Equanimity: The Invisible Fulcrum of Conscious, Compassionate Connection
[“Drinking from a fire hose” is a phrase one of my clients used frequently to describe the pressures that were leading him to the brink of self-combustion. I certainly hope my own practices of equanimity help me stay upright in my boat and on an even keel as I negotiate this current tsunami of teaching/travel. (As James Baraz, teacher of Awakening Joy, frequently reminds us, all of this is not a “have to” but a “get to.” I’m grateful, busy navigating the flow.
So this month’s newsletter is a re-post of one of the first newsletters I ever wrote. Everything as wise and true now and it was then. May it prove to be useful to you and yours.]
This month’s newsletter explores EQUANIMITY: how we can nurture our capacities to recover our equilibrium in the midst of chaos or confusion; how we can learn to stand steady in the face of catastrophe, personal or global; how we can remain calm and engaged when the flak hits the fan.
May you find these reflections relevant to coping resiliently with the ups and downs of your life; may these resources be helpful as you endeavor to keep your heart open to whatever is happening – and respond wisely.
REFLECTIONS: EQUANIMITY: THE INVISIBLE FULCRUM OF CONSCIOUS, COMPASSIONATE CONNECTION
When I was a school girl learning by heart Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs; [see Poetry and Quotes to Inspire for the full poem]
I couldn’t imagine myself or anyone I knew being that calm in the face of so much disturbance. I grew up in a family, in a culture, where either people rushed to fix a problem right away so it wouldn’t disturb anyone too much, or they quickly “moved on” so the emotional upheaval wouldn’t disturb anyone too much, or they collapsed in a resigned helplessness and the disturbance became the new normal.
Equanimity is a Learned Capacity
We are all born with innate capacities to experience calm when we’re not ruffled – the ease-ful homeostasis of humming along when there’s no disturbance to the system is our natural state. We are also hardwired to react – instantaneously – to any perceived threat or danger with movement toward a protector if one is available, or with fight-flight-freeze if one is not. Equanimity in the midst of threat or danger, remaining calm and engaged, is a compound capacity that is learned, from others initially, developed from practicing ourselves eventually.
So we do have to develop a lot of other skills in life before we can fully experience a steady equanimity in the midst of disturbance.
We do need to be able to soothe ourselves – regulate our anxiety, rage, shame, etc., and come back to baseline – when our automatic fight-flight-freeze response has triggered any upset. We need to be able to come back out of emotional dysregulation – and the resulting protective contraction – to re-engage with whatever is actually happening from a stance of equilibrium and acceptance – this is what is.
We do need to be able to step back from whatever is happening at the moment and reflect on it – to be aware without being caught or hijacked so that we can see clearly what is happening without distortion.
We do need to be able to re-engage with what’s happening. Equanimity is not indifference. It’s not being detached and aloof. It’s being calm and engaged. We calmly move toward what is happening, not avoiding, denying, running away.
There’s a bit of chicken – and – egg flavor to cultivating equanimity. All of these pre-conditions – acceptance awareness, engagement – are essential to cultivate a steady state of equanimity. And a pro-active practice of equanimity helps generate compassionate, conscious connection in turn. All of these practices we learn first from others – parents, teachers, friends, therapist, mentors – and then strengthen ourselves over time.
For our learning here, we begin small and simple; how to handle a hiccup rather than a hurricane.
A Bump on a Pickle
Years and years ago, I was on a two-week vacation with my friend Sara in the Canadian Rockies; we were hiking, biking, driving the Bow Valley Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks. One bright sunny morning, I had neglected to fasten my bike securely on the bike rack of the car; ten miles down the road it flew off onto the highway; the impact of hitting the road at 60mph badly skewed the rim of the front tire, making the bike un-rideable.
Not the end of the world. But this story illustrates in a simple way how we get the hang of equanimity. The same basic steadiness in the midst of disturbance can be expanded when the really big shit hits the fan.
My friend was calm and patient; no one was hurt; the wheel could probably be fixed; it was a beautiful day in a beautiful part of the world.
Step 1. Her steadiness helped alleviate my anxiety about the wheel not being fixable and spoiling our trip; it helped alleviate my guilt about the delay of fixing the wheel spoiling our day. It helped me surrender – this is what is.
The guy at the bike shop wasn’t as empathic. “This is just a bump on a pickle.” But he did guarantee he could fix the wheel in four hours. As my friend and I settled ourselves at a nearby lake for a leisurely 4-hour picnic, I began to reflect more deeply on this “bump on a pickle.”
Step 2. In the bigger picture, was this really such a big deal? Would I be upset about this 5 years from now? Next week? By dinner? The stepping back and reflecting help me put the whole event into perspective. What was, was just fine.
