Awakin.org

Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Equanimity: the Radical Permission to Feel

--by Shinzen Young (Jul 05, 2010)


Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence. It is a deep and subtle concept frequently misunderstood and easily confused with suppression of feeling, apathy or inexpressiveness. 

Equanimity comes from the Latin word aequus meaning balanced, and animus meaning spirit or internal state. As an initial step in understanding this concept, let's consider for a moment its opposite: what happens when a person loses internal balance.

 

In the physical world we say a person has lost balance if they fall to one side or another. In the same way a person loses internal balance if they fall into one or the other of the following contrasting reactions:

  • Suppression A state of though/feeling arises and we attempt to cope with it by stuffing it down, denying it, tightening around it, etc.
  • Identification A state of thought/feeling arises and we fixate it, hold onto it inappropriately, not letting it arise, spread and pass with its natural rhythm.

 

Between suppression on one side and identification on the other lies a third possibility, the balanced state of non-self-interference…equanimity. […]

 

Equanimity belies the adage that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.When you apply equanimity to unpleasant sensations, they flow more readily and as a result cause less suffering. When you apply equanimity to pleasant sensations, they also flow more readily and as a result deliver deeper fulfillment. The same skill positively affects both sides of the sensation picture. Hence the following equation:

 

Psycho-spiritual Purification = (Pain x Equanimity) + (Pleasure x Equanimity)

 

Furthermore, when feelings are experienced with equanimity, they assure their proper function as motivators and directors of behavior as opposed to driving and distorting behavior. Thus equanimity plays a critical role in changing negative behaviors such as substance and alcohol abuse, compulsive eating, anger, violence, and so forth.

 

Equanimity involves non-interference with the natural flow of subjective sensation. Apathy implies indifference to the controllable outcome of objective events. Thus, although seemingly similar, equanimity and apathy are actually opposites. Equanimity frees up internal energy for responding to external situations. By definition, equanimity involves radical permission to feel and as such is the opposite of suppression. As far as external expression of feeling is concerned, internal equanimity gives one the freedom to externally express or not, depending on what is appropriate to the situation.

 

--Shinzen Young, from "What is Equanimity"

 


Add Your Reflection:

Send me an email when another comment is posted on this passage.
Name: Email:

7 Previous Reflections:

 
On Jul 26, 2010 Geri wrote:

Suppression ---  Identity. Just reading this gives me a giant leap toward the permission slip I've been looking for to BE. I recognize that location does not prevent me from making connections who are of like mind - therefore the 'net provides them. How I do hope that some face time with wise friends presents itself and soon. I am ready for more than i have let myself discover.



On Jul 9, 2010 Ripa wrote:

There is a real art to living, one that could be described through many words. If I had to choose just one, however, it would be equanimity. While equanimity has often in my mind resembled a modest, slender, bespectacled older man with suspenders and an unexpressive face, it is actually much deeper than that. Equanimity, to me, is about consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude and compassion toward the unique set of circumstances that comprise the unfolding of one's life. Being able to find the gift in whatever kind of present is given, moment by moment, each and every day. To be able to approach every person, moment and experience as a teacher, whether this teacher may come in the form of a political enemy, a serious illness or simply someone cutting you off in traffic. We don't get to decide everything that happens to us. But we do have full control and authorship over how we react, or perhaps better yet, respond, to the unfolding of our lives. It has been said that one man  See full.

There is a real art to living, one that could be described through many words. If I had to choose just one, however, it would be equanimity. While equanimity has often in my mind resembled a modest, slender, bespectacled older man with suspenders and an unexpressive face, it is actually much deeper than that.

Equanimity, to me, is about consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude and compassion toward the unique set of circumstances that comprise the unfolding of one's life. Being able to find the gift in whatever kind of present is given, moment by moment, each and every day. To be able to approach every person, moment and experience as a teacher, whether this teacher may come in the form of a political enemy, a serious illness or simply someone cutting you off in traffic. We don't get to decide everything that happens to us. But we do have full control and authorship over how we react, or perhaps better yet, respond, to the unfolding of our lives.

It has been said that one man's garbage is another man's treasure. I could not agree more. Going on a 10-day Vipassana meditation course almost 2 years ago taught me a great deal about the power of attitude through my own personal experience. Sitting silently for 10+ hours each day enables a lot of often previously unexamined aches and pains to arise in the body. During Vipassana, I not only became more aware of all the places in my body that I hold on to tightness in, however. I saw firsthand how my negative emotions: frustration, fear, desire, sadness and more were linked to the physical sensations that arose on my body.

And then there were the incessant reactions: "My God, when is this going to be over?!" "Why did I sign up for this torture?!" Sometimes my reactions weren't even actual words, but sounds. Loud screaming inside my mind. Sobbing. I could easily see a small child inside, kicking and screaming in a tantrum, belly face down on the ground, wailing as though there were no tomorrow. A tremendous amount of effort went into these inner uprisings.

Until, finally, the dawn of grace through wisdom. Yes, there is pain. The presence of suffering is, in fact, the first of the four noble truths in Buddhism. Suffering is there. It is a reality - but not a prison, as I had previously thought and felt. My reactions were what really held me captive, as a prisoner of my own mind. No one told me to scream and cry inside - I decided to do that. The realization that I had the power to change the way I reacted to the physical pain I experienced while sitting was a revelation that I carried off the meditation cushion and into my life. Having the awareness of my subconscious reactions to the sensations on my body has led to a sublime sense of inner power and the ability to choose my response to whatever situation arises within and outside of myself. The amount of pain we experience is directly dependent upon the degree to which we react to the suffering that life naturally presents.

