At a recent residential Mindful Self-Compassion course I was discussing the concept of equanimity with participants over dinner. During the day we’d talked in the course about cultivating equanimity as a way to prevent caregiving fatigue. Equanimity is a state of mental calmness, a wisdom practice that acknowledges that everything is impermanent, so we needn’t cling to the good things or the bad things in our lives because they will inevitably pass. Equanimity is one of the four Brahma Viharas (divine abodes) from the Buddhist tradition, the others being loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy.
We don’t get the uplifting emotions that we like without the challenging emotions that we aren’t so fond of.
Someone at the table suggested that equanimity sounded sort of boring, and I must admit I kinda agreed with her at the time. The state of equanimity was likened to being on antidepressants – a state of evened out emotion with no highs or lows; a sort of numbness to emotion. (I have since learned that while this was my experience of being on antidepressants, and someone else I spoke to described the same experience, another dear HeartWorks community member has let me know that antidepressants offer a state of calmness and perspective rather than a numbing.)
I felt a little like a traitor to my Buddhist roots by not standing up for equanimity more, but it’s sort of hard to sell equanimity in our current fast-paced culture of instant gratification. It’s also hard to sell equanimity in a Mindful Self-Compassion course because MSC is all about getting in touch with emotions from sadness and loss to intimate connection and joy. We don’t get the uplifting emotions that we like without the challenging emotions that we aren’t so fond of. Mostly I think people would rather hang on to the ability to feel the highlights even if it means we get to experience the difficult emotions as the counterpoint.
I got very excited about something, and at the same time felt that jolly inner critic sneaking in to tell me that I shouldn’t let myself get excited because there would be an inevitable fall if I got too high.
Once I got home I decided to experiment a little with this quality of equanimity. Was it as dull as it sounded?
Firstly I experimented with excitement. I noticed I got very excited about something, and at the same time felt that jolly inner critic sneaking in to tell me that I shouldn’t let myself get excited because there would be an inevitable fall if I got too high. I brought in equanimity to help balance out excitement and the inner critic. Equanimity said, “Excitement is fine, and (sweetheart) don’t lose your perspective.” It didn’t feel like a dampener, and it was certainly preferable to the inner critic who did want to pull me down.
Then I experimented with shame. Actually, it was initially an experiment with confusion. I found myself confused in a situation with someone I have a close relationship with, spinning into some fairly familiar patterns of childlike confusion, trying desperately to think of what I should do to make things right. I remembered my MSC training and searched for a word to label my emotion with – it very quickly identified itself as shame. Once I identified the confusion as shame, shame lost its power instantly, and then I moved into a state of equanimity. Equanimity was the understanding that shame is a very human survival process, and that there actually was no real threat in the situation I was in. From the state of equanimity I had moved back to a vantage point where I could watch shame as an interested bystander, rather than being in the event. It was so liberating to not be in the grips of confusion or shame.
I am coming to the conclusion that while equanimity may sound dull, it’s a nice antidote to the inner critic, shame and resistance.
Finally I experimented with resistance. I was walking past a local strip mall which has some vacant shops. I noticed two things laying on the ground by the floor-to-ceiling windows and was horrified to see that birds were killing themselves flying directly into the windows because they did not see the glass. Resistance kicked in as disbelief that this had happened (I am a very sensitive animal-lover). In just a few seconds my mind flicked through these thoughts:
- go over there and confirm that they are dead birds – maybe they’re not;
- maybe they’re not dead, just stunned;
- maybe I could revive them;
- I’m going to phone the owner of the building and demand they put something in the window that the birds can see;
- I’m so angry;
- I’m so afraid to acknowledge that the birds are dead.
Phew! I fired up some equanimity, and from that place I simply heard the words: “The birds are dead because they flew into the window.” Just a statement of the facts, without my mind spinning off into trying to protect me from acknowledging that truth. And I came back to that grounded, connected place with myself. There was nothing to be done in that moment (although if I think of something reasonable to address the problem, I’ll do it!), and I could give my emotions a rest.
So, I am coming to the conclusion that while equanimity may sound dull, it’s a nice antidote to the inner critic, shame and resistance. I didn’t feel robbed of emotion when I moved to equanimity – I actually felt more connected to myself. I came back to center. I was grounded. I felt intimately “with” myself.
I’d love to hear how you tend to yourself when you’re feeling difficult emotions like shame, the effects of the inner critic and resistance. Maybe equanimity is worth a try? I’d love to have that conversation with you. My email address is email@example.com. If you’d like to keep exploring ways your practice can move you toward more and more skillful ways of being with yourself, maybe we can do some work together as part of the Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom mentoring program.