Being surrounded by the huge peaks of the Mont Blanc massif during the European winter I was reminded of the metaphor used to describe the concept equanimity.. The mountain is always balanced and imperturbable regardless of what nature throws its way and although the wind and snow may reshape it subtly it remains strong.
What is equanimity?
Equanimity is derived from the Latin word aequanimus which means even-tempered. However, the term is used to translate two words from Buddhist texts – the Pali words upekkha and tatramajjhattata. The Insight Meditation Center translates upekkha or upeksa as also meaning ‘to look over’ or ‘see with understanding’ and tatramajjhattata as ‘to stand in the middle of all this’ referring to remaining balanced and centred. Putting these together gives a great definition of equanimity as being ‘to observe with understanding and remain calm, balanced and strong’.
There are similarities with the yogic principle of aparigraha, one of the five yamas outlined in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Aparigraha can be translated at non-attachment, as well as non-greed or non-acquisitiveness. Although aparigraha is more often linked to accumulation of possessions or striving for something, when taken in relation to our mind it is very much a state of equanimity.
If a particular event occurs or a thought comes into our mind that provokes a strong emotion (whether this is a negative emotion such as anger or sadness, or a positive emotion such as excitement or love) we feel this in the body and our mind may either try to push the feeling away or grasp onto it. Equanimity, and non-attachment, teach us to observe these feelings and thoughts and then calmly and kindly let them go, remaining balanced. This is a very useful technique used in mindfulness meditation, yoga and daily life.
What are the benefits of practising equanimity?
When a stress response is evoked in reaction to a particular event (or thought) the body and mind undergo changes – getting ready to ‘fight or fly’. These include reducing blood flow to digestive and reproductive organs, increased heart rate, increased metabolic rate and increased stress hormones. Long-term overactivation of the stress response can lead to serious health issues.
The practice of equanimity in the face of stress improves our ability to remain calm and switch off this stress response. This in turn has been scientifically proven to lead to decreased anxiety, improved coping capabilities and resilience, better time management, improved happiness and wellbeing, greater empathy, more optimism and improved sleep.
Exercise – Belly breathing and visualisation
Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh “Peace of Mind” p. 115-117
Practising this mindful breathing exercise, regularly or when faced with strong emotions or stressful situations, can help you to find inner strength to handle such emotions and understand that while they may seem powerful and encompassing they are, in fact, impermanent..
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your belly and start to bring attention to your breath and the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling. As you breathe in your belly expands and as you breathe out your belly contracts. Concentrate only on your belly rising with the inhale and falling with your exhale.
If any strong emotions or stressful thoughts appear, acknowledge them – perhaps naming them – and then calmly and kindly take your attention back to the breath and the belly rising and falling. See the belly as a mountain in a storm. The winds may beat against its peaks but the base stays anchored to the ground. While a storm of emotions may be beating at your mind, take your attention to your abdomen, and the belly expanding and contracting with your deep breaths, and you can trust that you will be able to remain strong and calm.
You can sit breathing in this way for 10-20 minutes or until you feel calm enough to continue with daily activities. Practising this technique when there are no current strong emotions will train the mind for the occasion when they do appear. Instead of the imagery of the mountain you could also visualise either: a tree with a strong trunk even though the branches are bending and swaying in the storm or; the depths of the ocean, relatively still and calm even if there is a storm creating huge waves at the surface. Use something that resonates best for you.
Photo: Les Drus, Chamonix Mont Blanc, France – (c) Tom Rose