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What is equanimity and why do we want it?

equa·​nim·​i·​tyˌē-kwə-ˈni-mə-tē, (noun)
1 : evenness of mind especially under stress
2 : right disposition : balance

Equanimity is a state of mind in which we're able to observe our emotions as if detached from them. We feel, but we do not necessarily react to feelings and emotions that well up inside of us in response to outside events.

Equanimity is a major benefit of a mindfulness meditation practice, in which we quiet the mind and live in the moment. We gradually overcome the mind's natural tendency to react swiftly to highly charged stimuli. Repeated practice through meditation leads to good habits.


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Equanimity's opposite

The state of equanimity is the opposite of being governed by our emotions.

The human mind is extraordinarily complex, yet we can simplify its reaction tendencies into two patterns: a fast, subconscious, reactive mind, and a slow, conscious, thinking mind. The subconscious does a great job of keeping our bodies running. It's the seat of our ego, our drive to survive. It governs the critical functions that keep us alive: digestion, respiration, circulation, elimination, etc. It is always on the job, never resting.

In a crisis situation, the subconscious mind takes stimuli from our senses (seeing, hearing, etc.), associates them with danger, and releases adrenaline that drives the "fight or flight" response.

This response can be life-saving when we encounter a true hazard to life and limb. If we see a car coming at us while we're in the crosswalk, we jump out of the way. This system works so well, in fact, that it can trigger a response disproportionate to the hazard. For example, very few people die of snake bites each year, yet the surprise sight of a snake can lead to a powerful flight response and a sense of mortal danger.

This reactive mode can carry over into everyday life, even though real dangers are quite uncommon. People stuck in this state are not aware they are being led astray. They then tend to follow the first feeling that arises when they hit a crisis, no matter how minor. This create problems in their lives, as they are disinclined to look within themselves for solutions, instead finding scapegoats and labeling "them" as the ones responsible. They go through life with a chip on their shoulder, focused on their grievances, unable to move past the negative.

The conscious mind, by contrast, can't do the things the subconscious can (controlling vital functions), but it handles complexity and nuance very well. It enables executive function, discernment, analysis, and judgment. Importantly, it varies wildly in its abilities throughout the day, shining bright when we're alert and engaged, but diminishing when we're tired, and shutting off completely when we sleep. Moments of conscious inattention create an opening for the fast brain, which abhors a vacuum in leadership.

Mindfulness is simply the slow brain staying alert and aware whenever it can. Paying attention, and not reacting to feelings that flash across the stage. Observing them, taking note, but not responding to their demand to react.

In this state, if we are surprised by a snake, we feel a rush of adrenaline (the fast mind merely doing its job), but we don't run screaming down the street like our hair is on fire. Instead, we notice the feeling, observe it, then put it in its proper place. We can then calmly walk around the poor reptile (who is more scared of us than we are of him), and go about our business.

This is equanimity. 

"Equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience to well up without suppression and to pass away without identifying with it." - Shinzen Young

red bamboo

Who's in charge?

The goal of every person pursuing personal development is to keep the slow brain in charge.

Why do we not want our emotions running the show? Because emotions bypass thought. They are the product of the fast brain, the subconscious. A state of equanimity puts the conscious mind and the slow brain back in the driver's seat. We then make decisions involving all of our senses. We silence knee-jerk emotional reactions. We starve limiting beliefs.

This is why meditation is so important to our personal growth practice. Meditation quiets the mind, calms the chatter, and puts a lid on "monkey mind". Meditation moves us towards a state of equanimity.

Suppressed emotion

There is nothing wrong with having feelings. What's toxic to us and our happiness is if we're compelled to act on every feeling that arises in us.

Feeling angry? Yell and scream, or lash out!

Feeling sad? Let feelings of despair consume you!

Feeling insecure? Allow feelings of jealousy or envy to cloud your worldview!

storm clouds rolling in

These responses create trouble for us, so we learn to suppress these strong emotions. That's not healthy!

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, suppressed emotions lead to energetic imbalance in the body, which causes illness.

Developing a balanced, matter-of-fact acceptance of our feelings can do wonders for our emotional and physical health. That's why I encourage my coaching clients to meditate regularly, to cultivate the blissful state of equanimity.

Buddha's hands in peaceful pose

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