At a recent training program for front line healthcare workers I was asked about the difference between mindfulness and equanimity. I answered from my body of knowledge at the time, but knew there was more I wanted to know about the difference between the two, so did a bit more research about these two beautiful cultivated states of being. It occurred to me that self-compassion is also an important part of the equation to help us navigate mindfulness toward equanimity. So I’m exploring all three states here.
Mindfulness has many different definitions, and really the definitions are only useful in getting a sense of what mindfulness is. We understand mindfulness when we’re in mindfulness. The way to understand mindfulness is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness, in my mind, is a state of:
- pausing and noticing my present moment experience at the level of sensation, emotion and thought;
- knowing that I am aware and savoring that experience;
- getting curious about any judgement, extra commentary, meaning-making arising in my mind;
- holding judgement, commentary and meaning-making in spacious awareness;
- taking responsibility for how judgement, commentary and meaning-making informs my motivations and actions.
It’s very natural for the mind to judge and comment on our experience – it’s how we make meaning of the world. We compare what we’re experiencing with what we already know and it helps us to stabilize ourselves with a sense of anchored reality – anchored in my understanding of the world. If I had no anchor, life would be wildly disorienting. So I’m going to allow myself to judge (or be discerning), with the caveat that I’m going to bring in awareness of that judgement and I’m also going to take responsibility for my actions after judgement so that I don’t contribute to harm in the world.
Equanimity is that state of being aware of what is going on for us, being in the middle of our experience of positive, negative or neutral, and remaining “unhooked” from any of these transitory states. We experience something pleasant and we notice it as a pleasant experience: we refrain from wishing it would stay around forever, planning to have more of it, or in any way projecting ourselves into the future in relationship to the pleasure. We basically disconnect our sense of “I” (that existential phenomenon that occurs on the continuum between a past that I was responsible for and a future I have control over) from the experience and can enjoy it simply for the pleasure it brings in the moment. The same goes for a challenging negative experience. We see it as transitory, we see it as arising because of a number of uncontrollable, unpredictable contributing factors, we see it as something that happens despite us being in the picture (ie, it is not “ours” to lament over), and we can notice it moment by moment until, eventually and inevitably, it fades (as all things do, no matter how big). Equanimity also recognizes neutral feelings, and allows us to rest in neutrality without wishing for the drama of difficulty or the soothing of pleasure.
While we are experiencing equanimity, we fully see and hear what is going on around us, and we fully experience how it translates into body experiences. We fully feel the naturally painful response to hearing bad news: the movement of energy through our body including tightening, emptiness, arousal. And we allow all of this to occur because it’s simply about the science of our body and how it responds to stress. We don’t build a story around it. On the other hand, equanimity during a profoundly positive experience involves fully immersing ourselves in pleasure, and recognizing the preciousness of this fleeting experience, not in a panicky way because we know it will eventually end, but in a fully present, wise and embodied way. Our system is designed to have the ability to experience extreme pleasure and joy – one of the gifts of being human.
Mindfulness is the Mother of Equanimity
So what is the difference between the two? They sound sort of similar, don’t they? In my mind, mindfulness comes before equanimity. We need to cultivate mindfulness before we can consider cultivating equanimity. Mindfulness allows us to see our experience of someone cutting us off on the highway which might move us to getting angry at that person, feeling residual heat and tension in our body, noticing how painful that is, bringing spacious awareness to our emotions and our body, and bringing curiosity to our experience. After repeatedly seeing our experiences through the lens of mindfulness again and again, we may well come to the embodied understanding that all experiences are fleeting, that it’s actually pretty uncomfortable to be tossed around by emotion, and that remaining in a state of calm abiding is a lovely act of self-compassion. If we’re in equanimity our experience on the highway might be just one more interesting event in our day, with no heightened experience and no residual stress.
We can cultivate equanimity through mindfulness practices. In mindfulness we are seeing what’s going on, but we may still be tossed from clinging to pleasure to resistance to boredom to overstimulation (and so on…). Mindfulness is the practice that brings us the wisdom and experience needed to eventually develop equanimity. In equanimity we notice pleasure and hold it within a framework of understanding impermanence but we’re still able to enjoy life; we notice pain but we don’t feel isolated in our pain or angry that we’re in pain or feel like a victim; we notice overstimulation and understand that we weren’t always feeling overstimulated and we won’t always be overstimulated, so we needn’t get stressed over being overstimulated in this moment.
Self-Compassion as the Midwife
How is self-compassion the midwife? For most of us we feel the suffering of resistance, avoidance, annoyance and impatience of difficult emotions many times during our day. It’s natural to resist difficult emotions – it helps us to function, to get on with the job of the moment – but we do need to tend to those emotions at some point (even if we park them for a while and come back to them). When we do turn our mindfulness toward our difficult emotions, the added quality of self-compassion allows us keep ourselves company so that we can lovingly escort our emotions to a place where they are birthed as very human, very understandable, tender, fragile, love-worthy experiences we no longer need to resist. In the same way we would tend to a child who has hurt themselves and is crying for attention, we tend to our own inner child who needs us to help them feel safe.
Self-compassion and mindfulness work together and may give birth to equanimity for a fleeting moment or an extended period of time. Equanimity is probably pretty elusive for many of us, but fortunately mindfulness and self-compassion in themselves bring wellbeing – the journey and the destination are both beneficial. I would even be so bold as to say that there is no equanimity or mindfulness without self-compassion. Self-compassion may be inherent in mindfulness for some people, and it may need to be explicitly studied and practiced for others. Either way, it needs to be there as far as I can see.
As I finish writing this, I am aware that all of these words are not mindfulness or self-compassion or equanimity. They are the finger pointing toward the moon; they are not the moon. I invite you to hold them in that way, and to consider that I may even actually be pointing at a yellow frisbee in the sky, thinking that it is the moon 😉
If you want to explore some of this material with me and some awesome companions on the path, I’d love to see you at The Roots of Mindfulness in Kansas City on July 7 and 8 and/or Somatic Self-Compassion Online starting in August. We’ll have time to explore practices as well as engage in discussion about practice and concepts such as the ones discussed above. Knowing how amazing both the HeartWorks community and the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness are, I think both events will be very rich experiences. I hope I see you there!
If you want to dip your toe in, please sign up for a free online HeartWorks Practice Circle get-together. Over one hour we will check in, journey through an emergent self-compassion practice, then debrief. Once again, another beautiful HeartWorks community experience.