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Experiencing Equanimity

Charles Day

What is Equanimity? It's a mental state that can underlie all other emotions,
enabling one to accept that what is, is, no matter what one experiences,
and to respond more appropriately and compassionately, especially in the
face of negativity and adversity. The practice of meditation is a very
powerful way to develop equanimity.

Following is an exchange of emails regarding the experience of equanimity

between Todd, a meditation and Buddhist student, and myself. Hopefully,
this exchange will facilitate a more refined understanding of the meaning of
"equanimity" within the Buddhist framework.

Student: Equanimity has always been difficult for me to completely

understand as part of a skillfully, active, and engaged life. It holds a sense
of arbitrary, uninvolved ambivalence - neither attracted nor repulsed, not
siding with causes. How do we transcend the conceptual right and wrong,
good and evil, and do we want to? I know I'm not grasping the non-dual
Buddhist meaning, but it is difficult.

Charlie: Equanimity implies a calm and peaceful recognition and

acceptance of the reality of whatever is being experienced, that what is, is,
in thinking, in speaking, and in acting, particularly in the face of negativity or
adversity. It is one of what Buddha called the four divine virtues, along with
lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative and altruistic joy, that may or
may not predominate in any given circumstance.

It is not arbitrary, since it can potentially be present in any experience. It is

not nondual, since it is one of different emotional states. And it does not
mean having no emotion, nor does it imply being passive, insensitive,
indifferent, or detached.

I think equanimity is best reflected in the classic Zen Buddhist statements,

"The way is not difficult for those without preferences for their preferences"
or "The way is easy for those who do not cherish their opinions." One is
equanimous in holding and expressing one's preferences, opinions, and
ideas and in accepting or not accepting those of others.
defines equanimity as "The quality of being calm and even-tempered;
composure" and its opposites as "agitation, alarm, anxiety, discomposure,
excitableness, upset, worry." I think that definition would have been
acceptable to the Buddha. Equanimity is a mental state that can
accompany all negative and positive thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.

Equanimity appears to underlie all experience for the fully enlightened

individual who spontaneously experiences the divine virtues and positive
feelings while transcending and overcoming negative emotional states as
they are ordinarily experienced. Negative thoughts and feelings may
occasionally be triggered as a result of previous conditioning, but they are
simply observed as they arise and pass away. They are not resisted,
indulged, or acted out in proliferating thoughts, speech, or actions, because
there is no sense of a separate self that is attached to or identified with
them, that needs to defend or deny them. I hope this changes the way you
think about equanimity in the future.

Student: Yes, but this is where it gets slippery. I see this issue now in "my
own" thoughts and actions. One can get to a "that's the way it is" or "that is
just the unfolding." Detached and non-attached are very close in attitude.

Charlie: Your comments still suggest that you interpret the word equanimity
to mean a kind of passive, indifferent, or uncaring response. The word
“detached” is sometimes used is imply such disassociation and is
distinguished from being “non-attached,” which leaves one free to have and
to choose to let go of or act upon a thought, opinion, preference, or passion
depending upon whether such a response is appropriate and beneficial.

These distinctions may be slippery for you, but for whatever it's worth, they
are not for me. Admittedly, semantics may blur the differences
conceptually, but experientially the differences are clear for me, even on
those occasions when my conditioned negative responses prevail.

Student: That helped. Maybe it seems more like a passionlessness. I don't

know. I used to have such strong convictions and now even my attitude
toward something like injustice and equality seem muted.

Charlie: I do know what you mean by muted responses. I've even
experienced grief for what I felt were previously quite passionate responses
to certain issues. The lessening of emotional passion is for many a definite
phase on the path but should not be interpreted as leading to total
indifference or absence of any passion. I still experience passion, but it is
now with a degree of equanimity that wasn't present before that allows me
to see the whole picture with a lot more clarity and to respond in much
more appropriate and effective ways.

Student: I definitely do "see the whole picture with a lot more clarity and
respond in much more appropriate and effective ways."

Charlie: And that's why we love the path.

Following are quotes related to the topic of equanimity that I came across
shortly after the above exchange of emails.

"Equanimity has the capacity to embrace extremes without getting thrown

off balance. Equanimity takes interest in whatever is occurring simply
because it is occurring. Equanimity does not include indifference, boredom,
coldness, or hesitation. It is an expression of calm, radiant balance that
takes whatever comes in stride." - Shaila Catherine, Daily Dharma Quote
(2/9/11) from her Tricycle Magazine article "Equanimity in Every Bite"

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which

differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even
incapable of forming such opinions." - Albert Einstein