Equanimity is an old Buddhist term. Like most old Buddhist terms, it’s got a lot of possible meanings and implications, but pretty much it boils down to this:
holding on to your values when things are difficult
This is my interpretation because it connects intellectually with “ACT” – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Of the various mindfulness-based mental health programs out there, ACT is the one I feel the most closely aligned with because of its focus on values.I don’t mean morality or ethics or imposed values; I mean the values I define for myself and seek to live by.
The reason this is so important to me is that when I began counselling through the VA a little over a year ago, my counsellor suggested I read “The Happiness Trap” by Dr Russ Harris. I did so and went: Yes, this is what I’m missing. Had you asked me prior to reading that book if I was living by my values, I would have answered, Yes.
And if your follow-up had been to ask me to name those values….
I have lived my life trying to be a good person and do the right things, and I had no idea what my actual values were. I knew what things were good and right, so doing them (or feeling guilty and ashamed for not doing them) was easy. But it was almost as if I was doing good things accidentally.
Having self-indoctrinated a hyper-moralistic Christianity as a 15-year-old, not to mention living in hyper-moralistic USA, I knew one set of pseudo-values. These were very good at making me realize what an awful person I was. My agency as a self-activating human was undermined by religion. When I came out of that in my mid-20s, I had nothing to replace it.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I had deep-seated anxieties and an undeniable loathing of my own existence. No wonder, at the age of 60, I ended up alone, depressed, and lost. I had spent all those years stumbling through my life with a person I didn’t like.
I’ve spent the past year developing my values, coming to understand what gives my life meaning so I can make life choices that are driven by those values. I am working on self-compassion (read the book by that name by Kristen Neff; it’s on $10 on Apple Books and full of practical wisdom I think we could all use). I am continuing to develop a mindfulness practice so I can recognize when anxiety is kicking in so that I can short-circuit it.
And lately I’ve begun to think about equanimity, especially when I’m bicycling.
I have every reason to be angry with drivers, of course; one put me in the hospital some years back, and many of them just don’t have the skills needed to be allowed behind a wheel. Not to mention, the personal automobile is the worst invention in human history. When I bicycle, I’m trying to enjoy the ride, and usually a podcast, so having that interrupted by what is beyond doubt a vicious attack on my life is, of course, a reason to explode with rage, cursing the driver (who, I hope, doesn’t actually hear and continues to drive away in search of their next victim).
I don’t need that anger in my life, yet anger is always simmering under the surface. This is a major part of my mental health work: to get my life in a place where I can heal from whatever led to me being filled with anger (and a deep, deep sadness). So if I can have one of these unpleasant encounters with a driver and not explode as a result, then I’ll have responded in alignment with my values.
That’s equanimity: not shouting “Fuck you!” at a car that decided their stop sign was optional.
Some things deserve anger. I think Joe Manchin deserves anger, but what good does it do me to be angry with him? Right now, at this point in my life, anger is more like booze to an alcoholic. I can do nothing good with it. To be healthy, I need to be equanimous: avoiding anger and upset, not because they are bad are wrong but because they hurt me.
The Buddha’s teachings came be summarized into one simple idea: Understanding what your buttons are and then learning how not to react when they are pushed. That’s what all mindfulness programs are aimed at. Equanimity is the skill of being able to stick to my values whatever the provocations. Not just anger, of course, but sadness, fear, unfairness, whatever. Life is going to be shitty a lot of the time, so I am working everyday to live my life on my terms – my values – regardless of what comes my way.