Equanimity: The Key to Happiness

Here are some suggestions for finding the inner peace that all of us seek.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

There is no shortage of quotations on how to be happy. I won’t list them here, except to note that, some years ago, the Dalai Lama famously said: “I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy.” 

Many people have taken this to mean that the purpose of life is to be gleeful or to live in the perpetual state that is suggested by these common synonyms for the word happy: delighted, thrilled, elated. But in this same quotation, the Dalai Lama went on to say that “…it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”

That inner peace is what I'm referring to as equanimity.

What is equanimity?

Equanimity is an even-tempered state of mind that enables you to ride life’s challenges with calmness and serenity, instead of being tossed about like a ship in a storm. Equanimity arises when you feel OK about your life no matter what’s happening. That last phrase was easy to write, but it carries a big punch: no matter what’s happening. Would that include losing a beloved pet? Yes. Would it include learning that a loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness? Yes. Learning that you’ve had a similar diagnosis? Yes.

Those examples alone are why I cannot claim to always dwell in equanimity. But I am committed to working on it every day because, when I get a taste of it, I know at the deepest level that this is the inner peace that the Dalai Lama is referring to.

The reason that happiness cannot, as the Dalai Lama said, be found in external circumstances is that there’s no way around it: Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, successes and disappointments, good times and sad times. Equanimity is a mental state that enables you to meet life’s unpleasant experiences, disappointments, and sad moments with even-tempered calm instead of with aversion. Aversion takes two forms: passive indifference as in, “Who cares?” and anger, as in “I’ve got to get rid of this feeling right now!”

A few years ago, a close friend of mine died. It hit me hard, even though I’d been expecting it for months. One night, so as not to wake my husband, I got out of bed and went into the living room and sobbed for an hour. I felt my sorrow physically, like emptiness in my gut, as if she’d been there and had been yanked away. 

So, how do you find the inner peace of equanimity when you’re in the midst of such deep sorrow? You find it by being wholly present for your sadness and grief. For me, this meant not pushing the sorrow away in aversion (that is, in indifference or anger), but instead, acknowledging how painful the loss was and making room for it in my heart. 

And so, the mental quality of equanimity is that willingness to be present for your experience as it is—even when it’s not the one you’d have ordered up.

How to Cultivate Equanimity: Mindfulness and Effort

Equanimity—this “key to happiness”—requires both mindfulness and effort to develop. I’m referring to mindfulness in the sense of paying attention to what’s going on in your mind (and also in your body because that’s where you feel what’s going on in your mind). Are you clinging to how you want something to be even though you have no control over it? If so, can you feel the contraction that accompanies that clinging—a contraction both in your mind (as rigidness in your thinking) and in your body (as tightened muscles or gut pain, for example)? 

If you can become aware of how you’re clinging to “wants and don’t wants” (as I like to call them) that are out of your control, and if you can then feel the detrimental effects of that clinging on your mind and body, this alone can loosen the grip of clinging and allow you to begin to feel the calm of equanimity.

Then you can go a step further by making a gentle effort to let go of clinging to those wants/don’t wants that you have no control over, no matter what they’re in relation to. By letting go, I don’t mean allowing that inner critic to bark marching orders at you: “Let go. Let go. Let go.” That never works and only makes you feel like a failure. I’m suggesting, instead, that you make an effort to let go of that clinging by reflecting on how fruitless it is and on how it only makes you feel worse.

It's fruitless because we control a lot less in this life than we think we do. As I said earlier in this piece, there’s no way around it: Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. This means that we’re simply not always going to get what we want…and clinging to the thought that we should be able to, makes us feel worse. This “worse” takes many forms: anger, resentfulness, frustration, even hatred of ourselves or others. Obviously, that is not the path to happiness—to that inner peace that the Dalai Lama was referring to.

The peace of equanimity comes from making the effort to see life as it is—sometimes joyful, but often sorrowful…and almost always unpredictable and not within our control. Understanding that these are the very conditions of being alive prepares us for those tough times. It enables us to accept them with calm serenity instead of becoming angry and bitter.

The difference between equanimity and passivity or indifference

Sometimes equanimity is mistaken for passivity or indifference, but it’s not the same. Equanimity calls for engaging with life. Passivity and indifference are forms of giving up. Engagement opens your heart and mind to your life as it is, and that makes it possible for you to take constructive action to make things better for yourself and others.

Here’s an example. Some years ago, when our dog Scout was a puppy, she broke her right front leg—badly. It took two surgeries to set it correctly. When we brought her home from the vet hospital, we were told: “Keep her confined to a four by four space for two months.” 

At first, I was anything but equanimous about this! The prospect of confining a puppy in this way for two months was definitely unpleasant as experiences go, but my aversion to it was not only compounding my misery, it was keeping me from taking constructive action to find a way to live as best I could with something I had no control over.

It took several days, but thankfully, through mindfulness practice, I became aware that my aversion and resentment to what I could not change were making a difficult situation worse. I started looking for ways to make the experience as pleasant as possible. I took some blankets and set up two four by four areas—one in the bedroom and one in the living room. Then I used leashes to keep Scout within those areas. And so, instead of putting her in a crate or a pen, she was out in the open, and I could easily sit or lie down next to her and cuddle or engage in gentle play. All in all, those two months weren’t so bad.

That’s why I say that equanimity calls for engagement with life, not turning away in indifference.

In my experience, I’m happy when I’m able to open-heartedly accept my life as it is right now—even if the present moment is a sad or difficult one. That’s inner peace. That’s equanimity. That’s happiness.

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