“Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
For you” Nat King Cole
When I was young, my sisters and I went to Morgan Dancing School. We had a sister act to the Nat King Cole song, Smile. Since I was the princess of brushing things under the carpet, I thought the song was saying to brush anything unpleasant under the carpet and just smile to make things better. Encouraging toxic positivity. Read the words above and see what you think.
Now when I hear words, they take on a different meaning for me. I take them to mean that even when you have clouds in your sky, you can still see the good in life. If you find something to smile about during your fear and sorrow, you will change the trajectory of your life. Instead of getting on the hamster wheel of reactivity and making things worse, you will slow down and respond skillfully.
“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
Smiling is all about finding calmness and composure in a difficult situation, finding equanimity. I see equanimity as a wisdom that protects our mind from discouragement and frustration when our lack of control is clear. It’s the mindful presence that neither grasps nor resists experience and is the grounds for unconditional love and wise action.
It is not gritting your teeth or white knuckling it. Think of it as stable not rigid, like a tree with deep roots in a strong storm. A deep caring with a sense of ease. Equanimity can only arise through the acceptance of the fact that we don’t have complete control over any given situation, and everything changes.
With equanimity, we step back and look at the bigger picture. When emotions like anger or grief overwhelm us, our view narrows. All we see is what is upsetting us. We think that is our entire world. But it is not. We can experience moments of happiness while in throes of grief.
I experienced that when I attended a meditation retreat just after my mother passed away. Sitting in silence, I felt overwhelmed with grief, to the point where I felt that I needed to shut down. Freeze is my normal reaction to overwhelming negative feelings.
Luckily after the sit, it was time for outdoor walking meditation. The sky was blue with white puffy clouds, and the frozen lake was snow covered. Walking in the beauty calmed my mind and my body. I could see more clearly. And I realized that my grief was overwhelming me because it was made of so many emotions that I was trying to process all at the same time. I realized that I could sit with each emotion, asking the other emotions that arose to wait their turn. I could deal with them one at a time.
With freeze being my default when emotions overwhelm me, I thought equanimity meant “indifference,” being detached and unconcerned. But true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent, it doesn’t mean not caring. The calmness of equanimity is not due to indifference but to seeing things as they are and accepting them. We see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter how obsessed we might become with trying to.
We accept that our anger or our grief is, and that trying to push them away won’t work. We accept the feeling, and don’t feel like we are broken for having that feeling. We see that when people we care about ghost us, it is not because we are broken, but because they do not have the capability to be with our negative emotions. They don’t know what to do, so they shut down on us. Without seeing clearly, we may feel shame, like there is something wrong with us for feeling what we feel.
When we see clearly, we see that we can experience both grief or anger and happiness during the course of the day. We don’t try to chase away the grief or the anger. But we allow what is good in life in. Instead of feeling we don’t deserve to be happy, we realize that moments of happiness give us the strength to hold our difficult emotions.
This balance we need for 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, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence.
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.
Instead of freezing when we are overwhelmed by emotions, we may 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 leave the people we love because being with them feels too hard. We lash out at everyone because we are hurting.
In the same way, people we care about may move into fight, flight or freeze. They lash out at us for having difficult feelings. They leave us either physically or emotionally because being with our difficult emotions feels too hard. Or they numb themselves and shut down because they don’t think they can deal with our difficult emotions. And when they do so, we often think it is because something is wrong with us. When in reality, it is their lack of inner strength that causes them to move into fight, flight or freeze.
Equanimity is the middle ground between being indifferent and overwhelmed. 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.
Stay Engaged Without Becoming Overwhelmed
Awareness – Become aware of the reality of the external experience and your internal reaction to the experience. You may view this as 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 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 feelings 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 in meditation 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?
- Do I want to add to the drama, or pass and not play into the drama? (David Emerald)
“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 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 is allowing yourself to experience moments of happiness in the midst of a difficult time.
Practicing gratitude can be a way to resource yourself. However sometimes you are not ready to practice gratitude. You squelch your gratitude with the thought, “It could be better.” Which leads to the thought “I am not enough.” If gratitude seems impossible, simply think of one thing that you did right during the day. It could be as simple as I got out of bed, or I brushed my teeth, or I washed the dishes. This looking for one right thing will help relax your mind and open you to the possibility of experiencing gratitude.
We need to resource ourselves because we will be knocked off kilter a lot in our lives. We must learn to be okay with the internal rollercoaster and be willing 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 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. 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.
So, smile through your fears and sorrows and may be tomorrow you’ll see the sun come shining through.
- May I see and accept things the way they are.
- May I have the wisdom to see what I can control and what is uncontrollable.
- May I be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
- May I feel connected and calm.
- May I meet life’s inevitable challenges with an open heart
- May I let go of sadness and other negative feelings.