Have you ever been able to experience incredible hardship with joy? Meet pain with curiosity? Face suffering with gratitude?
I recently sat a Vipassana Retreat – ten days of silence and meditation using a technique of cultivating awareness, mindfulness and the embodied recognition of the nature of impermanence – “This too shall pass”.
Some of those meditations were blissful, and some were downright torture. A few days in they even ask you not to move for entire hour meditation – whatever position your legs were in at the beginning, they stay there the entire time. After some time there started to be incredible pain, my knees shouting at me to move, ankles, wrists and hips in agony. Except, often, I was just able to experience what I would normally perceive as pain, merely as sensation. Instead of the label – this is hurting, just curiosity – there is a vibrating, pulsing sensation, a heaviness that moves from inwards to outwards, etc. By just sitting with the sensation, and really experiencing it, I was able to enjoy even moments of anguish, always knowing that they shall end.
This brings to mind the story of a friend of mine. She gave birth to her son with just her husband present. Only the two of them, and she said that the birth was blissful. Not that she felt blissful afterwards, but during the birth itself. And the trick was, she said, not to react to the pain, but just to surrender to powerful sensations, to really notice the powerful waves of energy moving through her body, and to have gratitude for them.
The point is that the experiential recognition of the truth of impermanence, and this direct perception, helps us to cultivate equanimity.
What is equanimity? It refers to one’s ability to stay relaxed and centered, in the midst of any situation. Sometimes there is a confusion if this is the same as indifference, or apathy. Which it certainly is not. Equanimity is an acceptance of what is, the recognition of the truth of the moment. However it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t care about the situation, those involved, or the outcome. For this reason, I love the expression coined by Treya Wilber (Ken Wilber’s late wife) which is; passionate equanimity. This quickly dispels the idea that it’s in anyway related to apathy. We are able to meet each situation with engagement, yet centered. Not be swept away by the joys or the suffering of life.
And wow equanimity is hard!
The days after the retreat things were blissful. Things were great between me and my wife as those days apart brought a depth of intimacy that’s not always there. Work was going fantastic as well, with a my workshop overflowing with interest, the space charged with power and energy.
During all these days I constantly reminded myself, ‘This too shall pass”.
Then it passed. Things turned for the worse, as they do. My wife and I hit some rocks, and I was plunged into anguish, shame, anger and fear. A week with no workshops, and in that same week none of my Transformative Shadow Work clients needed a session. Again I reminded myself “this too shall pass”, but in those moments it felt hollow, untrue, and unimportant. The suffering is here NOW, and it’s real. This anger needs an outlet, this shame will disintegrate me. This fear has completely knocked me out of my center…
And yet… while I completely acknowledge that equanimity is very hard, there were many moments within that few days of suffering where a peace settled upon me. And what was a few days of suffering now, I’m sure years ago would have been a few weeks of suffering for me!
So the question is, how to be engaged, alive, interested, compassionate, and yet equanimous?
Here are 8 tips that have worked for me.
- Notice when you’re off center.
As I said, equanimity is hard. It is inevitable that we will be knocked off center. A big part of practicing equanimity is the awareness that you are off center. The sooner one notices one’s anger, for example, rather than being fully identified with it, the sooner one can begin to calm down. Mindfulness/awareness can be practiced as a meditation, but even better as a practice throughout the day. Here is a video I created on a simple technique to sharpen your awareness.
This is really the cornerstone practice for equanimity. Meditation helps reunite us with our center, with our soul, with the ground of Being. Every moment practicing expanding consciousness really is a moment well spent. These moments help us in the hard times, and invite us back to that stillness, love and peace within. There are many types of meditation, as long as the type that you are practicing connects you with the depths within, it will work for equanimity.
- Smile & Breathe
You’ve been knocked off center, you recognize that. The invitation then is to smile, to take a deep breath, and lovingly invite yourself back to your center. There is no use being angry about not being equanimous! That defeats the entire purpose.
- Make it a game
Why not bring fun into your practice of equanimity? You can make a game of both noticing that you have been knocked out of your center, and of coming back to center, as quickly as possible. This can quickly transform a potential frustration at oneself, to a joy; “oh, I’m jealous again. Ok, I probably have been fully identified with my jealousy for the last 15 minutes, ever since I read that thing on my partner’s facebook page. And that’s so much better than last time! Last time it took me hours to calm down!”
- Do your inner work.
Of course the proportion that one is knocked out of center is generally consistent with how deep the trigger is. Losing one’s job or partner, being in an accident, or even a loved one’s death will most likely be much more difficult to accept with equanimity. Those events that mirror our core wounding – unique to each of us – will be much harder to be equanimous about. I am a firm believer that spiritual work must be accompanied by psychological work for it to be grounded, embodied and integrated. Therefore an important part of equanimity practice is doing your inner work! Whether this means joining a men’s/women’s circle, seeing a psychotherapist, or doing shadow work, or any other modality that feels aligned for you. Contact me if you are interested in Transformational Shadow Work.
- Read stories, sacred texts, high consciousness transmissions
Bring the equanimity of others, saints, teachers, monks and the like, into your life. Do this by reading about them, reading their works, listening to podcasts or watching movies. This allows you to receive the transmission from those already well established in this practice. One of my very favorites that inspires me is the short animated film ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’.
- Not just the bad, also the good!
Remember that equanimity is equally true in the good times. So notice when you feel joyful, happy, vibrant, loving, etc. make sure that you are not identified with that feeling. Remember to practice mindfulness here too. This doesn’t mean not to enjoy, remember it’s NOT indifference. Enjoy that feeling, but don’t get attached to it. Invoke the mantra, “this too shall pass”.
- Baby steps
And last but not least, remember that this is a lifelong practice. You will lose your equanimity. You will get knocked out of center. Remember to be compassionate towards yourself. Notice the common occurrences that affect you. Relationships are a minefield for this, intimate as well as those with family, friends, co-workers, etc. Pay attention to common triggers, perhaps your boss continually makes you feel small and that brings up anger, or your mother continually places guilt trips upon you. Whatever they are, use these as bench marks. Quantify how long and how often you get knocked out of center, and generally how long it takes for you to return to a state of equanimity. In a month’s time of practicing equanimity, has it reduced even a bit? This ‘progress’ will help to inspire you to keep up the practice!