Step 3. Coming to an inner peace and acceptance of what was actually happening allowed me to re-engage with my friend. Sara and I talking for four hours, rather than racing each other up and down hills on our bikes, was a real luxury and, as we realized by the time we picked up my repaired wheel, one of the best times of our trip.
Christina Feldman, senior Buddhist meditation teacher, describes equanimity as “the willingness to be equally near all things – sorrow as well as joy, loss as well as gain, blame as well as praise.” Please see Exercises to Practice for tools on how to do so.
More than a bump on a pickle
In order to learn equanimity ourselves, we need to be in a system where someone is equanimous; someone is holding it together when the system is rocked. Because that one person’s equanimity can reverberate throughout the system and calm everyone else down. (A real jump start to our practice if we learned equanimity in our family system growing up; essential to learn in other systems later on if not.)
I learned how this reverberating through the system works first hand when I began seeing clients in graduate school, earning hours toward become a licensed psychotherapist. My emerging equanimity was being tested every day by the chaos and confusion of my clients’ lives. Never more so than one afternoon when a client called in to say that her teenage daughter had committed suicide the night before.
Nothing – in my training or my life experience up to that point – had equipped me to know how to stay equanimous in that moment. I managed to find a time to see her that night, but I was in a state of shock, not calm presence, certainly not yet the stalwart, skillful clinician my client needed to help her through such bewildering, devastating loss and grief.
I managed to tell my supervisor at the clinic what had happened. With two teenaged daughters at home herself, she wobbled a bit, too. She went to see the clinic director who, a bit more removed and a lot more experienced, was rock solid in knowing how to handle the situation. She was able to steady my supervisor and suggest many things to do that would be helpful to me and my client. Re-equilibrialized herself, my supervisor could be quite clear and quite empathic about what I needed to do to support my client. I felt her steadiness myself, re-grouped into my own steadiness, and then was actually able to be quite helpful to my client that night.
Equanimity reverberating person to person through a system is a powerful example of “emotional contagion.” We are learning more each day about the neurobiology of the “resonance circuits” of our brains, how feeling states, positive or negative, are passed along person to person, moment to moment. Strengthening equanimity helps us pass on more consistently to others the states of cultivate conscious, compassionate connection.
My friend Bonnie was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, 2007. Bonnie is a dedicated teacher of the dharma, teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and leading Year-To-Live groups and Living and Dying Mindfully workshops. With her permission, I offer excerpts from e-mails she has sent to her circles of friends and supporters, a teacher of equanimity for us all.
# 1. FINALLY I got the result of the test I’ve been waiting for and it shows an intermediate risk for recurrence. That has helped me to decide to have chemo. I start next Tuesday. I will have just 4 treatments with 3 weeks in between. Then there will be a rest time and I’ll start 4 weeks of radiation at high dose.
I feel positive about this. Just sad that we’ll miss Sweden this summer.
I consider this a powerful retreat coming up – a spring retreat.
# 2. Just a few words to let you know I’m doing well now. The first chemo was pretty rough – I took all the anti-nausea drugs, was disgusted with sweets and craved protein, then had a few not so bad days followed by severe white blood cell drop. Those days were hard. I had daily shots, went on an anti-biotic, was told to stay away from groups of people and not eat salads, had severe back pain – one night like labor pain, and was totally wiped out. This week has been almost normal.
Next week I postponed my second chemo to celebrate my birthday and have my head shaved (my hair is now beginning to fall out) by a Tibetan Rinpoche at a ceremony at the community where I teach.
Emotionally I’ve been well. My heart broke open the second week, being at the cancer center with so many people with cancer. I felt very much a part of it and very much a part of life that can be difficult for us people. My heart breaking was a good thing.
Mostly I’ve been with what’s happening – not wishing it away and not wanting it to be over. It’s my practice. My intention for this year is to be mindful – really being with what is. I already know everything is impermanent – just trying to live it.
#3. Life has become more of a practice than ever. The 2nd round of chemo has been difficult but “I” don’t add to it. What I feel most is gratitude. I cry now just feeling this. I’m perhaps more than ever aware of dukkha – of politics and why there are rice shortages, of complicity and abuse. Yet when I woke up the other day and looked at the full moon through the skylights – clouds surrounding it then moving to cover it, AHHHHHHHH. Life.
I am now bald. I feel like a turtle out of its shell – vulnerable. I am grateful for this. It gives me the chance to have new imprints. I choose to let-go. I choose to give and receive without the habitual lens that covers. When the clouds move in again, as they do, they pass away. Its ok.
This chemo retreat requires everything. What I’m finding at its core is: everything is everything.
#4. This last treatment was quite difficult. There is a cumulative affect that affects energy levels. I can’t walk hills, but this week I can walk. I love going to Point Isabel and being with dogs and people who love dogs – quite an uplifting bunch.
