Attitudes of Mindfulness (Part 4) - Equanimity
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Attitudes of Mindfulness (Part 4) - Equanimity
Life is hard.
Wow, there’s an opener for you. Bet you’re glad you clicked on this one!
Seriously though, life is hard. Or at least it can be.
I don’t say it to be in any way nihilistic. Quite the opposite.
I say it in acknowledgement of a simple truth; that each moment contains within it the potential for us to be thrown off balance in some way.
As wonderful and as joyous as life can be (and it really can be wonderful), it’s also fraught with emotional curve balls that can strike at any time.
One moment we’re happily getting on with the day, on an even keel, and then the next moment we encounter something that leaves us feeling confused, or disappointed, or self-conscious, or annoyed, or frustrated, or sad, or in pain or any number of other states we’d rather be without.
The thing about these uncomfortable encounters is that we never intend to experience them. We may, with hindsight, feel we could have mitigated against them or have been better prepared for them, but because much of the time they’re unpredictable, they are, by extension, unavoidable:
- An insulting or ignorant remark
- A setback
- An accident
- An injustice
- A breakage
- An illness or injury
- A loss
- A shooting pain in your left big toe
Whatever form they arrive in, we rarely see them coming and they can quickly disrupt a contented vibe, giving us a cocktail of unpleasant thoughts and feelings to deal with.
It’s typical for us humans to reserve our contentment and wellbeing - almost exclusively - for those moments when everything is going well.
It’s as if we believe that life is supposed to feel like a smooth ride, away from the rough terrain of drama, pain, unfairness, and uncertainty. But, as we all get to experience, life just isn’t like that.
If our strategy for lasting happiness is to keep waiting for our lives to become a stream of permanent ease and comfort, the chances of us achieving it are likely to be slim.
Mindfulness, as a practice, helps us to navigate our lives with greater ease, but it doesn’t do it by eliminating unpleasant events from taking place.
It does it by giving us the wherewithal to remain clear-minded and steady in the midst of whatever the world presents us with.
The clarity and steadiness are brought about by cultivating an attitude of equanimity; the ability to stay calm, patient and fully present for our moment-to-moment experiences, whatever they are, without needing to push them away or strive for something different.
Being Mountain Like
The classic metaphor for describing what it’s like to be in a state of equanimity is to imagine yourself as a mountain.
Mountains are, of course, huge, solid, immovable objects that are rooted to the earth with a wide and stable base.
When it comes to environmental conditions, mountains experience it all.
The seasons come and go bringing every type of weather, from warm sunshine and gentle breeze to icy winds and pelting rain. Sometimes the mountain is wrapped in fog and other times it’s completely exposed under a clear blue sky. But whatever conditions it finds itself in, it remains stable, solid, and strong.
It doesn’t try to cling to the sunshine, nor does it try to hide from the hurricane. It doesn’t try to interfere with the weather, nor does it get annoyed with what it’s being subjected to. It just patiently sits in the middle of it all, as the ever-changing conditions arise, evolve, and fall away around it, just as it has been doing for millions of years.
Still strong, still stable, still here.
Mindfulness meditation helps us to develop our equanimity by repeatedly encouraging us to be mountain-like in a number of ways.
By feeling the contact of our feet on the floor or our bodies on the seat, we get a sense of being grounded, a bit like a mountain that is rooted to the earth.
Sitting in stillness with an upright posture is mountain-like in its physicality and helps us to set the tone for meeting our experience with poise and dignity (as well as helping to us to stay alert and not drift off).
As we allow our moment-to-moment experiences to unfold and we accept them as they are, without judgement, we being to recognise that sensations and emotions are just like the weather, constantly changing and evolving, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, and often neutral.
When observing the mind, we get to understand that our awareness is like the vast open sky and that our thoughts are simply clouds harmlessly passing over it. Even if it’s a really cloudy day we can hold onto the insight that we are not defined by the clouds. They’re simply atmospheric phenomena that appear for a while and then dissipate. The sky, however (our awareness) is always there, and we’re either tuned into it or we’re not.
In meditation, we begin to notice that we have preferences for things to be a particular way, and we go on to see how this can lead to clinging and striving.
