Equanimity, Even Now


When people start looking into meditation or Buddhism, they often say that they’re looking for “peace.”  As with so many things we want, we usually aren’t really sure what this is, but it sounds like something we’d like.  That makes perfect sense – if we knew all about what we think we want, we’d already have most of it, wouldn’t we?  So these often vague longings give us a direction in which to move.

But we quickly find that if we sit down to try to “achieve peace,” we fail.  Instead, be feel discontent that we can’t find it.  We realize that we don’t know what it is, so we judge ourselves for not understanding something so important.  We try really hard – only to discover that trying really hard is not a peaceful activity.

Buddhism tends to talk more about “equanimity.”  According to The American Heritage Dictionary, equanimity is “The quality of being calm and even-tempered; composure. [Latin aequanimitās, from equanimus, even-tempered, impartial : aequus, even + animus, mind.]”  Thus the almost koan-like saying, “The Great Way is easy for one who has no preferences,” the joke being that we all have preferences – usually very strong ones.

Equanimity comes from knowing that everything is part of the path; everything comes and goes; “I” am not the most important thing in the Universe; I don’t have to be so terribly concerned with whether events go as I wish they would.  Equanimity is knowing that my glorious victory is another’s tragic loss; that this moment of great joy will soon be just another memory; that the same is true of this moment’s grief.  Though things really do affect us, and we really do have strong feelings about those things – those things and feelings are normal events in the course of the world.  They aren’t unusual or special or really remarkable.  We can feel them without being “captured” by them.

This is where people get the belief that the Buddhist ideal is to be “passive” or unfeeling  – that we’re supposed to somehow transcend emotion and not really care. Not at all true.  Equanimity doesn’t give us a smidgeon of buffer against the slings and arrows; nor does it tell us that we’re not allowed to have joy.  

The experienced practitioner feels the whole gamut – just without turning it into a Greek tragedy or pretending it that it surpasses all joys humanity has ever known.  Our experience becomes life-sized – neither bigger nor smaller.

As we sit in meditation – day after day – we see all of the exaggerations and minimizations that are the mind’s habits.  If we’re cranky that day, we get to know what cranky is like – and how it passes eventually.  If we’re in love that day, we get to see the same things about love.  And if we’re sad … and scared … and outraged.  It all comes and goes, and it all is something that our own mind conjures up.

This kind of friendly familiarity gradually becomes equanimity.  “Ah, yes.  Anger is back.  Oh, hi, self-righteousness!  Come have a seat for awhile.  Sadness – you can come, too.”  They’re all real in that we feel them – even if we’ve whipped them up on the spot out of pure fantasy.  (When your favorite character in a movie dies, you’re sad and upset, even though that person never existed.)  The fact that the feelings occur in our own mind doesn’t mean they’re neurotic or somehow unfounded:  If a beloved partner leaves, we are genuinely and meaningfully sad – and that sadness occurs in our mind.  There’s nothing wrong with the feeling – it’s perfectly natural.  Equanimity simply means that we recognize the feeling as something that our mind is creating right now.  It doesn’t apply to other people; it’s not a characteristic of the Universe-at-Large; and it will pass.

So someone with equanimity doesn’t fear that the bad feeling will go on forever, or hope that the good feeling will do the same.  They suffer less from the sense of distress that the whole world isn’t in mourning because someone they love has died.  There’s less sense that other people must be crazy because they aren’t as outraged over Issue X as I am.  

As noted before, with equanimity, our responses and feelings stay life-sized, rather than being exaggerated or minimized.  So situations and emotions don’t knock us off our feet.  They’re all “just” events – maybe big ones, maybe small ones – but we’re left with the ability to see ourselves and our world as they actually are – and then take the next, needed step.

We’ve got a pandemic at the moment.  Will I get sick?  Will I die?  What about people close to me?  Should I panic?  Should I not care?  Equanimity dispenses with these questions.  They aren’t real, in the sense that they are speculations, not actual events.  The pandemic is real – there are real, sick people, and some of them have died; others will die.  But speculation about the future and what it’ll be like is pointless.  

We’re not hoarding at my house.  I’ve gone out in search of paper towels, not out of desperate fear that we’ll be caught short, but because we’re running out.  I wanted to find a 2-roll pack, just like always, but of course there weren’t any towels, despite several trips to stores.  When I finally found some, days later, there were only 6-roll packs, so that’s what I got.  The biggest concern was where to store the extras in a tiny apartment.  We’re taking the social distancing order seriously, staying mostly at home.  But if there’s good cause to go out, we go out – and take appropriate precautions.  

Equanimity takes practice.  We sit on the cushion and take a friendly, non-judgmental look at our mind as it unfolds within us.  Just in the natural course of doing that, we notice the times that our stories about reality knock us off our pins and take us out of present reality.  After awhile, we notice that process as it starts out, instead of long after we’ve run screaming down the rabbit-hole.  Instead of, “Oh my god, I’m dooooommed!” we start realizing, “Ah.  I usually start freaking out right about now.  May be I can skip that today.”  Instead of, “This is incredible!  I’ve finally found the Answer!” our practice introduces us to, “I’m so tempted to act like this will fix everything.  I wonder how it will actually be useful and how it will flop.”

As it turns out, this is really peaceful.  We get to be who we are – no more and no less – in the situation where we actually find ourselves.  We’re not so wrapped up in a story that we can’t perceive what’s actually happening, so we’re free to respond appropriately.  We can see a rabbit hole, notice it, and walk past it. 

All it takes is practice.  (Yeah – there’s always a catch!)  Thinking about the process is only minimally useful.  It’s that act of sitting with the mind – practicing suspending judgment of what it does – practicing the awareness that everything we find there is simply something that the mind is producing, even down to basics, like visual perception.  It’s that friendly familiarity that gives us the amazing power to recognize our own mental process as it happens in daily life.  That’s when we can address an insult with curiosity rather than outrage.  That’s when we can feel a sudden infatuation and wonder if it will really develop into something meaningful.  That’s when we can be in the middle of a pandemic and simply do what’s needed at this moment – without a lot of hopes and fears running us down a series of rabbit holes.