Equanimity is one of four divine qualities of the heart (traditionally known as brahma-viharas) taught in Buddhist practice, along with loving kindness, compassion and appreciative joy.
The four brahma-viharas represent the most beautiful and hopeful aspects of our human nature. They are mindfulness practices that protect the mind from falling into habitual patterns of reactivity which belie our best intentions.
Also referred to as mind liberating practices, they…transform the turbulent heart into a refuge of calm, focused awareness.
I was first introduced to equanimity (which means calmness or composure) during a week-long silent retreat which focussed on cultivating the four heart qualities.
In Buddhist practice, calmness is found by freeing ourselves from the difficulties associated with both attachment and avoidance. Therefore, equanimity means accepting things as they are, not as we wish them to be (in other words, letting go of our attachment to control) as well as releasing those resentments and fears which keep us separate from others (being present instead of avoiding genuine connection).
As someone who oscillates between attachment and avoidance (and is possibly attached to avoidance!), letting go of emotional reactions and expectations to find that calm middle-ground sounds about as easy as flying to the moon. But, despite grappling with this concept during the retreat, I found myself deeply wishing I could cultivate it for myself. So I decided to make equanimity the focal point of my meditations.
From here I learned several things:
- When I think of equanimity, I think of Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda. Yes, really. His ability to accept and respond to life’s difficulties without losing his peace of mind really is something to aspire to. He sees the world for its potential, but is not blinded by his own desires. Nor does he fool himself into thinking he can avoid difficulty altogether.
- I already have the capacity for equanimity. I found that taking the time to recognise the ways I have been equanimous in the past was really heartening. Whether shallow or profound, remembering each occurrence helped me to form a concrete idea of what equanimity looks like for me.
- Equanimity will come and go – and this is ok. I reminded myself that sometimes I will find a peaceful acceptance of, and response to, my reality and sometimes I won’t. When equanimity is difficult, self-compassion is always there.
- Equanimity is found in the space between oneself and one’s state of mind. In a similar way to mindfulness, equanimity involves noticing and accepting an emotion or thought, but resisting the urge to become it.
- Equanimity often comes after digesting a lived experience with mindful (and non-judgemental) awareness. During the retreat, I took the time to explore some of my own experiences using a combination of all four heart qualities. I don’t think this would have been possible however, if I hadn’t already allowed myself the time to openly feel and express my emotions. Subjective reaction often paves the way for objective reflection.
- Equanimity often comes as a result of engaging the other heart qualities. For this particular experience, I believe it was the combination of loving-kindness (universal good-will) and compassion (a deep wish to relieve pain) that produced equanimity in the form of an incredibly sweet healing sensation. This was the first time I had experienced something stronger than a sense of calm when meditating, but I don’t think it would have been as strong if I had simply tried to think equanimously. For me, it was about opening my heart as well as my mind.
While the retreat was a profound experience, there are times I forget to be equanimous and fall into my natural state of reactivity. See point 3. But I am getting a little better at honouring my thoughts, identifying where the limits of my responsibility lay and then making the conscious decision to let things unfold the way they need to. After all, a wise old tortoise once said: ‘there are no accidents.’
Photo credit: Kung-Fu Panda, 2008