Equanimity, and everyday practice
Naturopathic doctors talk a lot about our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being since these, along with the physical, make up the four pillars of holistic health care.
Stumbling across this concept after hearing my expert meditator friend talking about it, I wanted to learn what it meant. I realized that it is a skill I inherently try to practice, but I had never heard the word spoken before. What I like about equanimity, is that the concept is deeply rooted in historical and spiritual magnitudes, while also being studied in the West as a second wave in mindfulness. This weaving of belief and biology is truly integrative!
What is equanimity?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equanimity as: an evenness of mind especially under stress, or balance, or right disposition. A second and more complete definition suggests: an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) (1). I find this definition compelling, as it describes an even, balanced mindset in any circumstance. Equanimity, however, has a characteristic reputation to be interpreted as someone having a flat affect, an indifference, apathy, or aloofness. In its true and enlightened practice, however equanimity is highly characteristic of attention to care and detail, meaning, through assigning no emotional reactivity, one can let go, accept, and allow the process to uncover or unfold as it should, and act in a way that is not reactive, controlled, or rooted in fear. It is possible to extend the practice of equanimity to help foster better decisions, act more quickly and effectively, and generate the most positive outcomes for everyone involved (excluding situations of abuse). Scientists are now studying what are some of the short- and long-term effects of trait equanimity, and they will be discussed further down this article.
I find practicing equanimity is useful for people who have a strong disposition towards injustice or unfairness, or who are sensitive to anger, rudeness, or arrogance in others (and respond with anger themselves!) It is also a useful practice to differentiate between excitement of the mind and real, true happiness that is generated from peace (2).
We have all practiced equanimity to some degree, and most likely in our work or creative pursuits. As artists (of any level), we learn to let the creativity flow and not judge the outcome. Many writers struggle with this, and have learned to remain even minded, and non-judgmental towards their work, even if they feel it is not as good as it ‘should’ be. Painters, dancers, any person engaged in a creative domain will tell you the internal struggle they face regarding their own work!
With mindfulness, we observe of our emotions, whatever they may be, but with equanimity at the forefront of mind, we understand that we must not react through behavior or words when the body is in fight or flight, stress mode, or sympathetic arousal (1). Similarly, when we experience pleasure, we are not so tied or feel the need to grasp to the event, but rather, experience it to the fullest in the moment and do not wish it were still there when it is not, tormenting our precious ego! The goal is really to recognize when the mind is excited, irritable, or aroused.
Practicing equanimity in relationships, however, is rather difficult. As humans, it is a known psychological phenomenon that we will approach or lean into things that are pleasant and avoid things that are unpleasant to us (some people ‘overly’ approach a negative circumstance to change or control the situation) (3). These tendencies are highly indicative of our attachment style and are not inherently right or wrong. There is some part of equanimity that arguable suggests a moral demeanor (4), however, with practiced mindfulness in concert with equanimity, it is not about experiencing right or wrong emotions, but the physiological impact on the body from sympathetic arousal, and a continued state of excitability or irritability. Taken from this perspective, equanimity may be useful for our well-being, however, it has also been discussed that equanimity ought to remain a spiritual practice.
In the Buddhist traditions, equanimity is part of the Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy (the ability to feel genuine joy for someone else’s success or happiness), and equanimity. They are usually presented in this order, and in some traditions, equanimity is considered the base for the first three although, I would argue that in cultivating the first three, equanimity can be achieved. (5)
Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation instructor and one of the founders of Insight Meditation Society, describes in her video on YouTube that equanimity is not pretending things do not affect you, but to stay present with the truth (Tibet House US Menla Online, 2019) (5). It is also a posture of accepting that all is connected, whether we like it, dislike, or disagree (Tibet House US Menla Online, 2019; 24:40). In the video, she goes on to describe what compassion is, “a quivering of the heart, towards someone suffering. It is a movement towards helping, without being afraid, blaming, or fixing.” “… A recognition that we all hold within us a shared vulnerability.” (Tibet House US Menla Online, 2019; 25:25). Very powerful words!
The Insight Meditation Center writes on equanimity, as being a useful skill to cultivate when the “winds of change” take sail in our lives, and life takes us in a different direction (6). This may happen with success or failure, praise or blame, pleasure or pain, fame or disrepute. In the article, they provide qualities to develop that are harmonious with equanimity: a well-developed mind, sense of well-being, wisdom or insight (especially as it relates to impermanence), and freedom from our emotional reactivity (6).
In Western thought, equanimity is being explored as a branch of mindfulness, and perhaps, equanimity is achieved through skilled mindfulness (1). One author describes that there is a nuance, mindfulness meditation envelopes insight and the alteration of cognition, and equanimity strengthens reduced emotional reactivity (7).
