Equanimity is life-changing. Such is its value, it’s a central teaching of the world’s major religions and philosophies. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna even tells Arjuna: “mental evenness is what is meant by yoga (union with God). Indeed, equanimity is yoga.”
In Buddhism equanimity is a “sublime emotion” and one of the Four Immeasurables, along with kind-heartedness, compassion, and open-hearted joy. Patanjali advocates the importance of upekṣha, “not reacting emotionally,” in the Yoga Sutras. Taoism’s ethos is balance.
Temperance is a cardinal virtue in Christian theology and, in Western philosophy, the Golden Mean, a mid-point between extremes, was promoted by the likes of Socrates and Plato. Unsurprisingly, equanimity is the foundation of Stoicism.
Because equanimity is so foreign to the conventional view of happiness, it’s often misunderstood or seen as unattainable. Granted, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation. But it’s a powerful skill you can learn. This article will show you how.
What Is Equanimity?
Equanimity derives from aequanimis, a mixture of the Latin aequus “even, level” and animus “mind, spirit.” Balance of mind is key. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna “the serene mental state free from likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions — is truly the ideal attitude to live your life.”
To the untrained eye, equanimity appears dull. Where’s the fun in life if you’re not able to enjoy nice things? What’s wrong with likes and dislikes? On the surface this looks harmless. Yet in Buddhism and other traditions, the root-cause of suffering is attachment to such experiences.
Early on my spiritual journey, I discovered the path away from suffering was freedom from attachment. It was the first time I digested an ancient teaching with clear, direct benefits. Having experienced depression for many years, I was inspired by the idea that life is suffering, but there is a way to transcend that suffering.
Attachment causes suffering because all phenomena are impermanent. When your fundamental happiness and fulfilment is placed on such things, desires (taṇhā) develop. This leads to highs and lows, the avoidance of pain and craving for pleasure.
The Buddha called this endless cycle of suffering dukkha. Equanimity is a form of wisdom as it comprehends the unstable, ever-changing, illusory nature of reality and breaks the cycle.
Freedom From Suffering: The Middle Way
The Middle Way is the Buddha’s solution. It’s a path which avoids the extremes of aversion and indulgence. It’s a balance of opposites, a space beyond duality. It embraces contradictions and paradoxes and is open to the totality of experience.
When I attended a Vipassana retreat, equanimity was one of the biggest talking points. Funnily enough, no one seemed to question why it was relevant for unpleasant things. Most people struggled to appreciate the value of equanimity towards the pleasant, a struggle I relate to.
When I started practicing equanimity in meditation, the benefit of detachment from unpleasant thoughts and sensation was obvious. I saw how my resistance towards any symptom of anxiety contributed to its escalation and repeated panic attacks.
Despite seeing its value, I struggled when applying the technique to the pleasant. I had resistance, especially as I had a background with depression and meditation was connecting me to positive emotions I’d not felt for some time. Surely I’d want all the pleasant experiences I can get?
The catch is, equanimity has to be whole to be complete. Attachment to the pleasant creates duality and the assumption that there must be an opposite — the unpleasant — to avoid.
You Can Still Enjoy The Pleasant
Equanimity doesn’t diminish life’s joys. The opposite is true. Attachment towards the pleasant diminishes joy, because it comes from a place of fear — the fear of loss. Anytime we experience good in life with an undercurrent of fear, our hearts are not fully open.
Before I embraced equanimity towards the pleasant, I was swayed by “good” experiences. I became increasingly grounded when faced with anxiety or depression, but easily ungrounded by highs. When I experienced expanded states, I felt a loss when they shifted, and I craved their return. This caused swings in my mood.
Eventually, by maturing my approach, I realised the spaciousness and calm of equanimity provided a consistent, stable sense of happiness. This was my first true insight into the often-cited platitude of “happiness comes from within,” and an insight into why Buddha called equanimity “the greatest jewel of all.”
Equanimity enhances pleasant experiences. This happiness isn’t swayed by the wind. It’s stable and strong and independent from the unpredictability of life. Experiences are enjoyed for what they are, without becoming deal breakers for your state of mind.
The Near-Enemies Of Apathy and Indifference
“When you do not react, you are equanimous.”S.N. Goenka (teacher of Vipassana meditation)
Buddhist philosophy calls indifference and apathy near-enemies of equanimity. Near enemies are hard-to-detect mental states that mimic the desired, positive state, but are actually harmful. Far-enemies of equanimity, those more intrusive and obvious, are greed and resentment.
Speaking from experience, it’s easy to fall into the trap of near-enemies when practicing equanimity. Apathy and indifference are signs of closed-heartedness, not wisdom. Yet the ego deceives us into believing our uncaring is a sign of spiritual advancement.
At the other end of the scale, we live in an age where hyper-reactivity is mistaken for caring. Emotional reactions are seen as indicators of passion. Cool reflection or attempts to see both sides are second-rate, or condone damaging behaviour.
Passion is seen in philosophy and religion as an aspect of human nature which requires taming in order to make room for wisdom and reason. Excessive emotionality is the basis of the deadly sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. The Middle Way is finding a balance between apathy and passion.
Maturing Equanimity In Meditation
Many ancient teachings say equanimity is a prerequisite for meditation. You can sit and close your eyes and be swayed by passions of the mind. But is this truly meditation? Either way, meditation is an essential practice to develop an equanimous approach which can be applied to everyday situations.
Typically in life, when confronted with a challenging situation, we jump into “good” or “bad” and enter a state of high emotion. Such is the nature of mind, once a decision is made, the cognitive bias blinds us from information outside of our viewpoint.
On the contrary, equanimity is calm, open-minded, curious. Without reactivity a fuller picture emerges. Then you’re free to choose the best response. It’s a practice of trial and error, but one of empowerment, wisdom, and response-ibility, not re-activity.
I always reflect on experiences or situations that trigger me into a reactive state. It’s life’s way of making me aware of attachments. Whenever we become re-active, there will be an ego-based attachment below the surface.
How To Practice Equanimity
Equanimity is practiced in meditation. Sit with your thoughts, feelings and sensations. Notice the nature of mind, how easy it is to become attached through aversion or indulgence. Return your attention to an area of focus each time this happens.
Explore the beliefs you have about equanimity as a practice. You might believe that passion is an indicator of engaging with life, or fear that opening up to the world’s suffering will overpower you. Take time to journal and make these beliefs clear in your consciousness.
Be vigilant of ego traps and near-enemies. Such is the nature of mind, equanimity can become something you crave, leading to attachment to the concept of equanimity! Keep in mind equanimity is not something to seek directly, it’s a byproduct of practicing awareness towards your attachments.
Patience Is A Virtue
Be patient. Equanimity takes time and discipline to master. Aim for gentle progress. Pay attention to the situations that cause you to react, don’t judge, learn. Watch out for your spiritual ego’s attempts to “be equanimous all the time,” or the near-enemies of indifference and apathy.
Trust the process and the wisdom of the ages. Equanimity leads to freedom. By relinquishing attachments, you step off the treadmill of ever-changing, unpredictable events and connect to inner-tranquility.
Happiness is complex, and there isn’t one solution for everyone. But if there is a Golden Rule for lasting happiness, it’s equanimity.
At the very least, as Krishna said, it’s the ideal attitude for life.