Do you know someone who always seems calm and even keel? Does this person have an even composure, especially in difficult situations? Have you wondered how they can be that way without anxiety and reactivity? Chances are, this person has learned that getting reactive doesn’t serve them and that the key to a happy life is to stay balanced and accepting of life’s experiences. Equanimity is the trait in which a person is able to coexist with the world in a balanced, and non-reactive way.
The trait of equanimity can be nurtured through balanced awareness and the practice for this is mindful meditation. After developing basic concentration skills using meditation and letting go of our thoughts, a person gradually is able to stay present in the moment and not overreact to daily stimulus. The part of the brain that is activated during equanimity is the frontal cortex. The part of the brain that is activated when we’re reactive is the limbic system of which the amygdala is the center. The reason many believe we react to difficult situations with anger and anxiety has to do with the fact that the amygdala is responsible for flight, fright and freeze responses. This part of the brain is the oldest and most primitive part of our human brain. It was important when we were hunting for survival. The fight, flight, freeze responses are crucial if your life is based on survival.
A person with the trait of equanimity has learned a lot of patience and most likely has had many difficult life experiences. I think of the image of a wise elder or grandparent when thinking of someone with equanimity. Surely, it takes practice and patience to be equanimous. However, it is a trait that can be nurtured and obtained at a younger age as well. Meditation is a practice proven to grow equanimity. Yogis who have been meditating for many, many years have acquired the trait of equanimity by intensely practicing the skill of awareness, insight and disconnecting from thoughts.
Equanimity is depicted in this popular Chinese story entitled, “Good Luck, Bad Luck – Who Knows.”.
There is a story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”
Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this was very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck? Who knows?
The farmer in this story knew how to rely on equanimity when life was challenging. Each time something happened that seemed to be bad luck, he replied, “who knows?” Indeed, whether something is good or bad is a matter of perspective so cultivating equanimity is a something we all could benefit from in life.
This famous poem by Rumi further explains equanimity by comparing the human body to a guest house.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
During this time of pandemic uncertainty and fatigue, equanimity is a healthy way to handle life’s “guests”. Every day new experiences enter our life to teach us to accept all situations with gratitude for whatever comes. Enjoying greater emotional, mental and spiritual well-being are benefits of mindful meditation when life deals us experiences beyond our control.