Equanimity and Change

Mindfulness practice involves two primary intentions: awareness and equanimity. Awareness is clear, open attention to your present experience. Equanimity means fully accepting your experience in the present moment. Practicing equanimity will eventually eliminate suffering. (It won’t always eliminate pain but it will eliminate the suffering that arises from resisting the pain.)

When I talk about equanimity practice someone often raises the following objection: “I can’t always accept my experiences. I can’t just sit like a bump on a log or become a doormat for others to trample on; sometimes I need to take charge and make changes in my life!”

Equanimity practice is very liberating, but it’s often misunderstood, so let’s address the very important question of how the practice relates to making changes in your life.

Equanimity means accepting your immediate experience of life in this moment. It does not necessarily mean accepting someone else’s beliefs or predictions. Equanimity does not necessarily mean accepting your own beliefs or predictions.

For example, imagine your doctor tells you that you have a particular disease and have only six months to live. Practicing equanimity does not necessarily mean that you must believe that prognosis. Equanimity means accepting the fact that you’ve been given this information, and it means accepting all of the feelings that you experience when you heard these words. But it does not negate the possibility of getting a second opinion; and it does not negate the possibility of taking action to try to remedy the condition.

The only thing you can ever truthfully say about the future is that “nobody knows for sure.” Equanimity practice is not about the future; it’s always about the present.

Equanimity doesn’t mean that you should not take action; it simply means that your actions arise from a state of equanimity rather than from a state of resistance. With equanimity you can act from a clear mind and an open heart rather than from craving or resistance. When you act from suffering you perpetuate suffering. When you act from equanimity you create the opportunity to eliminate suffering… that of others as well as your own.

For example, if you believe you have been insulted by another person then you may or may not choose respond to that person. What’s crucial is that your decision to respond or not arises from equanimity rather than from anger or fear.

From a state of equanimity, if you choose not to respond your choice is based on your perception that a response would not be necessary or helpful at this time. This is very different from choosing not to respond because you are afraid, or would feel guilty or because you are spitefully giving someone the “silent treatment.”

Conversely, if you do choose to speak to this person then you would do so with a clear mind and an open heart and without attachment to any particular result. You may choose to respond from a desire to improve your relationship with the other person or to make a clear statement about what is unacceptable behavior for you.

Another example: suppose you experience sensations of hunger in your body. Practicing equanimity does not necessarily mean that you don’t get something to eat to assuage your hunger; but it does mean that you don’t automatically and unconsciously put food in your mouth in response to the hunger. Having equanimity with these sensations in your body allows you to better choose what food (and how much) your body really needs at this time.

As you practice equanimity a while you may see an interesting phenomenon occur: very often things will change—and usually in a positive way—if you simply allow life to unfold naturally with little intervention on your part. Very often the outcome will be much better than you could have accomplished personally, even with great effort and struggle.

A Taoist might put it thusly:

The Tao of heaven does not strive, and yet it overcomes.

It does not speak, and yet it is answered.

It does not ask, yet it is supplied with all its needs.

It seems at ease, and yet it follows a plan.[1]

 


[1] Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English trans. 73.