The Art of Equanimity

Siddhartha Gautama (the most recent of the Buddhas – or enlightened beings) is an embodiment of equanimity

There is a real art to living, one that could be described through many words. If I had to choose just one, however, it would be equanimity. While equanimity has often in my mind resembled a modest, slender, bespectacled older man with suspenders and an unexpressive face, it is actually much deeper than that.

Equanimity, to me, is about consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude and compassion toward the unique set of circumstances that comprise the unfolding of one’s life. Being able to find the gift in whatever kind of present is given, moment by moment, each and every day. To be able to approach every person, moment and experience as a teacher, whether this teacher may come in the form of a political enemy, a serious illness or simply someone cutting you off in traffic. We don’t get to decide everything that happens to us. But we do have full control and authorship over how we react, or perhaps better yet, respond, to the unfolding of our lives.

It has been said that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. I could not agree more. Going on a 10-day Vipassana meditation course almost 2 years ago taught me a great deal about the power of attitude through my own personal experience. Sitting silently for 10+ hours each day enables a lot of often previously unexamined aches and pains to arise in the body. During Vipassana, I not only became more aware of all the places in my body that I hold on to tightness in, however. I saw firsthand how my negative emotions: frustration, fear, desire, sadness and more were linked to the physical sensations that arose on my body.

And then there were the incessant reactions: “My God, when is this going to be over?!” “Why did I sign up for this torture?!” Sometimes my reactions weren’t even actual words, but sounds. Loud screaming inside my mind. Sobbing. I could easily see a small child inside, kicking and screaming in a tantrum, belly face down on the ground, wailing as though there were no tomorrow. A tremendous amount of effort went into these inner uprisings.

Until, finally, the dawn of grace through wisdom. Yes, there is pain. The presence of suffering is, in fact, the first of the four noble truths in Buddhism. Suffering is there. It is a reality – but not a prison, as I had previously thought and felt. My reactions were what really held me captive, as a prisoner of my own mind. No one told me to scream and cry inside – I decided to do that. The realization that I had the power to change the way I reacted to the physical pain I experienced while sitting was a revelation that I carried off the meditation cushion and into my life. Having the awareness of my subconscious reactions to the sensations on my body has led to a sublime sense of inner power and the ability to choose my response to whatever situation arises within and outside of myself. The amount of pain we experience is directly dependent upon the degree to which we react to the suffering that life naturally presents.

I completely agree with Shinzen Young in these sentiments regarding the application of equanimity:

“When you apply equanimity to unpleasant sensations, they flow more readily and as a result cause less suffering. When you apply equanimity to pleasant sensations, they also flow more readily and as a result deliver deeper fulfillment.”

I think the word “flow” in these sentences is so key. Equanimity comes from the Latin word “aequus,” meaning balanced. “Aequus,” however, sounds very similar to “aqua,” meaning water. Being balanced, then, implies a kind of willingness to follow the flow of life down whatever stream it may go. Being equanimous is like becoming similar to water: able to adapt, adjust and accommodate wherever and whenever needed, to whatever circumstances arise.

Equanimity is a shift in mindset that enables us to perceive how joy and sorrow are but flip sides of the same coin. In Vipassana, Goenkaji shared how,

“It is easy enough to remain equanimous when life flows along like a sweet song, but the one who’s worthwhile, is the one with a smile, when everything goes dead wrong.”

Like that, I believe, have seen and experienced for myself how the greatest obstacles in life can really be the greatest opportunities in disguise.

The presence of disease, for example, teaches us that something in our body is out of balance. This realization can spark great changes in one’s overall diet and lifestyle. The oily, spicy, heavy food I ate in India often left me with severe stomachaches and once with food poisoning so intense that I could not walk or even sit up straight for days. This experience, however, served as an amazing catalyst for my interest in cooking and being able to create healthier diet options for myself and those in my life.

Experiences of insult and injury have taught me about the tremendous violence that exists so deeply in so many around the world. How those who hurt others hurt themselves the most. Suffering from the hatred and anger of others at times has taught me how to go deeper and deeper within myself to cultivate true compassion, for myself and for others. These experiences have further taught me that there are no “others,” which puts me in touch with my Self – in the capital “S” sense, which encompasses all.

To be truly equanimous, I believe, requires tremendous courage, practice, discipline and willpower, as it involves taking everything that comes your way with an open heart. People often think of people who “wear their heart on their sleeve” as being weak-willed and “too soft,” or as having “bleeding hearts.” I think truly living with an open heart is the ultimate badge of bravery. That it takes a lot of strength to make yourself vulnerable, to be open to being moved by the joys and sorrows of another as if they were your own. There is a beautiful Yoga sutra, number 23 of book 3 of Master Patanjali’s, which nicely elucidates this sentiment:

“maitriyadisu balani”

Which means:

“Strength arises out of compassion.”

When compassion is true and deeply felt, I believe there is no greater force in this world.

Along with being a way of seeing, an attitude of gratitude and a heart filled with compassion and strength, equanimity is also the essence of wisdom. Being able to recognize the cyclical nature of all life: that what goes up, comes also back down, only to go back up again. We are born, live and then die, only to be born again anew. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is not simply limited to our life spans, but to the process of change and transformation itself. Growth is rarely linear, but rather takes a spiral shape. All the very cells of the body are constantly dying only to be born again, just as do the stars, insects and even trees.

Equanimity, then, implies an acceptance of change as the only constant, providing us the opportunity and invitation to be stoic toward the negative experiences of life and to make the most of what is positive. The essence of remaining equanimous, however, is not merely to seek or crave after positive experiences, but rather to transcend the duality of positive and negative altogether. To go from untruth to truth. From darkness to light. Mortality to immortality. In this transcendental state of Yoga, we can more clearly see the unity in diversity, the all contained in the One, the One contained within all. It is in this space that we can come to know our true Self, as Satchidananda. Truth (sat). Knowledge (chid). And bliss (ananda). This unlimited Self goes beyond our small sense of I, me and mine to embrace the totality of existence. And it is this Self that contains everything we truly seek: it’s all there, deep inside the essence of Equanimity.

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5 Comments

  1. Mitch Hall says:

    Thanks, Ripa, for these graciously flowing reflections on equanimity. It is especially moving to read the testimony from your own experience at the 10-day vipassana retreat and also what you learned from hardships, whether from food poisoning, insult, or injury. In reading your insightful thoughts, I remembered the pivotal place of equanimity in Buddhist philosophy where it is deemed to be one of the four brahmaviharas (abodes of the Buddha). These traits of a fully awakened consciousness are metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (altruistic joy), and upekkha (equanimity). These virtues are interrelated and inseparable, as you also show. Thanks for offering the sutra from Patanjali that “strength arises out of compassion.” It is, I believe, relevant to note that Patanjali does not assert that strength arises out of hardship per se, but rather out of compassion. Some people become hard-hearted and desensitized from hardship, whereas others become more open, aware, and altruistic in response to difficulties. A key to the outcome appears to be whether there is at least one caring witness who provides empathy and whatever practical help may be possible and appropriate. The gift of compassion is, I believe, interpersonally transmitted. Thanks for your ongoing initiatives, through deeds, teaching yoga and meditation, and inspired writings, to spread the waves of this transmission of perennial spiritual wisdom.

  2. Deirdra says:

    Wow! I sat yesterday in the sun and found my business name…The Art of Equanimity, which lead me here to you. The Universe is truly an amazing. Thank you for your words they spoke to my heart. D

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