For the past four weeks, I’ve been participating in a mindfulness course that helps us to cultivate distinct habits of the heart and mind, what in Buddhist thought are called the “Four Radiant Heart Practices.” We can think of them as virtues: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. I was tracking along with my teacher for the first three weeks, and then I began to struggle (and resist) her invitation to “lean into” and “learn of” equanimity. I suspect that I am not alone.
Equanimity is an elegant word (at least as I hear it) and full of dignity as a lived quality. It is an abiding calmness in the vicissitudes of life. It is steadiness of heart and mind. It is stability and composure and clarity of purpose.
Equanimity is needed when we are pressed up against impossibility, when the worst as we perceive it has happened. It is needed when we cannot alleviate suffering, ours or others. When our actions do not yield the result we had hoped for. When we build something that crumbles in spite of our best intentions and efforts.
Equanimity is needed in extremis, in situations of extreme loss, disorientation, bewilderment. It also is needed in the midst of mundane inconveniences and irritations. Feel as though you might snap at your coworker or spouse? Tempted to drive aggressively when others cut you off or ride your tail? In all these situations and more, equanimity keeps us steady and calm. It keeps us from drowning in our own panic, sorrow, and rage.
Mindfulness meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzburg asks, “How can a human heart—my heart, your heart—absorb the continual unremitting contrasts of this life without feeling shattered and thinking that we cannot bear it?” Her answer: by accepting what is, rather than trying to control what we cannot control. She explains this in terms of equanimity: “[Equanimity] is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we can’t control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable.”
Sometimes “accepting what is” is far from easy. This past week, someone near and dear to my heart shared her recent late-stage cancer diagnosis. A parishioner wept while explaining his son’s anguish and mental illness. Two close friends lost their last living parent. A young child devolved in anxiety from past trauma.
I wrestled with my meditation teacher’s presentation on equanimity because I desperately wanted to relieve all of this suffering. I am a do-er, a reformer at heart. I test as an Enneagram 1 (for those of you who know that tool) who is motivated to help change my small part of the world so that it looks more like shalom, a communal state of wholeness and peace where the needs of all matter to all. Resistance and reform come much more naturally to me than equanimity.
Yet equanimity may be just what we all need in order to see the genuinely beautiful and shockingly terrible things in this world, in our own lives. To witness them without minimizing or denying their impact, on the one hand, or catastrophizing them on the other. Equanimity allows us to acknowledge our experiences (and that of others) without being emotionally consumed by them. It keeps us steady at the core in the midst of the most unexpected ups and downs of life.
We may balk at equanimity because we fear it might lead to indifference or apathy, but in reality, it allows us to act with compassion without becoming attached to the outcome. It encourages us to do what we can knowing that there is much we cannot control.
Equanimity, in this sense, is similar to what the Apostle Paul called the “secret of contentment.” At the end of his life, imprisoned in Rome, Paul explained, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . “ (Philippians 4). With his back up against the wall of his own finitude, Paul had a secret, or perhaps the secret had him. A secret born not from intellectual analysis, scientific research, or dialogue with sages. Rather a secret born in the depths of the soul in the crucible of pain and perplexity and in the midst of unexpected outcomes that dash our dreams. Contentment steadies us. It holds us fast in the storms of life and keeps us from fastening our grip on expectations for how life will turn out for us and those we love.
Whether we are experiencing grief and loss, unrelenting illness, trauma, or a cascade of daily irritations, equanimity and contentment shift our perspective. They enable us to accept our limitations, disappointments, and even our finitude so that we might truly live moment-by-moment in the presence of God and one another. So here is my wish and prayer for us all (adapted from a variety of mindfulness teachers):
May we find balance, equanimity, and peace
May we learn to see the arising and passing of all things with contentment
May we be steady and peaceful
May we live with an open heart