For researchers to begin the process of measuring equanimity, a scale must be developed and evaluated. One group of researchers developed an Equanimity scale (EQUA-S) to assess the relationship between equanimity, as an emotion regulation strategy, in non-meditators (8). Two distinct components or dimensions were used, even minded and hedonic independence (free of pleasure seeking). This two- factor model was developed since they discovered that there exists convergence between the two (even-mindedness and HI) in its relation to equanimity, and that both are related to positive health outcomes. They found that both even-minded and hedonic independence was significantly and negatively correlated with avoidance and fusion. They found that even-minded state was significantly and positively correlated with adaptive regulation (acceptance, putting into perspective, refocus) and negatively with rumination and catastrophizing. Hedonic independence was also negatively correlated with addictive behaviors or problematic eating behaviors, affecting both genders equally, irrespective of age. Similarly, HI was also associated with lower sensitivity to reward, explaining the relationship to addictive behaviors. (8)
The tendency to approach pleasant stimuli and avoid negative stimuli is a fundamental psychological phenomenon. A study was conducted to determine whether mindfulness practice and trait equanimity had impacts on this psychological reflex (approach/avoidant task - AAT). (2) Results of the study found that breathing meditation practice and higher trait equanimity significantly moderated the response to AAT, and that body scan meditation had less impact on AAT. These suggest that meditation practice and developing equanimity may help to decrease automatic tendencies to either avoid or approach generated by either negative or positive stimuli. (3) What is interpreted from these data can suggest that equanimity can be a goal towards preventing useless and unhelpful reactions.
Interestingly, what makes equanimity fascinating if the potential impacts on energy. Reference has been made that equanimity is a balance of arousal without hyperexcitability or fatigue (8). A wonderful concept to meditate on!
Equanimity allows for the mystery, that we cannot always know what life will bring (9). Additionally, equanimity illuminates the darkness of impermanence, that nothing lasts forever, an ephemeral passage in time.
How to start? A psychologist suggests, when faced with conflict in a relationship: focus on your breathing, have a self-talk script handy that reflects the state of equanimity that you hold, and even better, if you talk to yourself in the third person. (10). He states that this strengthens the bond with yourself. I suspect the most difficult part of equanimity is learning to sit with discomfort, to simply feel our emotions. For most of us, this is a rather difficult practice! Like any skill, though, it does improve with time.
1. Desbordes G, Gard T, Hoge EA, et al. Moving beyond Mindfulness: Defining Equanimity as an Outcome Measure in Meditation and Contemplative Research. Mindfulness (N Y). 2014;2014(January):356-372. doi:10.1007/s12671-013-0269-8
2. Fronsdal, G and Pandita SU (2005) Retrieved July 21, 2021. A Perfect Balance Cultivating equanimity with Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita. https://tricycle.org/magazine/perfect-balance/
3. Juneau C, Shankland R, Knäuper B, Dambrun M. Mindfulness and equanimity moderate approach/avoidance motor responses [published online ahead of print, 2021 May 19]. Cogn Emot. 2021;1-14. doi:10.1080/02699931.2021.1927674
4. Mckay F. Equanimity: The somatization of a moral sentiment from the eighteenth to late twentieth century. J Hist Behav Sci. 2019;55(4):281-298. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21990
5. Tibet House US Menla Online (2019, August 31). What is Equanimity? Sharon Salzberg: Buddhism Explained. [video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4e0iiQm9-I
6. Fronsdal, Gil (May 29th 2004, adapted from a talk). Retrieved on July 21, 2021. Equanimity. https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/equanimity/
7. Eberth J, Sedlmeier P, Schäfer T. PROMISE: A Model of Insight and Equanimity as the Key Effects of Mindfulness Meditation. Front Psychol. 2019;10:2389. Published 2019 Oct 22. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02389
8. Juneau C, Pellerin N, Trives E, Ricard M, Shankland R, Dambrun M. Reliability and validity of an equanimity questionnaire: the two-factor equanimity scale (EQUA-S). PeerJ. 2020;8:e9405. Published 2020 Jul 7. doi:10.7717/peerj.9405
9. Boccio, Frank Jude (August 9, 2010). Retrieved July 21, 2021. Calm Within. Cultivate equanimity in the face of life’s ups and downs, and find deeper access to joy. https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/calm-within/
10. Bergland, Christopher. (October 15, 2013). Retrieved July 21, 2021. 4 Simple Ways to Replace Hostility with Equanimity. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/4-simple-ways-replace-hostility-equanimity