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EQUANIMITY

9.9.18 - Part 1

Change is the nature of all things. From our relationships, to our culture, to our bodies, change is happening, sometimes imperceptibly slowly, responding to influences seen and unseen. We know this to be true.

 

And yet, our relationship to change is strained. When faced with unwelcome or unexpected changes, we dig in our heels, despite knowing that change is inescapable. Just as challenging are changes that we wish to make. Changes to improve our health or reach our potential require constant vigilance against slipping into old habits and self-sabotage.

 

Weathering change, especially the changes that are outside of our control, with composure and humility, without capitulating our values, is an art that is all but lost. This is the virtue of equanimity, a calm steadfastness that anchors us in stormy waters.

 

Equanimity is a central theme in most religions, for the simple reason that it is the cornerstone for wisdom. Without equanimity, contentment is impossible. Without equanimity, forgiveness is impossible. Without equanimity, empathy is impossible. Without equanimity, we are ruled by emotion, we are easily distracted, and we are reactive: hostile, quick to surrender, melancholy.

 

Equanimity, a virtue unsung and yet so powerful that it has the capacity to transform our relationship to everything that we do, is the path to a fulfilling life, one ruled by our individual sense of purpose.

 

Ultimately, equanimity is freedom.

Equanimity in Buddhism

These are the Eight Worldly Vicissitudes of Buddhism:

 

-Praise and Blame

-Gain and Loss

-Fame and Disrepute

-Pleasure and Pain

 

Every person will experience pain, loss, blame, and disrepute, yet we behave as though these experiences will traumatize us--we do everything we can to deny their existence. Further, we contort our behavior believing that we can shape our lives to only experience praise, gain, fame, and pleasure. We believe that when we do experience pain, loss, blame, and disrepute, we have made a mistake, that it is a punishment from society or the universe.

 

The only mistake we can make is living inauthentically, in a way that does not fit within our values. Believe: no matter who we are and what we do, we will live through each of these vicissitudes. Equanimity gives us the tools to immunize ourselves from their dramatic effects on us. When we are equanimous, our reputation among others ceases to hold sway over our actions. We instead base our self-worth on how we feel about what we have done. Experiencing pain no longer causes us to quit, and we learn to view loss as an opportunity to bring something new into our lives.

 

These vicissitudes appear to be on opposite ends of a spectrum, one side “good” and the other side “bad.” What if instead we treated all of them as neutral? Every one of the Eight Worldly Vicissitudes are inevitable, unavoidable, and can be opportunities for growth; holding half of them in high esteem and the other half in contempt is like loving our left foot and hating the right foot. Each of these states are just as fleeting and impermanent as the seasons. Equanimity centers us, gives us the perspective needed to prevail over despair.

Predators and Equanimity

Rarely is our equanimity more shaken than when we experience failure and success. Many of us have learned to view failure as the end, a sentence on our actions and self-worth.

 

When a hawk misses catching a rabbit, she does not mourn the failure. There will not be a time when she thinks that she is worthless. She does not question her ability to catch rabbits and consider if she should switch to a vegetarian diet.

 

Even apex predators fail. The ones that survive are the ones that adapt to failure. Going hungry is a part of the process of feeding; it is only through failure that we learn to hunt better.

 

On the opposite side, we’ve also learned to view successes as the end of our work. But when a panther makes a kill, he does not celebrate it. He has a few minutes to drag his kill into a tree and gorge on it before another animal moves in to try to take his kill away from him.

 

Think on this: if I am a hunter who needs to make a kill the next day to feed my children, celebrating any kill is a waste of time and energy. Catching a gazelle today does not mean that my work is over. What matters is that my children survive to adulthood. It matters that I keep catching gazelles.

 

Over-celebrating our accomplishments and lamenting our failures is the consequence of results-based thinking, rather than process-based thinking. If we are constantly changing, growing, and adapting, then our successes and failures are simply stepping stones along the way. The only result, the only “end,” is when we have died.

 

If we can learn to treat our careers and relationships like a predator treats each hunt, we can achieve a state of balance when faced with success or failure. Predators know that change is the nature of all things, that impermanence is an undisputed fact of life. Live in the moment, adapting as needed to thrive in times of abundance and times of scarcity, neither glorifying the first or condemning the second, for both are inevitable.

Your “Likes” Are Killing Your Equanimity

Blaming social media for the ills of society is a popular trade, and we can certainly see that it tends to bring out the worst in ourselves, but equally important to note is that equanimity has been losing the fight to drama since the inception of our culture. It is why the Stoics wrote their philosophies. Rebecca Costa’s exceptional book about humanity’s history with culture collapse, The Watchman’s Rattle, illustrates our long battle between superficiality and wisdom and its ties to the demise of great cultures.

 

But I would be remiss if I did not point to social media as the most accessible way that every person destroys their capability to develop equanimity. It is one thing to share news to get messages across the world quickly or to stay connected to far away friends and family. It is another to post pictures of food or ourselves and then obsess over how many people “liked” it, or to track the number of “followers” we have and allow those numbers to dictate our emotional weather. No part of that application enriches our lives.

 

When we experience discomfort--career anxiety, remember an interaction that troubled us, feel lonely, etc--our response is to seek pleasure, and the most accessible form of dopamine release now is checking our profiles. That and snacking.

 

Building equanimity allows us to use social media to enrich our lives, rather than distract us from our problems.

Actionable Philosophy

Change is always going to be challenging, even changes that we wish to make. Most of what we do is intended to keep the status quo, to bring us back to a state where we feel safe: mediocrity.

 

Yet change is truly what we desire most. We are unsatisfied with the way things are. We wish to grow, to adapt and become the best versions of ourselves. We wish to maximize our potential.

 

As you undertake Actionable Philosophy, remember that building a new habit takes time. We will falter and make mistakes and forget and have setbacks. It is all a part of the process of learning and growing.

 

Grounding Practices

 

Being grounded is a state of inner calm. Even in the face of extreme distress, grounding practices can give us the necessary space to gain perspective, to reflect before we act, and to focus on what is within our control, building our equanimity.

 

Box Breathing -  Our breathing has a direct effect on our mood. This exercise is designed to lengthen and deepen our breathing and to provide a point of focus within ourselves. Next time you find yourself feeling angry or overwhelmed, box breathe for 10 breaths. See what changes.

 

Inhale for 3 seconds, hold the air in your lungs for 3 seconds, exhale for 3 seconds, and hold the exhale for 3 seconds. Do this for 10 breaths. When 3 seconds becomes easier, try 5-5-5-5.

 

Social Media

 

Our lives are precious. We only get one, and so we owe it to ourselves and to the world at large to live an enriched existence, one that serves the betterment of the world and ourselves.

 

Build a clear idea of how social media enriches your life. What purpose does it serve for you?

 

Track your social media usage. Decide based on this information whether you could be spending your time in ways that are more enriching or productive.

 

Remove social media applications from your computer bookmarks, your phone’s home screen, or from your phone all together.

 

Try “screen free Saturdays.”

 

For one week, try reducing your current social media time by 50%. See if it feels different.

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