More than once, this question has come up for me and for participants in MSC groups: During meditation I have this calm experience of not being affected by what’s going on. Am I experiencing equanimity or dissociation? It’s time to explore this. In this post I’ll explore equanimity, then in a following post I’ll explore dissociation.
Why would we wonder if we’re experiencing equanimity or dissociation? Because they both involve an experience of feeling as if we have a profound relationship with the moment. They both feel as if events are going on around us and, in some sense, we are not being affected. However, this is where the similarity ends. One is about being grounded and emotionally supported by our internal resources in the moment; the other is about moving out of our body because we lack resources, to a place where we don’t feel.
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” 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 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, a movement toward denial, anger, a movement toward collapsing. And we allow all of this to occur because it’s about the science of our body and how it responds to stress. 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.
I felt completely connected to the human race, completely lacking in judgment for the terrible things we had done to each other, completely understanding that we “know not what we do.”
I had an experience during an Internal Family Systems (IFS) 2-day workshop where I could see and feel the suffering of the history of the human race, the way we are not wired for happiness but for survival. As I was in this state (possibly the state of being in “Self,” to use IFS terms), I saw and felt the suffering of the human race and felt a momentary leaning toward wailing and collapsing over the extent of suffering, but a “higher” part of me remained anchored amidst the sea of suffering. I could see it all and feel it all and I knew there was a choice to lose myself in it or rise to respond to it: losing myself didn’t make any sense while I was in Self. In a state of equanimity I could accept that this human history is our legacy, and I was compelled to respond with compassion. This heightened sense led me to establish an intention to work for the empowerment of women and men, to help in the movement toward a culture of wholeness. I felt completely connected to the human race, completely lacking in judgment for the terrible things we had done to each other, completely understanding that we “know not what we do” (to borrow the words of Jesus).
Equanimity is also feeling safely contained, completely grounded, completely confident in our ability to meet whatever arises, knowing that we will be in pain, but not planning to avoid it or even planning how to meet it.
This was a profound experience for me. Being in a state of equanimity isn’t always this powerful, but it is always a sense of being fully present without being overwhelmed. It is a place of aliveness. It is a place where our small self – our ego attachments, our fear of the future, our regrets about the past – are completely taken care of by “breathing ourselves bigger” (to borrow from Kay Gardner, the facilitator of the IFS workshop).
And equanimity is also feeling safely contained, completely grounded, completely confident in our ability to meet whatever arises, knowing that we will be in pain, but not planning to avoid it or even planning how to meet it. We know, to the core of our being, that we will not abandon ourselves … ever.
You can find Part 2 of this two-part series here.