Up until recently, the word equanimity had left me feeling a bit befuddled. I had understood equanimity on an intellectual level but not a visceral one. In Dr. Rick Hanson's Positive Neuroplasticity training, which I took last fall, he asked us to answer a fundamental question - What do we want to grow? Often what we want to grow is in direct relationship to satisfying a core need. The answer to this question helps bolster our inner resources, which enables us to become more resilient. So, if we feel anxious and high-strung, then we may want to "grow" a felt a sense of safety and ease. If we feel restless and unsatisfied, then we may want to "grow" a sense of contentment. If we feel alone and withdrawn, then we may want to "grow" a sense of feeling seen and connected. When I asked myself what it is I would like to grow, I was surprised by my response. In the past, I had normally answered safety and ease, but this time around that answer was eclipsed by an even deeper yearning to feel and embody... equanimity. (*If you're curious to learn more about Dr. Hanson's H.E.A.L. practice, click here for his podcast where he explains it in further detail.)
Google's dictionary defines equanimity as "mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation." However, from a mindfulness perspective, that definition is only a starting point. In her book Loving-Kindness, Sharon Salzberg takes great care to unpack the word equanimity. She writes, "The Buddha taught that we can feel pleasure fully, yet without craving or clinging, without defining it as our ultimate happiness. We can feel pain fully without condemning or hating it. And we can experience neutral events by being fully present, so that they are not just fill-in times until something more exciting comes along. This non-reactivity is the state of equanimity, and it leads us into freedom in each moment."
Non-reactivity doesn't mean we collapse and give up. It means we can notice how we're relating to our experience and then choose how to respond rather than reflexively react. The phrase "calm strength" comes to mind. Sayadaw U. Pandita, a Buddhist monk, defined equanimity as, "A heart that is ready for anything." Instead of resisting our experiences or clinging to them, mindfulness practices can help us cultivate a heart-space, which is large enough to hold what the Taoists call "the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows."
In the time between my training last fall and now, I have been using Dr. Hanson's H.E.A.L. practice to "grow" a felt sense of equanimity by noticing when I'm neither grasping after or pushing away. I started "In Search of Equanimity" during the last snow storm but only recently completed it. Watching the snow fall in its own, undirected way helped enliven a tingly sense of spacious awareness. Equanimity finally had a face! I grabbed my pen and began scribbling away. Once I could see equanimity in action, I could feel it more easily and ... experience it more fully than I ever had before.
In my next post, I'll speak to how equanimity is actually always within us, but it's often eclipsed by what are traditionally referred to as the five hindrances.
In Search of Equanimity
by Lauren Taub Cohen
I watch as snowflakes descend
from a slate-stained sky
with a hushed, unhurried grace.
And wonder if I, too,
will ever learn that illusive skill -
to acquiesce when the winds
are beyond my control.