A lot of us read in horror of the massacre in Sudan, the shooting that just happened in Virginia, and every day we pass homeless people here in NYC. Inequality is a constant theme across all human categories, and we see global scale human rights violations happening daily. So, why are so few people in wellness talking about these issues as they relate to the practices we are claiming as answers for a better life? How can we become mindful civic participants in global human rights expansion?
Has chosen ignorance become the depleted (and most common) expression of equanimity?
The morning I read the news of the Sudanese Massacre I checked my instagram stories because let’s face it, a lot of the people we currently consider influential in pop-wellness rose to that status at least partially through social media. I saw 0 mentions of the news from anyone in the NY wellness industry. I’m not saying there were 0 put up that day, but the fact is that I saw 0 mentions that day from my colleagues and instead saw plenty of horoscope readings, workout tips, clean-eating ideas, and inspirational messages. This silence says more than any words I share with you today. And it is within that continued silence that we explore our self-sabotage in the realms of mindfulness.
While we’ve latched onto many beneficial constructs in the Western wellness industry, we’ve also mutated nourishing values into watered down versions of a good idea. Essentially, we are castrating our cultivation of said values to feed a capitalized money making system that is self-replicating and exponential in its concept devaluation. One such example is the crucial mindfulness practice of equanimity.
From the National Institute of Health paper titled “Moving beyond Mindfulness: Defining Equanimity as an Outcome Measure in Meditation and Contemplative Research”: “In a common misunderstanding of contemplative practices, equanimity is assumed to imply the absence of emotional reactivity, if not the absence of emotions themselves.” By constantly seeking to operate as some obscure ‘higher self’ who isn’t emotionally triggered by anything, we actually strip the practice of its value. What we end up with then, is promotion for avoidance of contentious situations. By using words like ‘flow’ and ‘aligned’ we champion conflict aversion in favor of an unattainable harmonious daily life. We are feeding each other a false definition of equanimity that hides us away from our civic responsibility in the trenches of human rights evolution.
Indicators of Pop Wellness Equanimity:
- Psychopathological experiential avoidance
- Unhealthy efforts to escape and avoid emotions, thoughts, memories, and other private experiences (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health)
- Chosen ignorance/uninvolvement in situations of heightened emotional stimulation
Indicators of Rational Wellness Equanimity:
- Evenness of mind especially under stress
- Balanced disposition
- Facilitates adaptive, flexible responding to environmental contingencies (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health)
Equanimity in an Oppressive and Morally Diverse World
Here’s the reality: life is not harmonious! The world is constantly in a state of disarray and dissonance. Before equanimity becomes a mutated psychology born from a substantive idea, let’s transition out of the bubble of chosen ignorance (pop equanimity) and understand that wellness relevancy in a 2019 world requires clearly delineated values that address Personal, Interpersonal, and Societal applications.
Equanimity on the Personal Level:
Requires an intentional shift from self-identifying reactions to selectively curated responses free from judgement value clinging. In the Buddhist tradition, equanimity includes attentiveness rather than indifference. Aristotle claimed that virtue was to be found in the golden mean of metriopatheia, between excess and deficiency of emotion, and even the Stoics valued some prioritization of contentment. So, as far as our personal emotional responses to daily life go, equanimity becomes a powerful self-regulating and coping mechanism for the non-harmonious conditions that impact us, not an escapist route away from confrontational circumstances. In fact, the term was adopted into early Christian teaching in which apatheia meant freedom from unruly urges or compulsions. And it is still used that way in Orthodox Christianity, particularly in monastic practice.
This distinction becomes an issue of survival when it impacts our construction of perceptions that are currently shaping our prioritization of specific values. In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand writes, “Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that some-thing is good or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.” Although this does not take into consideration members of society who do not have the cognitive capacity to make such decisions, it is applicable to those who support special needs individuals.
Equanimity on the Interpersonal Level:
Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita wrote in Tricycle magazine, “The English word “equanimity” translates two separate Pali words used by the Buddha, upekkha and tatramajjhattata. Upekkha, the more common term, means “to look over” and refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation—the ability to see without being caught by what we see. When well developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace. Upekkha can also refer to the spaciousness that comes from seeing a bigger picture. Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean “to see with patience.” We might understand this as seeing with understanding.”
Within our relationships with those around us, this translates to a malleable response system that considers more than just the initial emotional reaction to any given situation. However, it does not fully displace those initial emotions. What equanimity can offer us in our daily interactions with others, is more like a proper measuring system for the amount of attention and value we want to give any particular reaction. For example, if someone close to me does something that hurts me deeply, my equanimity practice might look like acknowledgment of my reaction, evaluation of it, and then my own intentional curation of the most nourishing response available to me in that moment.
Equanimity on the Societal Level:
First, let’s recognize that not everyone values equanimity, so we live in a society where dissonant values birth inconsistent moral systems which at times require interventions, for example in the case of systematized oppression. In order to be effective, these interventions must operate within each systems’ defined social norms (which may disclude equanimity). If we can’t practice equanimity but want to be effective for change in a system that requires modification, depending on priorities, we might need to temporarily adopt a lack of equanimity in service to the greater purpose (ending slavery, the war on women’s reproductive rights, continued oppression between economic and education classes, etc…)
On June 11, 1963 Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire on a busy Saigon intersection. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngô Đình Diệm. His act can be considered a direct societal and interpersonal confrontation yet his personal equanimity practice was simultaneously evident when observing his composure during the self-immolation process. This entire event and the three expressions of varying degrees of equanimity prioritization were all clearly captured in Journalist Malcolm Browne‘s photographs of the monk on fire. Recognizing the ferocity required for advocacy in such a dire time, several Buddhist monks followed Quảng Đức’s example, also immolating themselves.
So how do we reprogram our equanimity practice?
Well, here are a few things to consider:
- It is very possible for us to foster equanimity while retaining a priority system that demands we get involved in human rights violations and injustice. However, it takes effort and intentional curation.
- If we adopt the three faceted approach to equanimity and consider the possibility of differing personal, interpersonal and societal applications operating simultaneously within one human being’s daily life, then we create a system that provides value regardless of changing internal/external perceptions and realities.
- There are alternative sub-expressions of equanimity that we can adopt as well. For example Ken Wilbur, the father of integral theory and a writer on transpersonal psychology, championed the adoption of his wife Treya’s concept Passionate Equanimity; a fully passionate experiential approach free from emotive or cognitive clinging to said experiences
- We can educate ourselves and our colleagues on the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, as explained by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, which states that “indifference is an “unwholesome” (i.e., detrimental, or harmful) mental state which is due to ignorance of the true nature of things (Bodhi, 2000). Indifference is explicitly warned against as the “near-enemy” of equanimity, which indicates that these two notions can seem deceptively similar at first but should be considered very different (Bodhi, 2000, page 87). The notion that equanimity includes a sense of care and attentiveness rather than indifference is illustrated in the following metaphor from the classical Buddhist tradition.”
- Let’s encourage each other to remain aware of human rights violations, to remain active in our civic responsibility of mutually supportive justice advocacy, and to utilize any and all wellness tools at our disposal for this shared effort. After all, we only get one planet, one human race, and one timeline in which we currently can make a difference. And if we really believe in the efficacy of wellness practices for the betterment of human life, then the only rational option is to fully understand, fully represent, and fully practice what we preach.