I’ve not been wishing this experience away or wanting time to pass – that would mean I’d miss the real benefit of doing very little. Mostly I sit in my yard and read. Often I don’t have the concentration or physical strength to “sit” – and my yard and all the sights and sounds are a wonderful meditation of being with what is. I’m very grateful for the beautiful spring days.
Last week I realized, when energy returned, that I am over the top of the wave of chemo treatments. One more with no more to follow. AHHHHH Chemo is poison and this body feels it. The addition of Chinese medicine, supplements, acupuncture and massage helps to bring balance to this toxic environment.
This week we decided to go to our little summer house in Sweden after all. I am so grateful.
Wishing you mindfulness of the preciousness of this life. Bonnie
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
– Rudyard Kipling
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Vedran Smailovic is a modern day example of Rudyard Kipling’s steadiness in the midst of chaos. Vedran Smailovic was the principal cellist the Sarajevo Opera Company when the civil strife broke out in Bosnia. His response to the conflict and ensuing chaos was to put on his formal concert attire, walk out of his apartment into the midst of the battle raging around him, and play his cello, every afternoon for an hour. He would place a little camp stool in the middle of the bomb craters and play a concert to the abandoned streets, while bombs dropped and bullets flew all around him. Day after day he made his own personal and courageous stand for human dignity, for civilization, for compassion and for peace. Miraculously, he was never harmed. The news wires picked up the story of this extraordinary man, sitting in his white tie and tails on a camp stool in the center of a raging, hellish war zone – playing his cello to the empty air.
[Adapted from program notes of the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England, 2007, where Yo Yo Ma played a piece called The Cellist of Sarajevo, written by a contemporary English composer David Wilde. Guest appearance by Vedran Smailovic.]
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
The exercises below are meant to be practiced in a context of established practices to cultivate, compassion, consciousness, and connection. Please contact me if you wish to learn more about cultivating compassion, consciousness and connection on an ongoing basis.
1. “Go To” People
Since equanimity is best learned in a system where someone else is already equanimous, make a list of your “go to” people. People you can go to when you need to “re-settle your molecules.” Spend time with each person as regularly as you can. “Emotional contagion” is a reality of our brains and psyches. Simply being in the presence of someone who is in a calm and tranquil state soothes our nervous system and brings us into a more equanimous state ourselves.
Identify people who come to you, in your roles as parent, spouse, colleague, friend, for calming and soothing into equanimity. Identify opportunities you may have each day to deepen your own capacities of equanimity, offering conscious compassionate connection to others.
2. Wise View
Equanimity practice is anchored in a wise view of cause and effect. A traditional phrasing of this wise view is, “Your happiness or unhappiness is dependent upon our own intentions and actions, not upon my wishes for you.”
This view helps us take responsibility for the consequences of our own behaviors, responding with equanimity and clarity to the results of our own choices, our own actions, without taking on responsibility for other people’s choices, other people’s actions. Equanimity brings clarity and wisdom to any leanings we have toward co-dependency, toward over-functioning for others.
Set an intention to become more aware each day of places where you may be over-reaching into someone else’s responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. With compassion for your self and for them, re-focus your attention on how you can respond equanimously and wisely, without taking on responsibility or control that isn’t yours.
3. Experience, Embody, Express.
As with any capacity we are endeavoring to strengthen in our lives, equanimity can be strengthened through 3 E’s: Experience, Embody, Express
a. We intentionally cultivate the Experience of equanimity, seeking opportunities to practice equanimity, noticing when we just did.
b. We Embody the experience of equanimity, noticing where we feel the sense of calm steadiness in our bodies, letting the physical, visceral sensations settle into our cells and the spaces between our cells.
c. We Express equanimity through a calm presence, through the words we say to ourselves, through the wisdom of our actions that touch others.
Become aware of opportunities to practice all three of these steps each day as you deepen your own equanimity.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
This month’s recommended reading:
Joy, No Matter What by Carolyn Hobbs. Conari Press, 2005
The first step in Joy, No Matter What, is saying yes to what is: our feelings of disappointment, discouragement, angst, loneliness, grief, anger, fear, hopelessness, shame; our habits of worry, judgment, doubt, our beliefs of “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t deserve love.” By engaging with what is, with acceptance and equanimity, we can witness and reflect on what is actually happening and respond differently. Joy, No Matter What is written in a refreshing, warmly personal style with numerous examples and exercises to make the practice of saying yes to what is alive and do-able.
This month’s recommended website:
This website offers numerous resources for the practice of insight meditation, including excellent articles by senior Buddhist meditation teacher Gil Frondsal on topics such as equanimity.