We inevitably notice our aversions to unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions and how this can lead to resisting or pushing them away.
As we become more experienced meditators, we see that the real cause of our suffering is the way we tend to struggle against whatever the present moment has to offer.
So, we practice the skill of non-interference; of letting things be just as they are. We patiently sit in the middle of it all, not needing to be pushed or pulled in one direction or another. We remain present and stable, just the mountain.
This is equanimity.
Of course, there is a risk that we could take the mountain metaphor a bit too far. After all, mountains are inanimate hunks of rock, void of emotion, whereas we are organic, conscious beings that feel.
It won’t do us any good to think we need to be cold-hearted and stone-like in order to be equanimous.
Equanimity is often mistaken for being either an attitude of not caring and not feeling or a philosophy of ‘grin and bear it'.
It is neither of these.
Equanimity is actually a state of being that puts us more directly in touch with our feelings, but in a way that they are not automatically running the show.
The ‘grin and bear it’ approach insinuates that coping with unpleasant experiences is all about endurance; seeing how much unpleasantness can we take before we can’t take anymore.
It isn’t about enduring our experiences. It’s about increasing our patience and okayness with the way things are.
It’s NOT being ok with the way things are that causes us the most stress in our lives.
The more things in life we can be ok with, the greater our capacity to stay level-headed and balanced when we need it most.
That’s not to say that we have to like everything that happens, just that can we calmly ride it out with a kind of wise maturity.
Equanimity gives us a window into how our unconscious desires and aversions cause us to not be ok with the present moment as it is. And it gives us the wisdom to know that no matter what is happening in this moment, we have the option to experience it with patience. We don’t have to be seduced by every urge and impulse or to get carried away by a stressful thought.
Having the awareness and presence of mind to observe all our little desires and urges, as they arise, and calmly riding them out instead of blindly reacting to them, is like a superpower.
It helps us to retain a peaceful mind even when things don’t work out the way we had planned.
We’re more likely to show patience and compassion to others when their desires and aversions make them behave in unskilful ways.
It stops us from being quite so attached to things having to be a particular way in order to feel connected to our wellbeing.
And it prevents us from spiralling into worry or rumination when thinking about the future or the past.
The Winds of Change
At its core, equanimity is a recognition that our wellbeing is not dependant on “favourable circumstances”. It is dependent on our ability to ride the winds of change.
It is the nature of human reality that sometimes we’ll experience successes and sometimes we’ll experience failures. Sometimes there will be joy and other times sorrow. Sometimes we’ll be held in high esteem and other times we’ll be judged harshly. We’ll be praised and we’ll be blamed.
The winds of change are always blowing, and it is our attempts to stop them blowing that give us the most heartache. Despite our best efforts to keep them flowing one way, the winds inevitably shift and change direction.
I’m sure we all know what it’s like to feel attached to a particular success or outcome, only for it to change or be taken away. Or to experience the pain of a difficult situation, but for that situation to lead to something else that we see as a valuable gift.
With equanimity, we don’t judge our wellbeing based on what seems to be occurring in one isolated moment in time, but rather we see it in the wider context of how our moment-to-moment experience is constantly shifting and evolving.
We can trust that it's ok to simply be with what’s happening now because we recognise that this moment, like all others, is a process. It’s already changing whether we’re trying to control it or not.
Recognising our own attachments and aversions to the full array of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral conditions we experience in our lives is central to our mindfulness practice.
We practice noticing them, welcoming them, and letting them go without reacting to them.
Our concern becomes less about where our experience is heading and more about the simple witnessing of its unfolding.
The word Equanimity, as it’s used in mindfulness, is a translation of the ancient Pali word ‘Upekkha’, often thought to mean “seeing with understanding”.
I like to think the understanding we see is that there is an innate peacefulness that exists outside of our thoughts and beliefs about what’s happening in the moment, and we can access it by paying attention, not to *what* we experience, but to the underlying mechanics of *how* we experience.
Looping back to the beginning, yes, life can be hard. But by paying attention to our unfolding experience with equanimity, we can have the wisdom to know that, if we choose, we can be ok with it.
Just like the mountain.
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