I completely agree with Shinzen Young in these sentiments regarding the application of equanimity: 

"When you apply equanimity to unpleasant sensations, they flow more readily and as a result cause less suffering. When you apply equanimity to pleasant sensations, they also flow more readily and as a result deliver deeper fulfillment."

I think the word "flow" in these sentences is so key. Equanimity comes from the Latin word "aequus," meaning balanced. "Aequus," however, sounds very similar to "aqua" to me, meaning water. Being balanced, then, to me implies a kind of willingness to follow the flow of life down whatever stream it may go. Being equanimous is like becoming similar to water: able to adapt, adjust and accommodate wherever and whenever needed, to whatever circumstances arise.

Equanimity is a shift in mindset that enables us to perceive how joy and sorrow are but flip sides of the same coin. In Vipassana, Goenkaji shared how, "It is easy enough to remain equanimous when life flows along like a sweet song, but the one who's worthwhile, is the one with a smile, when everything goes dead wrong." Like that, I believe, have seen and experienced for myself how the greatest obstacles in life can really be the greatest opportunities in disguise.

The presence of disease, for example, teaches us that something in our body is out of balance. This realization can spark great changes in one's overall diet and lifestyle. The oily, spicy, heavy food I ate in India often left me with severe stomachaches and once with food poisoning so intense that I could not walk or even sit up straight for days. This experience, however, served as an amazing catalyst for my interest in cooking and being able to create healthier diet options for myself and those in my life. 

Experiences of insult and injury have taught me about the tremendous violence that exists so deeply in so many around the world. How those who hurt others hurt themselves the most. Suffering from the hatred and anger of others at times has taught me how to go deeper and deeper within myself to cultivate true compassion, for myself and for others. These experiences have further taught me that there are no "others," which puts me in touch with my Self - in the capital "S" sense, which encompasses all.

To be truly equanimous, I believe, requires tremendous courage, practice, discipline and willpower, as it involves taking everything that comes your way with an open heart. People often think of people who "wear their heart on their sleeve" as being weak-willed and "too soft," or as having "bleeding hearts." I think truly living with an open heart is the ultimate badge of bravery. That it takes a lot of strength to make yourself vulnerable, to be open to being moved by the joys and sorrows of another as if they were your own. There is a beautiful Yoga sutra, number 23 of book 3 of Master Patanjali's, which nicely elucidates this sentiment:

"maitriyadisu balani"

Which means:

"Strength arises out of compassion."

When compassion is true and deeply felt, I believe there is no greater force in this world.

Along with being a way of seeing, an attitude of gratitude and a heart filled with compassion and strength, equanimity to me is also the essence of wisdom. Being able to recognize the cyclical nature of all life: that what goes up, comes also back down, only to go back up again. We are born, live and then die, only to be born again anew. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is not simply limited to our life spans, but to the process of change and transformation itself. Growth is rarely linear, but rather takes a spiral shape. All the very cells of the body are constantly dying only to be born again, just as do the stars, insects and even trees. 

Equanimity, then, implies an acceptance of change as the only constant, providing us the opportunity and invitation to be stoic toward the negative experiences of life and to make the most of what is positive. The essence of remaining equanimous, however, is not merely to seek or crave after positive experiences, but rather to transcend the duality of positive and negative altogether. To go from untruth to truth. From darkness to light. Mortality to immortality. In this transcendental state of Yoga, we can more clearly see the unity in diversity, the all contained in the One, the One contained within all. It is in this space that we can come to know our true Self, as Satchidananda. Truth (sat). Knowledge (chid). And bliss (ananda). This unlimited Self goes beyond our small sense of I, me and mine to embrace the totality of existence. And it is this Self that contains everything we truly seek: it's all there, deep inside the essence of Equanimity. 

I'll close by sharing a couple poems inspired by this passage and its reflections:

Prisoner of My Mind

Help me! Please

I am trapped.

Imprisoned.

Enslaved.

Inside the iron walls 

of hatred

anger

fear

jealousy 

and ignorance.

For ignore I have

the goodness that 

is there, 

seeking to free me.

Once I was lost

and now I have found

that peace prevails

where inner enemies cease.

Freedom is the 

gentle fierceness

of a fearless 

state of mind.

When the ego dies, 

the soul awakens.

In silence and stillness,

the serenity of the soul

survives - and thrives.

Freedom Is...

Freedom is:

the sweet song of a mockingbird

speaking truth to power

with the lightness and grace of a flower

flowing with love, hour after hour

Freedom is: 

a state of mind

that is kind

and one in which I find

no room or reason for a bind.

Freedom is: 

the dawn of each new day

waking up with a spirit of play

as if to say

Hey!

Life is what you make of it.

The Lotus Blooms

The lotus flower

blooms in adversity

atrocity

animosity

For there is no greater power

than that which comes from a shower

of struggle

strife

and sorrow

The lotus never forgets

the possibility of tomorrow

Rather than mope,

the lotus is the essence

of Hope.

Hide full comment.

On Jul 7, 2010 madhan wrote:

I NEED IT

 



On Jul 6, 2010 Laura wrote:

So how does one develop a skill for equinimity? I think I have experienced it - when I quit smoking for the FINAL time I chose to deal with the overwhelming desire to smoke by accepting that it was a chemical dependency in my brain and that I did not have to allow it to control me. I simply accepted the sensation, chose not to act on it and let it go. But, this is a situation that only involves me. How does one use this in situations that involve others?



On Jul 6, 2010 PAUL wrote:

good



On Jul 6, 2010 Tristan wrote:

Better approximation PsP = sqrt (p x E^4 + e^P x E^(3/2))

in natural units of psycho-spiritual purification, pain, pleasure and equanimity.

Any more accurate formulas much appreciated :P



On Jul 5, 2010 John F. wrote:

Much gratitude for this post. Great clarity on a topic that's so hard for me to articulate.