If you have too many days of feeling off-balance, stressed or disturbed, you may seek the inner calm and stability that comes from equanimity. Equanimity is not a special quality reserved only for the favored few, but a skill that can be developed by anyone.
Lack of Equanimity as a Problem
There are days for everyone when you feel like you can’t take it all in. You could be an executive trying to meet demanding targets in shifting markets, a gig economy worker trying to make rent or a parent trying to meet work and family needs. But your emotions are overwhelmed and your mind is reeling from too many data points. You know this constant stress can be a problem which affects your health, your relationships or your productivity.
Sometimes you can make positive changes in yourselves or in your circumstances. (See this post on Phases of Change, and this post on Powerful Communication.) But when you can’t make changes around you, you don’t need to feel stuck. You can make changes inside you, developing a new interior source of calm and resilience.
Equanimity as a Quality of Mind
Mirriam Webster’s dictionary defines equanimity as “a habit of mind that is only rarely disturbed under great strain”, or “evenness of mind especially under stress”. Cambridge dictionary refers to equanimity as “a calm mental state, especially after a shock, disappointment or in a difficult situation”. Jack Kornfield, author, teacher and early introducer of mindfulness, refers to equanimity as “spaciousness and balance of heart”. All these sources refer to equanimity as a quality or state of mind.
You’ve probably experienced that state before, after a day lazing by the beach, or your favorite recreational activity, or when you felt deeply safe and loved. However, these special times may be rare. So, perhaps prompted by images of smiling, calm meditators, you think, “I want more of that. I’ll take up mindfulness.”
Yet the #1 problem I hear when people start mindfulness is, “My mind is never quiet. I don’t feel calm.” Or, “I don’t like sitting still”. They think of equanimity only as a special quality of mind that can be turned on and off like a switch. If it were a special quality, then indeed it would be reserved for the favored few; those who got lucky, or those who retreat from the world
But equanimity is not just a quality of mind that occasionally happens. It can be deliberately cultivated, like a skill or any healthy habit. With knowledge and practice, what was once rare becomes readily available, even constantly on tap.
Here we explore what equanimity is not, what it is, its link to emotional intelligence, and a few practical first steps in this essential skill of heart and mind.
Equanimity is NOT Indifference
Equanimity might not be what you think it is. It is not the “whatever” attitude of someone who’s indifferent to outcomes or unwilling to take a stand on important issues. It is not passive behavior or expressions. It is not the suppression of thoughts or feelings deemed unacceptable. We rightly shy away from these interpretations of equanimity because they are signs of unhealthy dissociation or denial.
Equanimity is an attitude of openness and the skill of allowing experience to be as it is. [click_to_tweet tweet=”Equanimity is like radical permission to feel, regardless of whether you like what you’re feeling or not, whether that’s fire or ice.” quote=”Equanimity is like radical permission to feel, regardless of whether you like what you’re feeling or not, whether that’s fire or ice.”]
Equanimity as a Skill of Mind and Heart
The key to understanding equanimity is that it is relevant to your subjective sensory experience, not your objective behavior in the world. It is a way of not interfering with or resisting the physical, emotional or mental experience you are having, which paradoxically allows you to be freer in your doing.
Equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull
Equanimity is a third way that does not attempt to cope with experience by suppressing, denying or resisting it, nor by identifying or fixating on it. Equanimity can show up in various flavors of openness throughout your entire being. In the mind, it is spacious curiosity. In the body, it is a sense of relaxation. And in the will or heart, it is a sense of even-handed kindness, acceptance of your experiences just as they are.
Equanimity as Non-resistance
This openness to your lived experience is the inverse of resistance. It is a way to dissolve our tendency to suppress, tighten or fixate. Resistance, or non-equanimity, acts to congeal, amplify or block our sensory experiences. By learning the skill of equanimity, we diminish the resistance that leads to unnecessary suffering or limits the potential for fulfillment, which are expressed in two magic equations.
Suffering = pain x resistance
Fulfillment = pleasure x equanimity
When you cultivate non-resistance to what you are experiencing, you do not expend energy and stress into wishing your subjective experience is other than it is.
- If something is painful, you acknowledge it and don’t turn away from it. This frees you up to to think creatively about how to solve a problem.
- If something is pleasurable, you enjoy it but don’t hang onto it. This frees you up from tendencies to addiction and control.
Equanimity and Emotional Intelligence
All the leaders I coach are intelligent, hard-working people, with degrees, credentials and years of technical expertise in their field. Many also realize that they need to become more savvy about people, relationships and navigating conflicting stakeholder expectations. They need to develop their emotional intelligence. Equanimity is a skill of mind and heart that underpins the many facets of emotional intelligence. By opening yourself to your full lived experience, you develop;
- greater self-awareness, including what you are actually feeling and thinking
- more stress tolerance, as you are not expending energy on blocking out experience
- more impulse control, as you are less blind-sided by yourself or others
- more independence and creativity of thinking, as you are freed from habitual approaches to problem solving
Try this for Yourself
You have several ways to develop the skill of equanimity.
- You can intentionally create equanimity in the body by attempting to maintain a relaxed state throughout your whole body.
- You can intentionally create equanimity in the mind by attempting to suspend negative judgments and replace them with an attitude of acceptance and gentle matter-of-factness.
- Importantly, you can notice when equanimity spontaneously just happens. The more you are alert to these opportunities, the more frequently they will occur and the longer they will last.
- Mindfulness practices intentionally develop the skill of equanimity. See my book Mind Your Lifefor more on how to do this.