Equanimity: Cultivating Calm Amidst Life’s Storms
“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree, in the midst of them all.”
– The Buddha
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it is used as a way to stop your thoughts and other experiences that preoccupy you, or at least push them aside for the duration of the practice. Contrary to this perception, mindfulness is, instead, a means of becoming more familiar with your thoughts, emotions and physical experiences; rather than trying to push them away, the intention is to acknowledge their presence and meet them as they are. To do otherwise is to be caught by these experiences, personalizing them, and allowing them to unconsciously drive your reactions. Mindfulness enables you to have choice in how you respond to your experiences, once you have acknowledged them, whether they are cognitive, emotional or physical in nature.
Without mindfulness, when you are caught in reaction to your unacknowledged experiences, it can feel as if you are on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” a Disneyland attraction at that is a twisting, curving ride in the dark: from moment to moment, the rider does not know how long he or she will proceed in a straight line or which direction he or she may suddenly turn. It can feel as if you are out of control of, and sometimes overwhelmed by, what you are experiencing.
Practicing mindfulness provides you with an alternative to this unconscious reactivity, which is a source of much of the suffering in peoples’ day-to-day lives. Equanimity is the ability to respond with balance, or an even mind, amidst the changing conditions in life: the ups, the downs, even the neutral places. Equanimity helps to give you the strength when things don’t go the way you hoped for, wanted or expected. This state of balance is not to be confused with indifference. In contrast, equanimity is the absence of either being hooked by or denying your experience and instead responding from the awareness and acceptance of how things are, without judgment. It is through equanimity that you may find peace and reduce your suffering.
Matthiew Ricard, in his book, Happiness, likens equanimity to the depths of the ocean, “A storm may be raging at the surface, but the depths remain calm. The wise man always remains connected to the depths. On the other hand, he who knows only the surface and is unaware of the depths is lost when he is buffeted by the waves of suffering.”1 Constant changes are a universal part of life. The sense of peace that many people seek arrives from the ability to ride with the changing realities of life with mindfulness, without losing grounding: understanding that all things are in constant change and that it is our own reactions to situations in life that cause us added suffering – we have influence over that.
One way you can assert influence over your reactivity is to cultivate equanimity. This can be deliberately done by repeating some simple phrases to yourself that reinforce this intention for steadiness in your life. Here are some examples of phrases that you can repeat for yourself:
- May I accept things as they are.
- No matter how I might wish things could be otherwise, things are the way they are.
- May I offer my care and presence without conditions, knowing they may be met by anger, gratitude or indifference.
- I wish you happiness and peace, but cannot make your choices for you.
- I care about your pain, but cannot control it.
- Although I wish only the best for you, I also know that your actions, not my wishes for you, will determine your happiness or unhappiness.
- May I remain in peace, and let go of expectations.
- May I offer love, knowing I cannot control the course of life, suffering or death.
- May I see my limits compassionately, just as I see the limitations of others.
Choose one or two of the above phrases that resonate with you and practice repeating them to yourself. Even if the phrases do not feel authentic at first, over time, you may begin to live more in line with the intention that these phrases evoke.
1. Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, page 66.
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott