What is equanimity


May 12, 2022
Filipe Bastos

If you’ve dipped your toes into the world of meditation and mindfulness, it’s likely you’ve come across the word “equanimity”. It’s a term that’s referenced a lot in relation to the mental stability and composure brought about by mindfulness practice. You may have heard someone talk about this state as the desired goal of a meditation session, or perhaps you’ve heard it used to describe something within traditional Buddhist practice or another spiritual path. But what exactly does equanimity mean? And how can we make a deliberate effort to cultivate this quality of mind?

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the benefits of equanimity and give you some tips on how to incorporate it into your daily life. We will explore how this positive state of mind can be achieved through practice, and how experienced meditators can used it to live a happier and more productive life. Let’s get into it.

What Is Equanimity?

Equanimity is a fundamental skill relating to self-awareness and emotional intelligence. However, it’s something that can often be misunderstood. Because of its association with calmness and reduced reactivity, equanimity is sometimes confused with the suppression of feelings, apathy, passivity, or inexpressiveness. However, we should really view it as the opposite of suppression or avoidance.

Deriving from the Latin word ‘aequus’ (meaning ‘balanced’), equanimity refers to a state of calmness, tranquillity, and you guessed it, balance. It’s about being free from judgements, prejudices, and disturbances. We’ll get more into exactly what this means soon, but first let’s look at the opposite of equanimity — what happens when someone loses their internal balance?

In the physical world, we say that a person has lost their balance if they go more to one side than the other. Similarly, a person loses internal balance if they veer more towards one of these states:

Suppression – A thought or feeling arises and we try to deal with it by suppressing it, denying it, or distracting ourselves from it.

Identification – A thought or feeling arises and we fixate on it, cling to it at all costs, not letting it go away in its natural flow.

Over-suppressing or over-identifying can cause real issues; instead, we should try to cultivate a more balanced state of equanimity. This means that rather than interfering with the natural flow of our subjective perception of life, we should just accept the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that arise, letting them pass without getting attached. Meditation teacher Shinzen Young describes this as “radical non-interference with the natural flow of sensory experience.” In other words, when you have emotions in the body, you don’t push them down, but you don’t attach yourself to them either.

But doesn’t that sound a little passive? Many people worry that the development of equanimity within the mind will lead to reduced levels of energy and focus and a lack of willingness to engage properly with the things around you. In fact, the opposite is true.

Equanimity Is Not Passivity

It’s important to understand that equanimity and passivity are not the same thing. Many people believe that the idea of accepting everything that happens to you is a dangerous path, one that can lead to passivity, laziness, and resignation to miserable experiences. However, practising acceptance doesn’t just mean floating through life like a dull, passive, uncaring blob. Equanimity actually works in the opposite way.

Acting with equanimity does not mean giving up or resigning yourself to external circumstances that cause you pain and suffering, and it doesn’t mean approaching your everyday life with a kind of dry neutrality. Rather, it’s about accepting those circumstances as things that you can’t control and using that realisation to stop yourself from wasting time and effort trying to change them. Making this change in perception towards an attitude of openness and acceptance can help you develop an evenness of temper and allow your body and mind to let feelings, thoughts, and emotions come and go naturally, without being suppressed.

When you stop resisting, you have more energy available for positive pursuits. Letting go of negative habits and thought patterns is a key step in developing a more peaceful mind. The same can be said for identifying the circumstances in life which you can’t change — this will make you better at changing the things in your life that you can control. So don’t think of passivity and indifference when you think of equanimity; while apathy implies indifference to the controllable outcome of events, equanimity is about accepting problems and difficulties in order to overcome them. Developing this quality of mind means you’ll be far more likely to respond to difficult or challenging events healthily and effectively.

Why Do We Need Equanimity?

Soon, we’ll explore some practical steps you can take to bring a form of equanimity into your life. But first, it’s worth going into some more detail about exactly what this mental and emotional quality can do for you. Do we really need equanimity?

Developing equanimity can genuinely help you become happier and more comfortable in life. It’s impossible to prevent the constant ups and downs that life throws at us, whether it’s in the form of a promotion at work, a painful breakup, or a sudden loss of cash. So instead of constantly striving to change external circumstances, we should focus on making ourselves better at handling these trials and tribulations. Spending time developing a protective depth of character will provide you with the perfect platform for reducing suffering and resistance, and increasing feelings of happiness and acceptance. 

But it’s not just about dealing with obstacles. Despite what you might think, techniques for developing equanimity (such as meditation and mindfulness) can actually be utilised for increasing energy levels and improving efficiency. Developing equanimity will give you a better understanding of how certain things make you feel, which will increase your ability to respond to situations in an empowered and effective way. In the same way that energising breathwork techniques take advantage of the link between your breath and your autonomic nervous system to supply bursts of energy and clarity, a greater degree of psychological and emotional equanimity can make you more productive and focused.

We’ll discuss some specific ways to cultivate equanimity shortly, but first, we should say that equanimity cannot replace other important practical decisions. While a more balanced mental state can help physical pain by relaxing tensions around a targeted area, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also worry about getting proper medical attention. Similarly, while equanimity can help you accept unpleasant noises in certain environments, that doesn’t mean you can’t cover your ears or move to another room.

Taking a more balanced approach to experiencing the world can significantly improve your life, but the beauty of equanimity is that it shouldn’t interfere with everyday experiences — it’s all about taking an integral approach to things. So where does this philosophy come from? Well, like most meditative practices, we can trace equanimity practices back to Buddhist roots.

Equanimity in Buddhism

Inner peace comes from accepting that discomfort is inescapable. This concept of equanimity is one of the fundamental principles of Buddhism, which is founded upon the principle that nothing is permanent or certain. Understanding the inherent impermanence of life can help us move towards real happiness.

According to one study, “In the Buddhist tradition, the term “equanimity” (upeksha in Sanskrit, upekkha in Pali) is a complex construct that has been given multiple definitions along with the development of Buddhist thought… equanimity allows awareness to be even and unbiased by facilitating an attitude of non-attachment and non-resistance.” While mindfulness uses the power of observation to become more consciously aware of current experiences and sensory events, equanimity is about being more detached from these experiences. To access this quality of mind, we have to be in a safe and relatively comfortable environment. Unsafe environments can stifle our ability to manage negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences, by making us hardwired to contract, harden up, and avoid. This makes emotional stability harder to come by. This is why meditation is the perfect way to cultivate equanimity.

Equanimity in Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can lead to a shift in perspective which sees practitioners cultivate a more observing attitude and a greater capacity for objectivity. Developing equanimity in the body and mind is a similarly intentional process, designed to create a profound attitude change. Meditation and mindfulness can help encourage acceptance, suspend negative judgements, and produce relaxed bodily states — this intentional strengthening of a core set of skills related to happiness is also the goal of all forms of equanimity practice.

Mindfulness meditation practices such as Vipassana and Samatha create physical changes within the brain that can make it easier for us to achieve a sense of peace and calmness. By reducing the size of the amygdala (the section of the brain that controls decision-making and emotions by sending stress signals to the part of the brain that releases hormones), equanimity-based practices can reduce emotional reactivity and help us develop greater evenness of mind.

So how exactly can we bring this powerful skill into our lives? Let’s look into some tips for developing equanimity. 

How Do We Develop Equanimity?

You’ve probably already picked up on the fact that meditation is the greatest tool available to us when it comes to developing our capacity for equanimity.

At the same time, concrete measures of equanimity are pretty hard to establish; therefore, any progress we make can only really be viewed anecdotally. Several studies have attempted to analyse how practising aspects of equanimity can positively affect heart rate, respiratory rate, and heart rate variability (HRV), but we’re better off simply looking at the power of equanimity in terms of day-to-day realities.

This mindset requires you to move away from the tendency to suppress and avoid things that are tough. By pushing down or ignoring unpleasant thoughts and emotions because of the way they make us feel, we generally only fan the flames and cause them to come back in more explosive ways. Instead, cultivating a sense of mature equanimity can help us let go of difficult emotions. Let’s explore some techniques you can use to help you experience greater levels of equanimity in your everyday life.

1. Accept life’s challenges and obstacles

Developing equanimity is about accepting life’s challenges, truly feeling the difficult emotions and problems that hit you, and being open to the depth of your experiences. It teaches that avoidance and suppression don’t work, and in doing so equips you to deal with both happiness and sadness in a stable, balanced way. A great way to face up to challenging current experiences with equanimity is by embracing the concept of “the obstacle is the path”. This reflects the idea that obstacles actually present opportunities for improvement, and overcoming challenging situations can make us stronger, more resolute, and more robust. Our article on this subject can provide you with more detail.

2. Let go of negative emotions

One of the best ways you can practise equanimity in your daily life is by making a calm but deliberate effort to let go of negative emotions. If you’re having a difficult or traumatic emotional experience, practising meditation for letting go can help you separate yourself from your chaotic mind and deal with experiences in a non-judgemental way. Recognising that all experiences are temporary things that pass us by (however good or bad they are) is key to letting equanimity permeate your entire life. Regular meditation will allow you to let go of negative emotions, thoughts, and feelings, as well as boosting your cognitive control more broadly. Our article on how to tame your monkey mind expands on this idea further.

3. Practise Loving-Kindness Meditation

Heartfulness practices, or Loving-Kindness Meditation, represent one of the six main types of meditation. This form of meditation is a kind of contemplative practice in which participants cultivate feelings of compassion, warmth, empathy, and kindness, both towards themselves and others. Doing this can enhance your daily interactions and experiences, and help you harness a more positive attitude that doesn’t get dramatically shifted as a result of negative external circumstances. This is a fundamental aspect of equanimity. For more on this subject, read our dedicated article on Loving-Kindness Meditation.

To Conclude

If you’re still unsure exactly what equanimity can do to improve your day-to-day physical, mental, and emotional experience, consider this analogy. Imagine that you’re swimming deep in the ocean. When the seas are calm and the sun is out, you’re content; however, when stormy weather arrives, you’re in danger. You begin to panic, swimming hard and thrashing about on the surface, but this only makes your situation worse. What should you do?

If in these difficult times, you choose to embrace where you are, swim below the surface, and wait for the moment to pass, you will be much safer than if you thrash around and get tossed about by the waves. We’re all capable of weathering storms — developing equanimity is about gaining the skills to do so. Because if we don’t learn to accept and overcome rough and choppy periods in the moment, we are weaker. While you can enjoy swimming when the weather is nice, ultimately you are at the mercy of external conditions. Developing equanimity through the regular practice of mindful techniques can help you deal with the stresses and frictions of life in a better, healthier way.

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