“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. Read the first verse above, and see what you think.
Now when I hear words, they take on a different meaning for me, whether Nat King Cole meant them this way or not. 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 in the midst of our fear and sorrow, you will change the trajectory of your life. If you get caught up in your fears and sorrows, you get contracted. Smiling helps you to open up. 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
The smile is all about finding calmness and composure in a difficult situation, finding equanimity. I see equanimity as a wisdom that protects our mind from the 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 facts that we don’t have complete control over any given situation and everything changes.
“Equanimity is being willing and able to accept things as they are in this moment—whether they’re challenging, boring, exciting, disappointing, painful, or exactly what we want. Equanimity brings calmness and balance to moments of joy as well as difficulty. It protects us from an emotional overreaction, allows us to rest in a bigger perspective, and contains a basic trust in the course of things… 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
What Equanimity Isn’t
When I first head a talk about equanimity, I thought it meant “indifference,” being detached and unconcerned with other beings. But true equanimity is not 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 realize if we don’t like the story of our lives, we should keep going. When we turn the page we may like the story in the next chapter better.
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. It is OK to get excited about seeing my grandchildren as long as I stay in my window of tolerance. It is when I move outside my window of tolerance and obsess over the fact that they don’t live in Madison and I cannot see them as often as I would like, that I lose my equanimity.
What Equanimity Is
Joseph Goldstein says, that the first way we experience the cool, restful quality of equanimity is in the peace it brings to our daily lives. Usually we are touched by endlessly changing conditions of gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, and pleasure and pain. When we have equanimity, we ride these waves with ease. Without equanimity, we are tossed about by the waves, often crashing into the circumstances of our lives.
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 at it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence.
Thich Nhat Hanh says with equanimity, “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 you have 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. In this age of polarization, this is very hard to do. Try looking at the news from the top of the mountain, you will find it very difficult to do.
This wisdom can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. According to Cheri Maples, it starts with stepping away from needing perfection in ourselves and others. This quiets our need to approve or disapprove allowing us to disagree with their beliefs or actions, but still care for them. We can step back and see that this thought or belief is part of them, but not all of them. We can remember the basic goodness in them that we love.
Equanimity is the ability to see without being caught up by the experience of the moment. It is a calm presence that is aware, open, and engaged but not swayed. Equanimity means engaging with experience but not reacting to our feelings about our experience. Equanimity has this sense of a heart that remains undisturbed, even in the face of life’s turmoil and difficulties. Can you remain undisturbed facing a winter of sheltering in place due to Covid?
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. When we set a goal for what will make us happy, we compound the belief that there is something bad we have to avoid. Our errant thinking does not allow us to realize that we have everything we need to make us happy in the present moment. So, we don’t allow ourselves to be happy.
When we can let go of all the “shoulds” in our lives, we can realize contentment. Jack Kornfield says 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.
Think about your day so far. How many moments were you not trying to manage anything, just being receptive? We don’t allow ourselves the time to just be, maybe by just sitting and looking out the window. Not trying to accomplish anything.
I see equanimity practice as two steps. The first is to see what is going on inside of us and to learn to accept that is what is happening inside us in this moment. To realize that we are feeling a difficult emotion in this moment. To accept the feeling or sensation without taking it personally. And to use our breath (or walking meditation) to bring calmness to our body and mind. Until we become skillful at this step, we won’t be able to practice the second step. That is why we practice meditation.
The second step is to look at what is going on outside of us without rose or dark colored glasses. To stop and see what is happening without making up a story about it. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we often make up the story, they are trying to take advantage of me. And while that could be true, it could also be they are in a hurry to go see a dying loved one or they could simply be a new, unskillful driver. When someone says something hurtful to us, we often make up the story, they don’t like me. But it could be that their suffering is spilling over and they need our compassion, not our revenge.
Combining these two steps, we become aware of our emotions, and 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. We can train ourselves to do this by periodically stopping, naming what is going on, and noticing what it feels like in our body. You may notice when you do this you get pulled away, often by self-judgement. As we practice this, we are less likely to jump on the hamster wheel of reactivity. We can use out eyes to see what is instead of what our deluded minds suggests. And we may even be able to enjoy the scenery on our detour from the way things should be.
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 realize who we are because our grasping self dissolves.
May you accept things the way they are.