Understanding Equanimity

Running Time: 6:05

This video is all about Equanimity. Now, equanimity is a pretty big topic, with many, many layers, so I’m only going to give you the abridged version here. I’ll go into more detail about equanimity in Weeks 3 and 4 of the 30 Days of Mindfulness program.

A really nice definition of equanimity is that “equanimity is a balanced state of mind in which equal interest is taken in the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.” What I really like about this definition is the “equal interest” part.

Equanimity, when fully developed, prevents both identification with as well as attachment or aversion to experience. Remember how we talked about how our habitual reactions to pleasant and unpleasant lead to attachment and aversion and how that leads to suffering? Equanimity, when present, prevents that from happening. It breaks that rapid chain of events.

Equanimity results in pleasant experiences being known without turning them into objects “I must have”. There is no construction of a sense of self around the pleasant experience. Similarly for unpleasant experiences.

It’s important to understand that when I talk about equanimity, I’m not talking about some kind of cognitive process. Equanimity does not involve thinking. It’s not “Oh look, my favourite chocolate cake. Attachment begone – I will not attach to this experience of the cake”. It’s not like that.

Equanimity is a quality of awareness that you can develop, over time, through your mindfulness meditation and daily life mindfulness practices. When it’s present, it’s just there and does it’s thing. You don’t have to think about being equanimous.

As will most of these things, there are degrees of equanimity. What I’ve been describing here is well developed equanimity. On your meditation journey, you may eventually develop this level of equanimity. Along the way, you will experience less fully developed, but still amazing and wonderful degrees of equanimity, that allow you to quietly be with and experience intense sensations that used to compel you into a habitual reaction.

Although equanimity may seem to be some kind of rarified experience, and fully developed equanimity is, less developed but very useful degrees of equanimity are well within your reach.

I’ve already talked a little about how to develop equanimity in week 1. The easiest way to begin is by allowing your meditation object to be however it is, without you doing anything to modify it. Once you’re able to do that fairly consistently, you can develop your equanimity to the next level by non-reactively observing the arising and cessation of your habitual reactions to hedonic tone, as you’re doing here in Week 2.

When doing this, you need to watch out for sneaky mind tactics that try to subvert your desire to develop equanimity and use it to subtly reinforce existing patterns of attachment and aversion. You see, once your mind figures out that you’re on to this whole vedana, craving, suffering game and you’re no longer completely blind to this process, it can trick you if you’re not paying attention.

This is what happens when you do things like watching pain with receptivity and non-reactivity, but your underlying motivation is actually to make the pain decrease or go away. That doesn’t train equanimity, it just continues old patterns of thought and action, but in a more subtle way that’s hidden by a veneer of mindfulness.

When you see stuff like that happening in your practice, just call a spade a spade and mentally label it as “aversion”. This will prevent you from fooling yourself and will sharpen your perception of these sneaky mind tricks. And you might be surprised by how frequently stuff like this happens.

Similarly, when you’re indulging in a favourite food or activity and trying to be mindful of that, look out for those logical justifications you tell yourself about needing just one more bite so that you can really practice noticing pleasant hedonic tones. Label that as “attachment”

Of course, you need to guard against a knee-jerk suppression or pushing away of attachment and aversion. That’s just more aversion! Just observe. Label it for what it is. Watch it arise and pass away. That’s how you’ll take your equanimity to the next level.

Also, I want to be really clear about this: there’s nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure. Sometimes, when people hear about hedonic tone and craving and how that leads to suffering, they’re left with the impression that pleasure is evil. That they’re not supposed to enjoy anything. That’s not the case at all! Joy, pleasure, happiness, these are wonderful things!

Equanimity allows you to enjoy the good, without wrecking the experience by craving for more. The fact is, if you’re attached to the pleasure of an experience, it’s actually impossible to fully, truly enjoy it. The attachment taints the experience, it diminishes it. And If you observe carefully, you’ll be able to notice this yourself. It’s a huge eye-opener!

So, to summarize, this week you want to really dig in to observing pleasant and unpleasant sensations and seeing how the mind reacts to them. See if you can catch the quick, reflexive impulse to grasp after something or resist something. See if you can just observe that, non-reactively. And watch out for sneaky mind tricks. Be honest with yourself about the underlying motivation for your actions.

And, most of all, have fun with it. Treat this like a game of Where’s Waldo, except in this case, you’re looking for automatic reactions to hedonic tone, rather than some funny looking guy with glasses.