Equanimity and Change

Mindfulness practice involves two primary intentions: awareness and equanimity. Awareness is a clear, open attention to our present experience. Equanimity means fully accepting our experience in the present moment. Practicing equanimity will eventually eliminate our suffering. (It won’t necessarily eliminate our pain but it can eliminate the suffering that arises from resisting our pain.) When I talk about the practice of equanimity someone will usually raise the objection: “But I can’t always accept my experiences! I can’t just sit like a bump on a log or be a doormat for others to trample; sometimes I need to make changes in my life.”

The practice of equanimity is very liberating, but it is often misunderstood, so I will now address this very important question of how the practice of equanimity relates to making changes in our life.

Equanimity means accepting our immediate experience of life in this moment.

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

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 believe this prognosis. Equanimity means accepting the fact that you have been given this information; and it means accepting all the facets of our response to what we’ve heard. It does not negate the possibility of getting a second opinion. Practicing equanimity does not negate the possibility of taking some action to remedy the condition.

The only thing we can ever truthfully say about the future is that nobody knows what will occur. Equanimity is not about the future; it is always about the present.

Equanimity does not mean that we are paralyzed in our ability to act; it simply means that our actions arise from a state of equanimity rather than from a state of resistance. With equanimity we act from a clear mind and an open heart rather than from craving or resistance. When we act from suffering we perpetuate suffering. When we act from equanimity we crate the opportunity to eliminate suffering… that of others as well as our own.

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

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

Conversely, if I do choose to speak to this person then I would do so with a clear mind and an open heart and without attachment to any particular result. I choose to respond because I believe that it will be enhance my relationship with this person and will be beneficial to both of us.

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

As we practice equanimity for a time we may see an interesting phenomenon occur: very often things will change—and usually in a positive way—if we simply allow life to unfold naturally with little intervention on our part. Very often the outcome will be much better than we could have accomplished personally 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.