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Equanimity allows us to remain calm and serene in the midst of the storm. It is an essential quality to face adversity without falling apart and, nevertheless, it is one of the most difficult to develop since we normally move at the rhythm that marks emotions.
When we let negative thoughts and emotions take over, it is difficult to find the serenity and equidistance necessary to make good decisions. Then we run the risk of falling into a self-destructive spiral.
What is equanimity?
Imagine for a second a garden where children play. An older person watches them from a distance. Suddenly, one of the children breaks the toy they were playing with. The boy reacts first with surprise, then he gets angry and later he starts crying inconsolably when he finds that he won’t be able to repair the toy.
What do you think the older person will do? How will he react?
Do you think that person will say to the boy: “Don’t cry, that’s not a problem, in life you will have to face worse things”? Do you think the older person will feel like crying with the children? No!
Most older people have accumulated enough experience to know that it is just a toy. They know that toys break, it is normal. And it is not the end of the world. In life we will have to face worse things.
However, they are also capable of understanding that at that precise moment the child is experiencing a drama because for him, the breaking of the toy is a big problem.
This means that, although the older person can put the child’s problem in perspective, he is also empathetic with his feelings, but he does not allow himself to be carried away by them, but rather assume a psychological distance. The psychological distance necessary to help.
That is acting with equanimity. In fact, this word comes from the Latin aequanimitas that literally means “of equal spirit for all”. Consequently, it implies both the ability to maintain a certain impartiality and neutrality in the face of events and a constancy of mind.
Equanimity is not indifference
In Buddhist philosophy equanimity is defined as “A balanced reaction to joy and misery that protects us from emotional turmoil.” It involves the ability to observe what happens without interference, maintaining a mental state in which prejudices and preferences do not influence.
Many may confuse this stability of affections with indifference. However, indifference implies some degree of apathy and lethargy or even aversion. In fact, it can become a harmful or damaging state of mind in which we ignore the true nature of problems or conflicts and therefore do not facilitate their solution.
Therefore, equanimity is not an attitude of indifference and coldness, but a state of mental balance in which emotions do not reach levels that overflow us.
How is the equanimous person?
Equanimity implies harmony, it is offering a proportionate response to stimuli trying to maintain psychological balance. The equanimous person knows that everything is mutable and that is why he does not cling to things, but neither does he reject them, he simply accepts them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t experience emotions and feelings, quite the contrary. The equanimous person is compassionate and sensitive, but he is also balanced, so he can analyze problems and conflicts from a more objective perspective. Those qualities allow him to lower the intensity of emotional reactions to negative events.
When we drive, for example, we may feel fear if another driver cuts us off aggressively. That fear is useful to stimulate a quick reaction that helps us brake to avoid an accident. But when the danger has passed, it is more adaptive to regain serenity rather than getting stuck in disruptive emotions.
An equanimous person will notice the other driver’s offense and may experience fear, but without the automatic reactions that add judgment, resentment, and anger. So he can easily turn the page. And that will allow him drive better and avoid possible accidents since his attention will not be tied to the incident, his mind will no longer ruminate on what happened.
How to develop equanimity?
Developing equanimity does not mean suppressing emotions or giving up the affective imprint that life experiences have. Equanimity does not imply that emotional activity ceases completely, but only that it is attenuated, levitating towards a state of serenity and inner peace.
It will help us maintain emotional stability that will allow us to face problems, conflicts and obstacles in a more assertive way, while reducing their negative impact.
A good start to developing fairness is to keep catastrophic thinking under control. We need to understand that most of the problems we face in life can be difficult or complicated, but not terrible. They are problems, not catastrophes.
We often forget about it and end up creating a storm in a tea cup. We tend to feed that catastrophic vision without realizing it, using an internal dialogue nuanced by a language that does not precisely help us stay calm.
Therefore, to maintain equanimity it is important to scrutinize our vocabulary. Using words like “disaster”, “horrible”, “terrific” and “catastrophe” will only exacerbate the negative consequences of the situation we are experiencing and are likely to be completely disproportionate. That simple change will help us distance ourselves a little from the problems and see them in their proper perspective.
Fully accepting the idea that everything changes is another fundamental pillar of equanimity. When we understand that the world around us is in continuous transformation we will realize that it is easier to follow the “universal current” than to swim against it.
Finally, another strategy for developing equanimity is to resort to meditation. Different studies, including one conducted at the University of Haifa, have found that trascendental meditation helps us develop a balanced attitude. These psychologists found that after three weeks of trascendetal meditation training, people reported greater equanimity. Similar results can also be achieved by practicing vipassana meditation.
Meditation is characterized by three different mental actions that facilitate equanimity: selective attention and concentration, monitoring of the mental experience and deactivation of certain cognitions. It also helps us to “let go”, thereby learning to intentionally deactivate anger, ruminant thoughts that harm us and even expectations and judgments.
That attitude allows us to let go of the stimulus once we perceive it, avoiding the mental activity that would normally be triggered after that stimulus. In fact, neuroscientists at the University of Minnesota have found that the practice of mindfulness meditation allows us to quickly disconnect from an unpleasant stimulus than simply apply relaxation techniques or consciously aim to suppress reactions.
Of course, these changes are not accomplished overnight. Some will take weeks and even months, while others will take years. Achieving equanimity is not an easy path and there is no lack of setbacks, but it is a more balanced way of facing life.
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Desbordes, G. et. Al. (2015) Moving beyond Mindfulness: Defining Equanimity as an Outcome Measure in Meditation and Contemplative Research. Mindfulness; 6(2): 356–372.
Ortner, C. et. Al. (2007) Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion; 31: 271–28.