How to Cultivate Equanimity Regardless of Your Circumstances
A calm mind and even temper can help make peace with life's difficulties.
Posted May 10, 2011
The dictionary defines equanimity as "mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation." It refers to a mind that is at peace even in the face of stressful and unpleasant experiences. Here are three ways to cultivate equanimity no matter what challenges you face.
1. Use the Buddha's teachings on suffering to help you "start where you are."
I practice Buddhism, not as a religion, but as a practical path for living with less suffering. By suffering, the Buddha was referring to our dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives. All of us have experienced this dissatisfaction: it's found in our longing for our life to be different than it is, even when we have no control over the particular circumstance in question.
After becoming chronically ill in 2001, I spent my days caught up in constant longing for my life to be the way it was before I got sick. This just made me miserable. Gradually, I came to see that everyone's life has its share of both joy and suffering, and the only way I could find joy again was to stop trying to change circumstances over which I had no control and, instead, start where I was, with a body that was sick.
Don't confuse the calm acceptance of equanimity with resignation or indifference. The latter two are characterized by aversion to the way things are; then we feel stuck and unable to act. By contrast, equanimity is characterized by that "evenness of temper" from the dictionary definition—an open acceptance that's not a deterrent to action.
And so, with equanimity, I'm able to remain pro-active about my health, always looking for new treatments. But I try to start each day with where I am. I encourage you to do the same: "Start where you are," suffering and all. Then look around to see what life has to offer.
2. Regard the universal law of impermanence as a friend.
When the going gets rough, seeing the ever-changing nature of life helps me maintain that "mental calmness and evenness of temper." I engage in what I call "weather practice," recognizing that physical symptoms, as well as stressful thoughts and emotions, are as changeable as the weather. They blow in and blow out like the wind.
I also like to think of physical symptoms and stressful thoughts or emotions as waves on the ocean of life. They rise and they fall. Instead of going rigid in the face of them, I try to calmly and steadily ride the ups and downs (a skill I learned from years as a surfer!).
Seeing clearly the ever-changing nature of life is a tremendous relief because it helps me not to identify with particular symptoms, thoughts, or emotions as all that I am. When I see that I am not just pain, I am not just frustration, I am not just sadness, it helps me calmly wait for things to change.
3. Be content to take baby steps in the direction of equanimity.
There's a quotation from the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah that I'd committed to memory before I got sick. It's from his book A Still Forest Pool:
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.
I use this "letting go" practice to help me cultivate the mental calmness and evenness of temper that are at the heart of equanimity. If I can't "let go" a lot, I let go a little. I can almost always nudge my mind a bit toward letting go of that longing for my life to be other than it is. And if I can't let go even a little, with compassion for myself, I "let it be" until that universal law of impermanence kicks in ... and things change so that I can let go a little. Each baby step makes it easier to take the next one.
Returning to Ajahn Chah's words: "Complete peace and freedom," to me, means not being dissatisfied in any way with the circumstances of my life—opening my heart to its joys and to my own suffering. Then I'd be happy and content regardless of my circumstances. (If I could do this 24/7, I'm quite certain that my "struggles with the world will have come to an end." On this score, I'm definitely a work in progress!)