may want to meditate using the traditional format for Equanimity. As with Loving-Kindness meditation, start with yourself and then spread your wishes out to a loved one, neutral one, difficult one, and then to all sentient beings. In this meditation, start with yourself and say:
May I accept things the way they are.
May I be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May I be at peace.
Repeat these phrases and take your time, lingering as long as it takes to feel complete. Then move on sending wishes to a loved one and so on.
Working with Difficult Emotions: Equanimity has this sense of a mind (and heart) that remains undisturbed, even in the face of life’s turmoil and difficulties. Learning to be with our difficult emotions helps us to let go instead of pushing them away. In letting go of the ego’s grasp through acceptance of all that is, we realize contentment. Pema Chodron said, “To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion before it hardens into grasping or negativity.”
Equanimity refers to a state of being calm and balanced, especially in the midst of difficulty. With equanimity, we can have a heart that is ready for everything – no matter what happened in our life, we have the capacity to respond from a place of tenderness and inner freedom.
When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go. Cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, and joy opens your heart to others. Equanimity balances the giving of your heart’s love with the recognition and acceptance that things are the way they are. However much you may care for someone, however much you may do for others, however much you would like to control things or you wish that they were other than they are, equanimity reminds you that all beings everywhere are responsible for their own actions, and for the consequences of their actions.
Reducing Reactivity Suffering comes from reaction to experience. Equanimity means engaging with experience but not reacting to our reactions to our experience. We are wired to react to unpleasantness by pushing it away and to pleasantness by trying to hold on to it. The Buddha would say equanimity is letting go of trying to control what cannot be controlled in life. As we become aware of our emotions we can choose to act responsibly rather than react unskillfully. We practice to train ourselves to be constantly aware of whatever enters our mind, feeling the emotions and their effect before acting. By doing so we expand the range of life experiences in which we are free from reactivity.
Working with the Eight Worldly Winds: Equanimity is a higher state of happiness that is steady and long lasting. It is not based on the Eight Worldly Winds: praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Rather than the ups and downs that come from a state of happiness based on sensual desires, equanimity is a state of non-attachment based on acceptance of what is happening in the present moment. Becoming attached to or excessively elated with success, praise, fame or pleasure can be a set-up for suffering when the winds of life change direction. These waves of emotion carry us up and fling us down; and no sooner do we find rest, then we are in the power of a new wave again. If we understand or feel that our sense of inner well-being is independent of the eight winds, we are more likely to remain on an even keel in their midst. When the mind is calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.
To learn how to be more equanimous with these conditions, we have to be able to see their insubstantiality. Through being mindful we become more aware of the impermanence of both. We see the conditional nature of fame, and that lasting peace and happiness doesn’t come through being famous. We see that disrepute is temporary, and need not bring lasting unhappiness. The more balanced we can be in relationship to these, the more we free ourselves from having to be seen by others in any particular way. When no longer swayed by changing tides of fame or disrepute, we discover a peace that doesn’t depend on how others see us.
Sharon Salzburg says, “Equanimity’s strength derives from a combination of understanding and trust. It is based on understanding that conflict and frustration we feel when we can’t control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so, but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable. We know better than to try to prevent the seasons from changing or the tide from coming in. We may not prefer it, but we trust it because we understand and accept its rightful place in a larger cycle, a bigger picture. Can we apply the same wise balance to the cycles and tides of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences in our lives?”
If we can, 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 realize who we are because our grasping self dissolves. Equanimity is a baseline of equilibrium in body when we’re not disturbed and when we’re not zoned out to avoid being disturbed. Our brain is relaxed and calm, engaged and alert.
If your mind becomes firm like a rock and no longer shakes
In a world where everything is shaking
Your mind will be your greatest friend and suffering will not come your way.
An early Buddhist poem from the Therigatha