This summer our Friday morning meditation group studied and practiced with the Seven Factors of Awakening. These are positive qualities of mind that, when cultivated, help us counter emotions that get in the way of our progress in meditation and daily life. The last of these factors is equanimity. It is the final factor I am reminded of as I sit quietly in the late summer morning at high tide along the Maine coast. The water laps at my toes and softly rattles the pebbles along this narrow strip of shore. There is a moment of stillness when the tide crests and before it begins to recede that feels to me like the brief seconds between the inhalation and exhalation in deep concentration meditation. It is a place of repose, a pause, a balance. It is the place of equanimity. Equanimity is most assuredly the quality we are all in need of at this time.
Equanimity is the place of balance between wanting and aversion, between desire and resistance. In the Buddhist tradition equanimity and mindfulness go hand in hand. A little bit of equanimity is needed for mindfulness practice even to begin to take place. Upekkha, one of the Pali words for equanimity, is not a dry distant objective state. It does not imply a cool, detached neutrality. It is a state of passionate engagement. You are fully engaged with what is happening, but not emotionally provoked. You are not reactive, but also not blunted. How can one be passionately engaged and yet neutral at the same time? At times our reactions seem so fused with our subsequent behavior that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. To cultivate an equanimous mind requires becoming intimate with the nuances of our own experiences as they arise in the moment and decondition ourselves from our reactivity. We meet the situations that have the capacity to upend us with calm curiosity and awareness. It is a mark of wisdom to know these feelings as unhelpful and to try to cultivate those that will keep us steady in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
A Pali word for equanimity is Tatramajjhattatā, which translates as “there in the middleness.” Whether we like it or not we are now there in the middle of great turmoil in the form of the coronavirus and the political and social discord the likes of which we have not seen before in our lifetimes. We can deal with this frightening discord by turning away or reacting with anger or depression, or we can find repose in the middle by allowing the turmoil to swirl around without getting caught in the whirlwind of desire and despair.
Equanimity bears much in common with the psychological concept of resiliency. The resilient individual is emotionally sturdy and creative. They admit to the difficulty they find themselves in while remaining calm and resourceful. Like the equanimous state, being resilient does not mean being indifferent or passive. With equanimity and resiliency of heart and mind we can choose to act from a solid foundation of clear-eyed understanding of what is really taking place around us.