Last year was a tough one for a lot of us. It felt like a non-stop bombardment of bad news exacerbated by a social media stream that never ceases. We can find ourselves in a constant state of distraction, emotional upset, worry, and a feeling of being out of control. And this is just the context – our personal lives are populated by our own more local problems, which can feel even more distressing.
Later this month Penguin will release my new Little Book of Calm: tame your anxieties, face your fears, and live free. If I had it my way, I’d have called it The Little Book of Equanimity – but I’m told, probably wisely, that if it were called that, nobody would buy it! Calm sells books, equanimity doesn’t. Real calm, however, is equanimity – so if the title gets more people to consider it that way, I’m happy with it.
We cannot expect to be calm when the shit really hits the fan in our lives. In fact, to expect ourselves to be calm when we are upset, angry, hurt, or frightened is actually counter-productive. However, we can approach these challenges in our lives with an open and flexible perspective that allows us to accept and tolerate our reactions to them much better, and not muddy the already tumultuous waters of our emotional lives.
Equanimity allows us to accept those things that we cannot change, even when these things are hard. When something is hard enough already, we can make it worse by mentally and emotionally torturing ourselves about it. By learning equanimity, we can put our worries into perspective (which reduces them), minimise our fears (by not over-thinking them), and shift life’s perspective from seeing challenges as obstacles getting in the way of life rather than seeing them as life itself.
Equanimity is an essential aspect of Buddhist practice – though you don’t need to subscribe to Buddhism to enjoy the benefits of having more equanimity in your life. In colloquial English you might be familiar with the phrase “just be Zen about it.” The meaning of this is often misunderstood. To be Zen about something is not to be unmoved or, as we generally understand it, “calm” or relaxed. It is to be totally accepting of the reality of the situation and to be flexible and tolerant of what that stirs in you. We learn that when we fight the reality of the now moment, we only cause more grief for ourselves, not less.
If we understand “calm” to be inclusive of equanimity, it enables us to be “Zen” about our realities without pretending things don’t bother us, or being upset with ourselves when they do. In short, equanimity is about going with the flow. Don’t fight the direction of things in a given moment. To use a Zen quote I borrowed for my book:
‘We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see. The same is true with the mind.’
Sometimes we reflexively muddy the water, just at the time it would help us to still it. Instead of working ourselves down to stillness when we are upset, we work ourselves up, frothing that water until we can no longer see into it clearly. This has a whole series of further effects that mitigate against calm because we may make harmful decisions for ourselves and others when we react from this state of mind.
Importantly, the acceptance element of equanimity doesn’t then mean that we shouldn’t take action when things are going wrong. Acceptance doesn’t mean “let it be” in the literal sense. But it does mean accepting what is, finding some kind of stillness within yourself in relation to that, and then choosing action.
I once saw this on Twitter:
“When people say, “it is what it is,” what they really mean is, “it’s shit.”
I really like that. The wrong kind of calm, if I can put it that way, is to shrug your shoulders and say, “well, it is what it is,” and then pretend that it doesn’t bother you. Clearly it does. However if you said to yourself, “it is what it is, and it’s kind of shitty,” you have moved closer to acceptance. That’s just it. In that moment it’s shitty. With equanimity, shitty can be okay. Not fun, but okay.
So next time you’re looking for some stillness in your life when there are stormy clouds on the horizon – see if you can remind yourself about the possibility of equanimity. How might you totally accept the thing that is happening without working yourself up in to a lather. Breathe it through. Feel what you need to feel, and then see what happens. If you want to call that calm, that’s fine with me.