Last Updated: January 28th, 2019
What is happiness? To one person it means owning eight cars. To another it means being in a great relationship. To a third it’s about getting blissed out in kirtan. Happiness means different things to different people. But, despite the discrepancy, one thing is certain—nice things and experiences only offer temporary pleasure. Cars die, relationships end, memories fade. Any definition of happiness based on attaining something or achieving a “positive” state of mind is built on a deck of cards.
According to Ven. Sanghasena, a Buddhist monk and spiritual leader in India, equanimity is a higher state of happiness that is steady and long lasting. It is not based on the dualities of pleasure or pain, happy or sad, rich or poor. Rather than the ups and downs that come from a state of happiness based on sensual desires, equanimity is a state of non-attachment based on acceptance of what is happening in the present moment — “good” or “bad,” “pleasure” or “pain” are all concepts created in our minds. With equanimity, all is good.
The term “equanimity” first entered the English language in the 17th century from the Latin “aequanimitas,” which comes from “aequus” (equal) and “animus” (mind). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation”—though that general definition doesn’t capture the true essence of this powerful meta-virtue.
All the major spiritual traditions of the world regard equanimity as central to their teachings. In verse 2.48 of the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches: “Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.” Hindus and yogis define yoga as “union with God,” designating equanimity as the one all important virtue to realizing their divinity. Krishna advises Arjuna to maintain non-attachment because it’s that even-mindedness that enables us to escape the ego’s firm grip that constantly compels us to strive for this and avoid that. While abiding in equanimity, we can see more clearly that all those events happening on the surface of our existence are only as relevant as we believe them to be. In equanimity, we experience our true Selves.
Looking beyond the spiritual traditions originating in India, Christianity too embraces equanimity as an important part of its beliefs. St. Paul writes in Philippians 4:11:13 about focusing on the divine rather than getting swayed by externalities: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
According to Rabbi Chaim Vital, equanimity (“hishtavut” in Hebrew)is a prerequisite to meditation, which in turn is a prerequisite to realizing divine inspiration and prophecy. Unless we can maintain equanimity, we need to further attach our consciousness to G-d. Rabbi Avner, in a teaching on the secret of equanimity, says to “surrender your heart even more, a true surrendering, until you have attained equanimity. Then you will be able to meditate.”
The word Islam comes from the Arabic aslama, which means “surrender.” When Muslims pray to Allah they surrender to Allah’s will, which can be considered a state of peaceful acceptance no different than equanimity. The similar sounding Arabic word salam is a greeting that means peace. A peace that can come through surrendering to Allah’s will.
But when hearing the term equanimity in a spiritual context, it is Buddhism people generally think of because of the virtue’s intrinsic importance to the spiritual tradition. The ancient Sanskrit word “upeksha” roughly translates to equanimity, which along with loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna) and joy (mudita), is one of the four immeasurables (the same as the four sublime attitudes in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras).
Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh translates upeksha as follows in Teachings on Love: “In Sanskrit, ‘upa’ means over and ‘iksh’ means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.” From that vantage point one accesses another aspect of equanimity, “samatajnana” or the wisdom of equality, which Nhat Hanh describes as “the ability to see everyone as equal and not discriminate between ourselves and other people.” When embroiled in conflict, the equanimous will maintain impartiality in an effort to truly understand others’ points of view. They drop their discrimination in order to truly love. In this way, the self, the ego, diminishes and they become one.
According to Nhat Hanh’s understanding of equanimity, it is a way to connect. Yet, a common misconception is that it’s a state of indifference. Theravadan Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi counters that claim: “It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honour and dishonour, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.” When dropping the ego, we naturally connect with others and become better able to assist them.
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient forms of meditation and has become increasingly popular in recent years partly because of its effectiveness at generating equanimity. Though the Buddha rediscovered it and made it part of the Buddhist practice, it is non-sectarian in nature. “Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation,” says S.N Goenka, one of many Vipassana teachers popularizing the technique worldwide. “It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.”
Vipassana meditators focus on the constantly changing sensations in the body to realize the essential impermanence—and thus limited importance—of all these sensations. It is known as insight meditation, because in developing equanimity with whatever is happening, meditators gain insight into the impermanent reality of life.
Though Vipassana meditators try to apply the principles of their practice in everyday life, their focus is on sitting meditation. In mindfulness, also a non-sectarian practice associated with Buddhism, practitioners focus on being in the present moment throughout the day by using a variety of daily practices such as walking and eating meditation, so when any event occurs, they are aware of it and accept it as just another event. “In touch with the flowers (or any other pleasure or aversion), I breathe in. Smiling with the flowers (or any other pleasure or aversion), I breathe out” is a guided meditation that mindfulness practitioners repeat to themselves as a means of appreciating, but at the same time not clinging to desires or averting themselves from negativities.
As we become aware of our emotions we can choose to act responsibly rather than react unskilfully. Mindfulness practitioners train themselves to be constantly aware of whatever enters the mind, feeling the emotions and their effect before acting. Equanimity cultivates an acceptance of our emotional vagaries, allowing us to show compassion for ourselves. As we show compassion for ourselves, we can more easily show compassion for others.
The push-pull drama called the pursuit of happiness doesn’t lead to satisfaction, but to the ego trap of attachment and aversion. Setting a goal to attain something that will make us happy inevitably compounds the belief that there is something bad to avoid. Equanimity undoes that errant thinking. It frees us from that dichotomy of good and bad that will forever hound us as much as we believe in those concepts. In letting go of the ego’s grasp through acceptance of all that is, we realize contentment. And with the success struggle out of the way, we realize gratitude for all that we already have.