Equanimity is perhaps the most important quality we need in modern life, but it’s seldom mentioned outside contemplative or Buddhist circles. The word “equanimity” has an almost archaic feel, as if it refers to the attitudes of ancient sages sitting under trees. And yet our modern culture also craves peace.
In my early twenties I longed to find peace of mind and started reading in earnest. The concept of equanimity attracted me most. Being open to whatever arises and trusting that things will be okay: this mindset was missing in my heady and busy days at university. Sometimes it seems to me that our modern life requires our days to be overloaded, which leads us to grasp at anything that can give us energy, well-being, and relief. Looking at the advertisements in the travel industry, remembering the long lines I’ve waited in at the airport, it feels like I’m not the only one who’s followed this longing.
A peculiar difficulty
Equanimity, serenity, inner freedom, confidence: these are calming, healthy, enlivening states. But how to reach them? In my twenties I thought, “if I finish my studies fast and start working, then I will be there.” Having reached that job I thought, “after having worked here for some time I will be there.” Again some years later I thought, like many others, “I hope I can find a calm and relaxed state of mind on my weekends or on holiday.” Even after having started to study meditation I hoped, “surely it will be better soon with all these thoughts, worries, and cycles of good and bad experiences.” But it just didn’t work that way. It seems to be true that we can’t achieve a relaxed state of mind with a direct approach, trying to make it happen by getting things or getting rid of things. The truth is, I was looking in the wrong place, hoping for a kind of peace that is not a part of our human condition.
Our mind is naturally, constantly moving. It tends to remember negative experiences—according to recent research, five times better than positive ones. And our mind is habit driven: what we do often is what we will do often! This means that we have learned to use the mind in the peculiar way we do. From the beginning of life we’ve been encouraged to be interested in things: toys and food and many other things. We learned to use our consciousness in a focused and active way. We got a smile or a treat when we did what we were supposed to do. We studied for school, tried to catch the balls thrown our way, and learned to speak and listen appropriately. We were pacified by entertainment and finally relaxed while sleeping. We did not really learn to keep our mind open and relaxed during our active hours. And we did not get treats when we just sat down to look openly into the space in front of us:). Now we find it difficult to let our mind rest, or simply to watch its movements.
What peace is possible?
Letting the movements of mind settle instead of following thoughts and emotions is a real challenge. But because of the deeper qualities of the mind, it is truly possible. On a deeper level the mind is vast and unlimited, and we can find a way to access that. We basically have two complementary routes to help ourselves: the first is to train our mind and habits; and the second is to recognize the good qualities already present.
Training our mind with the support of special exercises will lead to positive changes in our days. For example, the ability to maintain a clear focus and remain mentally flexible improve our functioning. However, beyond this is the simple discovery of the still, open, and spacious qualities in the background of our thoughts. This mere recognition can be the basis for effective breaks and restful moments along the way. We can find that if we allow our mind to rest more often, that our consciousness can re-calibrate itself from daily overuse, calm down, and come home.
Here are some guided exercises and supportive talks:
Joseph Goldstein guides a meditation on equanimity:
Tara Brach talks about equanimity:
I wish for you an interesting, clarifying, and maybe even a bit equanimous week:).