Articles January 10, 2022

Equanimity: Finding Balance in Difficult Times

James Baraz

These are times of uncertainty and concern. Since the presidential election, no matter who your chosen candidate was, we are all entering uncharted territory as a new administration, with no prior experience in government, is about to run the most powerful country on the planet.

There are many people thrilled at the possible change of direction. And there are also many who are filled with anxiety, despair, and other negative emotions. Especially for immigrants, People of Color, LGBTQIA, and other non-white, non-mainstream groups, there’s good cause for fear and concern given the “culture of othering” that is so prevalent these days.

Whatever one’s party affiliation or non-affiliation, high-level appointments have to be cause for apprehension and worry for most Dharma practitioners. These appointments include (1) a chief strategist, an “alt-right hero,” whose rhetoric is filled with hate; (2) a climate change denier as possible head of the Environmental Protection Agency; (3) a top advisor on immigration policy who says registering Muslims has a precedent with internment of Japanese citizens during WWII. No wonder appointments such as these create a host of negative emotions in the hearts and minds of many practitioners as well as others in the general population.

Dharma practice is rooted in three basic principles: (1) Do no harm; (2) Act for the good; (3) Purify the mind/heart. As Dharma practitioners, how can we skillfully work with the feelings that arise around the changing administration? How can we hold them in a way that doesn’t lead to overwhelm but transforms our caring and concern into something constructive that deepens our practice, makes a difference in the world, and inspires others to do the same?

Equanimity is the essential quality that can keep us from being overcome with anxiety, fear, and other painful emotions. In all the many lists of Buddhist teachings—whether the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Ten Perfections, the Four Divine Abodes, the Four Jhanas—equanimity is always the last on the list, the culmination of a wise heart and purified mind. It is, in fact, the precursor to enlightenment.

Equanimity is what holds all the intense feelings that accompany our deep caring. In her relaxed posture, the archetypal figure of Quan Yin—the embodiment of compassion—represents compassion held with equanimity. She hears the cries of the world but with hand outstretched is centered and balanced in her response.

But practically speaking, what does that mean? How does equanimity work? We can’t just flip a switch in our mind or heart and say “all things pass just, relax and it will all work out eventually.” Equanimity is a spaciousness of heart that has a number of elements that we would do well to keep in mind during these challenging times.

One key aspect of equanimity is courage, the capacity to face directly what’s actually here and open to all the feelings that arise. Things are the way they are—or, as Theravāda Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho says, “It’s like this.” Equanimity means being willing to open up and allow the feelings to be held in loving awareness.

When you're going through a difficult time, don’t try to get rid of the pain or pretend it’s not there. Aversion to feeling what’s here will only increase it. Feel the sadness or the fear fully. Allow it to be here and move through you in its own time, held with an open, compassionate heart. But I recommend taking it in manageable doses—what can be called “titrating our dukkha.” Remember to refresh and nourish yourself too. Take breaks from your sorrow and anxiety. Reflect on the blessings in your life. Tune into all the caring people like you who want to make a positive difference in the world. Spend time around children. Listen to inspiring music. A number of friends have told me that the score to Hamilton has been their most important companion in recent days.

Another aspect of equanimity is accepting the possibility that things may not work out the way we hope they will. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, said, “You cease to be afraid when you cease to hope because hope is accompanied by fear.” Similarly, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage.” When we accept that the worst may happen, we no longer are hiding from it and can begin to wisely meet it head on. The Buddha encourages us to remember every day that we will become old, we will age, we will die, and that everything near and dear to us will be separated from us. Knowing this, we can live our life without pretending everything will be okay. We don’t take for granted the preciousness of each day. Hand in hand with courage, equanimity requires true acceptance of what may unfold.

This ability to let go of attachment to outcome is an important aspect of equanimity. But letting go also includes not holding onto our notions of what we think will happen. We don’t know. The spaciousness of equanimity includes the possibility of a bigger picture of unfolding karma that we might not have enough information to currently see. Can you let go of knowing how you think things will turn out?

One of the central teachings of the Buddha is that suffering can help wake us up. That’s why he started his teaching with the First Noble Truth of suffering. He said the more we are willing to open up to suffering, the less we’re confused by it. It becomes a catalyst that shakes out of our complacency. In one teaching he says suffering can be a causative factor for faith to arise. Have you seen in your own practice how your own encounters with suffering and disappointment have led to important lessons and helped you grow?

Joseph Campbell spoke of going through great hardship as an essential part of The Hero’s Journey. What the Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, spoke of in the “The Dark Night of the Soul,” Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide for Sacred Activists, calls “The Dark Night of the Species.” This very difficult period in human evolution, filled with potential for self-destruction, can also be seen as an essential part of our collective awakening.

This leads us to one of the most important expressions of an equanimous heart: wise engagement. The near enemy of equanimity is apathy or indifference. Equanimity still cares deeply about things but expresses wisdom in a potent but centered response—what Gandhi called Satyagraha, the power that comes from being aligned with truth. The Buddha said that when we know our actions are in alignment with what’s wholesome, we experience a deep sense of well-being and can appropriately respond to the situation.

Accepting the possibility that things might not work out the way we would like does not deter us from doing what’s right. Thomas Merton said that an activist has to come to terms with the fact that what is done may ultimately be fruitless but one should focus on the value, the rightness of things for itself. A Talmudic story similarly says that if the world were ending, knowing that nothing would make a difference, a wise caring person would still do what’s most aligned with their heart’s deepest values.

As one friend puts it, we're in a race between fear and consciousness. Consciousness ultimately can transform ignorance. That’s why “seeing things clearly,” the definition of the word vipassana, can free the mind of the obscurations that confuse it. As the forces of greed and hatred grow prominent, they often catalyze the forces of goodness and consciousness to respond with even more commitment and conviction. This has been evident in the contagion of goodness and inspiration that has recently appeared stronger than ever. The light brings out the shadow. The shadow brings out the light. We have no idea how things will play out. While it’s true that along with ignorance comes great suffering, perhaps it can hasten the awakening of the species.

Embodying consciousness, opening to as much love and understanding that's inside, and being a force for good seem to be the most important things we can offer to the world at this time. Studies have shown that holding another person’s hand when going through physical or psychological pain actually raises our own threshold of tolerance. This not only lessens the suffering but allows a more skillful response to the situation. In difficult times, knowing we’re not alone in our suffering, but also in our deep caring, we can inspire each other and create a force field of tremendous power that can meet forces of ignorance.

If you see this as a motivation for your practice, celebrate your commitment to be an agent for good in the world. Julia Butterfly Hill calls this commitment a “joyful responsibility.” When we join hands together and not only act with deep commitment but with the power of equanimity, we become an even mightier force for positive change. To quote my son Adam’s personal mantra, “Let go. Let’s go!”

James Baraz

James Baraz

Residential Retreat Teacher

James Baraz is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock. James started the Community Dharma Leader program and Spirit's Rock Family Program. James leads the online course "Awakening Joy" since 2003. He is a guiding teacher to One Earth Sangha, a platform devoted to Buddhist responses to Climate Change.