Equanimity: Surfing the Waves of Change

Dr. Stephen Fulder

There is no doubt that we are living in times of unprecedented anxiety. Besides the personal narratives of conflict, disease, pain and loss, there are global concerns,  for example we may not be sure if the world itself can go on supporting us and our children as it has done up until now. Often we forgot what ease, inner peace and complete joy really feel like. I am reminded of the joke about a telegram sent by a Jewish mother to her son on holiday: “Start worrying, details to follow”.   We often turn for help to pills or diversions such as the computer screen or shopping.

Clearly we cannot expect life to endlessly provide us with comfort and security. Nor can we rely on others to provide it. As Rudyard Kipling asks, in his poem If’:  ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs?’ We have no option but to find the resources of trust and steadiness from within. And of course they are there inside waiting to be invited. Think of the way we started life: the complete trust we had in our mothers, in the world which we explored without hesitation. I have watched amazed as my 2-year old grandchild allows herself to fall asleep in almost anyone’s arms, and how if she falls down off a step, she will feel pain, cry, and get right back on it again. Of course fear accumulates in our life as we learn to be watchful of ourselves. However trust is there in equal measure.

Trust can be developed and is a major spiritual force.  It is not a trust that things will be good or better, because we cannot control the future, and such a trust would lead to expectation and disappointment. But it is a shift towards an active trusting of the world to be what it is, and to feel a sense of belonging and intimacy with life whatever it throws at us. “We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. It has its terrors, they are our terrors, it has its abysses, those abysses belong to us…” says the poet Rilke. After all, it is in the end up to us how we receive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Trust is developed by being mindful of the truth, that the world is not against us and that we can change our inner climate. Mindfulness also shows us the joy of openness and relationships with nature and people, and the pain of shutting ourselves inside a prison of our fears. Trust is also developed, along with faith, by the key practice of Taking Refuge, or finding a deep home, in the Buddha (not the person but the Buddha-like qualities within us) the Dharma (the spiritual journey and the truth) and the Sangha (the community). We will feel protected by including the Refuges as part of our meditation or during daily life encounters.

Equanimity is this trust combined with insight, and non-attachment. In order to trust the world to be what it is, we need to be less wrapped in ourselves, to be less protected by armour, to be engaged, open, light and free. It is to be vulnerable and sensitive, yet never knocked down; ready to welcome whatever comes our way. This is what the Buddha meant in his famous last words before he died: ‘Be an Island to Yourself’.  It is about surfing the waves of change, not running away from them, or shutting ourselves in some apparently safe haven. Equanimity is not indifference, although sometimes the two are confused. While equanimity is getting wet and riding the waves, indifference is shutting ourselves in the air-conditioned  hotel room nearby.

How can equanimity be practiced? Partly it is the result of all the spiritual practice that we have ever done, which involves seeing things more clearly. Sitting silently in meditation for extended periods automatically leads to equanimity as we stay steady and receive whatever comes. In addition there are directions of practice that can specifically develop this resilience. Three images can be helpful. The first is the rock, which is solidly there and not disturbed by the winds or the waters flowing past. ‘Let our meditation be like the earth’ said the Buddha, ‘for then satisfying and unsatisfying contacts with the world through the senses will not invade the mind.’ The second is like the glass, in which experiences simply pass through us as if we were transparent. We experience them but they do not stick or take up residence. The third is the straw basket.  The winds of change and difficulty may come and blow the basket, tumbling it over and over, but because it is light it cannot break and it remains intact.  We just roll with the punches, and cannot be destroyed.

Equanimity is always helped by the big view. That is, a sense that conditions and conditionality create results accordingly, and though we can chart a wise course and navigate towards harmony, we also need to surrender. There is a Tibetan story that illustrates this. Two men were walking in a crowded marketplace. All of a sudden one of them was hit by a stick. He began to shout at the stick. His friend said to him: ‘Why are you shouting at the stick? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to shout at the hand holding the stick?’ ‘Of course’, he answered, and began shouting at the hand. ‘But why are you shouting at the hand? Maybe you should shout at the person whose hand it is?’ said his friend. So he began shouting at the unknown person who hit him. ‘But why are you shouting at the person?’ his friend asked him. ‘Maybe that person has had a really hard time, and can’t help expressing some of his frustration. Maybe he hasn’t got anything to eat. Maybe you should shout at the conditions that caused that person to behave like that.’ The man who was hit was just about to shout at the conditions, but then he stopped. ‘But that means there is nothing to shout at - I would need to shout at the whole universe!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Exactly!’ said his friend.