This week we have explored three “Attitudes of Blessing:” enthusiasm, effort, and expectation. Today we will look at a fourth: equanimity. Equanimity is a quality that will serve a person very well, no matter what he or she is facing.
The word equanimity has been defined as “composure, especially under tense circumstances“. There is perhaps nothing more valuable in life as a composed and tranquil mind. This is especially true when you are making positive efforts to improve your character. Let’s face it, life can be difficult. Each day we face myriad responsibilities, problems, challenges, duties and tasks. Each of these realities has the potential to derail us if we let them. Each of these daily realities can drain us of vital energy and cause us to lose sight of our goals and dreams. Yet the amazing truth is that, even though we have to face many challenges and difficulties in life, we do not have to allow them to send us off the tracks. Granted, there are many circumstances that flow into our lives that are beyond our control. But equally true is the fact that we can control how we respond to these events. The American writer Ralph Waldo Trine reminds us:
“The question is not, “What are the conditions in our lives?”, but, “How do we meet the conditions that we find there?” and it is unwise and profitless to look upon them, even if they are conditions that we would have otherwise, in the attitude of complaint, for complaint will bring depression, and depression will weaken and possibly even kill the spirit that would engender the power that would enable us to bring into our lives an entirely new set of conditions.”
The author is reminding us here that we have it in our power to respond to events in our lives in either a negative manner or a positive manner. It is up to us to choose. The sooner we learn that our quality of life depends on our quality of thought, and that the quality of our thought depends on what we choose to think, the sooner we will find ourselves rapidly accelerating down the road to self-improvement and spiritual fulfillment.
As you proceed in your spiritual journey it is important that you maintain equanimity. Another way of looking at the concept of equanimity is to define it as peace of mind. If a person has peace of mind he or she is better equipped to deal with the vicissitudes of daily living. Peace of mind is essential to preserving emotional energy and it is emotional energy that feeds our ability to utilize “power thoughts”. If we get upset over everything that frustrates us in our daily living we end up just frustrating ourselves even more. So we have to practice patience, tolerance, and cultivate the ability to learn to, in the words of Reinhold Neibuhr, possess:
“The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”
If we can put these wise words into practice we will develop and manifest a mind of equanimity. And where is it that we can most exercise this wisdom? In our thoughts! Equanimity flows out of the recognition that the one place we can exercise control, the one place where we can implement the courage to “change the things I can” is in the realm of our mental life. Dr. Dennis Merritt tells us:
“The ability to control our experience in life takes on a new depth and meaning when we come to the realization that the only thing we can have even a modicum of control over is our own mind. What happens in our minds determines if we shall “react” or “respond” to that which is set before us at any given moment to deal with. “
Doctor Merritt’s wise words remind us that the key to recognizing the difference between those things we cannot change and those that we can is the understanding that the only thing we can control on a consistent basis is our thoughts. Herein lies the key to the development of equanimity.
There are many things in life we cannot change. The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns was correct when he said, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”. Often we make plans for a specific activity or event, only to have unpredictable events arise and wreck havoc on our plans. This has certainly happened countless times in my life. Having a positive attitude toward life does not mean that problems and annoyances, both large and small, will cease to occur. Occur they will. But the key to equanimity of mind is how we respond. And how we respond to these unexpected events rests in our mind, specifically in our thoughts.
As we gain more power and control over our mental life we learn to “respond” to an event rather than “react”. What is the difference between responding and reacting? When we “react” to an event, particularly a negative one, we follow our initial impulse. For most of this impulse in born from our negative reaction to the event. Our reaction is usually negative in nature and has its origin in habitual negative thinking. Something happens that we do not like and we immediately respond internally with words and phrases like, “Oh No!” or “What bad luck” or “Why me?” These mental responses seem automatic and are lightening quick. They occur so rapidly they seem beyond our control. But let me assure you they are not. It may take time, work, and practice, but you can learn to overcome these negative reactions. Trust me; I have fought this battle myself. It is not easy to defeat years of habitual negative responding but, with effort and patience, it can be done. The most crucial principle that will help us is the realization that we are responsible for our reactions to life’s events. The American author and trainer Walter Anderson states it well:
“I am responsible. I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, but I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life.”
The essential principle that will come to our aid in ridding ourselves of habitual negative reacting is the recognition that we do have a choice over our way of thinking. And if we have a clear awareness that all actions, including these habitual reactions, have thought as their ancestors, it logically follows that we can learn to create a positive response rather than a negative reaction. The primary difference between reacting and responding is this. When we react we are driven by negative habits of emotions and thinking that have been built up over time. When we respond we make a conscious choice over how we will respond. Although we may initially react negatively, as we gain more control over our thought processes, we can learn to respond instead of react. This is the key to developing and maintaining equanimity. Doctor Merritt continues:
“The illusion (fantasy) is we have control over much – the reality is we have control over little more than our next thought, which dictates how we will choose to experience the moment and the event at hand. No one can rob us of the freedom to choose what our next thought will be. While we don’t always have the ability to change or control other people and events, we can absolutely choose to change our thoughts and perspective about people and event. In a very profound way, this puts us in charge of our life experience in every holy instant, irrespective of what it may look like. You will be choosing your own way. That is a powerful place to be in consciousness. Try it and see.”
Through mindfulness we can quickly identify our habitual negative mental reactions to life and become more adept at inserting more positive responses in their place. Eventually, we reach a point where, rather than reacting with mechanical negative thoughts, responding in a positive manner becomes natural. When we reach that blessed state, we possess equanimity.