Equanimity: A Practice for Troubled Times
The secret ingredient in mindfulness
Posted October 4, 2017
On the wall of Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta, there is a poem that captures the spirit of equanimity. It is attributed to Kent Keith.
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self- centered:
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives:
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight:
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’re got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
Equanimity is an essential practice for our troubled and chaotic times. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls it the “secret ingredient” in mindfulness as it leads to wisdom. It is about meeting life, no matter what arises, with an open and responsive heart. Equanimity is frequently taught in meditation centers. In fact, in the Tibetan tradition, it is the first practice that is taught. However, it is rarely discussed in the psychological literature. Yet it has immense value not only for clinicians, as it helps us be present with all that arises in our consulting rooms, but also for those who seek to find balance in their lives. It helps us not get overwhelmed and to meet challenging events without being shattered. It is a steadiness of mind and a calm understanding that allows us to be with the constantly changing and shifting landscape of our world.
Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki writes that classical mindfulness, unlike popular mindfulness, “is all about the cultivation of equanimity. One is able to experience both pleasure and pain without clinging to anything in the world. One can be aware of what is gratifying and distressing, not needing things to be other than they are.”
The Buddha’s teaching is that what we think about and dwell upon becomes the shape of our mind. The shape of our mind shapes our world of experience. So, if we dwell on fear, ill will, worry, or obsession we get even better at fear, worry, obsession and ill will. The neuroscientist Donald Hebb noted that “neurons that fire together wire together.” However, if we train the mind to make kindness, compassion, and equanimity what we practice, these qualities can become the shape of our mind.
The word is translated from the Pali Upekkha which means “to look over,” and refers to the ability to see with patience or to see with understanding. It is a spacious stillness of heart that creates room for all things.
The following practice will give you a taste of equanimity:
- Sitting comfortably, give yourself a moment to arrive.
- Let yourself stop. Be here, in your body, in this room.
- Listening to this recording, the sounds around you.
- Perhaps let out a sigh, aaaahhhhhh
- Let go of your day.
- Let yourself relax fully.
- Releasing any unnecessary tension—in your eyes, your jaw, chest, belly, buttocks, legs, feet.
- Edit any narrative in your head.
- Drop into now
- For the moment, stop the conversation in your head, stop any arguments you are having with yourself or others. Let the stories fall away.
- Just this, just this moment.
- Touching, even for a moment, this stillness, this quiet.
- Nothing to do, no one to be.
- Feeling some space around you.
- Right here, right now.
- Not judging the way things are.
- Inviting space into your life, your body, your mind.
- Don’t create tension with what is arising in your life.
- Relax with it.
- Don’t try to fix it.
- Leave your mind alone.
- Resting in this quiet, this equanimity, this awareness.
- Letting yourself be held by this stillness.
Like the skills of concentration, mindfulness, and compassion, it can be trained and cultivated. Equanimity develops as we learn to stay in the moment and keep our hearts open. No matter how painful or pleasant, we learn to greet each moment fully, to greet it as a friend. We’re not trying to force anything, but to develop an intention to be with everything that arises, and to hold it with patience and understanding.
The good news is that equanimity is not developed in sublime and peaceful times, or on a mountain retreat far, far away. This is a practice for times like ours—full of chaos, agitation, and uncertainty--difficult times. There is an African saying that puts it well, “calm seas do not create skillful sailors.” Equanimity helps us work skillfully with the high winds, severe storm, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tragedies of our lives.
The German writer Goethe’s words echo those of the Buddha’s:
I have come to the frightening conclusion that
I am the decisive element
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated and a person humanized or dehumanized
In the past few weeks, I have become fascinated by Goya’s “Black Paintings,” a series of 14 works created during 1819-1823. They are nightmarish images of men killing each other, of massive destruction and violence. Historians have claimed that no modern art is as essential to our understanding of the human condition.
Deaf and ill, at the end of his life, Goya looked into hell. Are we, one wonders, also looking into hell when we watch the news? Times like this are why we need, all the more, to practice mindfulness, compassion, and equanimity. For ourselves, our children, and our planet.