What is Equanimity?
Hey friends, welcome back! Today's story is a repost of a guest post I wrote for my friend Raphael's blog (https://www.thecanvasseries.com/single-post/2017/08/29/What-is-Equanimity). If you enjoy this post, be sure to check out his website to help design your life for more optimal performance.
What is equanimity and why does it matter? Because it could mean the difference between a happy life and a taxing, overwhelming, and miserable life. The beauty of equanimity is that anyone and everyone has access to it. You don’t need a degree or professional certification. Heck, you don’t even need to attend a seminar or attend a session. It has no barriers across gender, race, age, profession, academic background, artistic preference, political affiliation, or religion. If you can formulate thoughts, if you can think, if you can lift a cup up – if you have any control over your mind, then you can use equanimity to your advantage.
First, allow me to define the term for you. Merriam-Webster defines equanimity as evenness of mind especially under stress, i.e., nothing could disturb his equanimity. Dictionary.com defines it as mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium. They’re both correct. In essence, maintaining equanimity throughout life is to be balanced, to have composure in all situations (good and bad), and to be centered (not to be confused with self-centered). Now that we’ve defined the term and you have a basic idea of what it is, let’s talk about why it matters and how it can help you.
We live in a world filled with stimuli. Every street you walk down, every building you enter, every classroom you sit in, every meeting room you present in, you are bombarded with external stimuli. You can’t control them, they will happen whether you like it or not. When your awareness registers the stimuli through your senses, you experience sensations. Most of the time, we don’t notice these sensations throughout the day. Occasionally, we scratch an itch. Occasionally, we feel impatient. Occasionally, our hearts feel warmed when we receive a kind message from someone we love. All of these feelings, both physical (the itch) and emotional (the impatience and happiness), are nothing but sensations we experience. And while equanimity is not quite as helpful in these situations when the stimuli are mundane, mild, and bland, the problem arises when a stimulus becomes overpowering. You know the kind of experiences I’m talking about. The kinds that overtake your entire existence. Heartbreak, rejection, loss of a loved one, failing, suffering a severe injury, losing significant societal status or wealth. All of these extreme cases can catapult a person into misery, or worse yet, sustained severe depression, or even worse yet, thoughts or acts of suicide. From the outside, when people hear about these stories, they may react in this sort of manner: “It’s a pity that she couldn’t let it go. Her life is in ruins, and it’s just sad to see.” The people that are reacting this way, making this type of judgment about the girl, are not the experiencer of the tragedies, of the pain. This is why they’re able to remain objective, to see reality for what it is. “If only she could let it go and move on, she will be so much happier.” That’s 100% correct. But she can’t at this moment in time, and without understanding and practicing equanimity, she may take a lot longer to move on, or worse yet, never move on, and live the rest of her life in pain.
So, how exactly can this girl utilize this so-called equanimity to liberate herself from her pain? The first step is to separate herself from her misery. This notion is often referred to as the subject-object relationship in philosophy (well-explored by the likes of Plato, Kant, Buddha, Confucius, among others). By removing herself from her emotions and thoughts, she makes herself the subject (the observer), and the mental and emotional experience in her head the object. It’s no different from you observing an itch on your forearm. When you notice the itch, you know, pretty obviously, that you are observing the itch, therefore you cannot be the itch. Similarly, the girl who is suffering can create “distance” from the pain, and begin observing it. Not only is she observing it, equanimity requires that she doesn’t judge it. She can observe her pain and thoughts, but she shouldn’t further develop (new) hatred, anger, sadness, and in general more negativity towards that pain. That will only result in a vicious cycle, because not only is she suffering from her initial pain, she’s now also suffering from new negative emotions generated by observing the initial pain. It’s a double-stacked pain sandwich. Back to the itch example, it would be ridiculous to think that you should get irritated or even furious about an itch for prolonged periods of time, right? It’s just a moment, and it’ll pass. You wouldn’t stir on the itch hours, days, weeks, or months after it disappeared. You wouldn’t say to your friend “Man, I’m so irritated by that itch I had three weeks ago. It literally caused me so much trouble and I’m still upset by it today.” Your friend would probably look at you like you’ve gone mad, and rightly so. Like the itch, the girl’s pain is also just a sensation – albeit a much more complex and painful one, but nevertheless a sensation that will eventually pass, if she lets it.
It’s important to note that equanimity is a concept that will give you the best bang for your buck when practiced, not just known. Even if you know the in’s and out’s of how to drive a car theoretically, if you’ve never driven a car, you will with high probability suck at it the first time you do it. The same is true here. Simply understanding the concept of equanimity and how it can help you deal with difficult situations, big and small, throughout life is not enough – actually practice it so you can remain centered no matter the kind of lemons life throws at you. It’s not hard and you can start today. The next time you’re in line waiting to order an Americano, and the man in front of you is taking a wee bit longer than you’re used to, observe any new sensation that arises. Are you looking at your watch or the time on your phone? Are you glaring at the man, as if that would magically make him decide faster? Are you starting to fidget? Is your breathing getting quicker and shorter? Observe it. Create distance from your emotions, pull back, and sit back, and just look at it, as you would a cute puppy. Notice what’s happening, and then just let it be. Let it rise, fall, simmer, cool down, and dissipate. It’ll be a tiny step – but nevertheless a step – in your journey towards a life of balance, compassion, and happiness.