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Equanimity: The Holy Grail of Calmness & Grace?

What Is Equanimity?

The word “equanimity” comes from the combination of two Latin terms: aequus, meaning “even, level” and animus, meaning “mind” or “spirit.” Equanimity is characterized by the ability to remain calm, composed, open, and non-reactive in the face of challenging or distressing situations.

Luckily, equanimity is not just a psychological trait with which we are born, but also a state of mind that we can actively cultivate. We can seek to enhance our inner sense of peace, our reactivity to external stimuli, and our non-attachment to specific outcomes. And it is well worth our effort, for when we are in a state of equanimity, we can respond to life’s ups and downs with more clarity and wisdom.

Equanimity is an important virtue in ancient wisdom traditions that cherish radical acceptance, non-attachment, and non-reactivity. It is particularly important in Buddhism and Stoicism.

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (2003, p. 95), for example, wrote:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Epictetus (2014, p. 62) wrote:

Man is affected not by events, but by the view he takes of them.

These quotations neatly capture the idea that equanimity results from a carefully cultivated mindset and a calm inner attitude that makes us more resilient to the effects of external events.

Recently, a growing number of Western psychologists have become interested in the concept and have established that equanimity has a measurable positive impact on our mental wellbeing.

Hosemans (2017), for example, created a scale to measure trait equanimity — the degree to which we remain open, receptive, balanced, nonjudgmental, and non-reactive when faced with external stimuli.

But equanimity is also understood as a mindset, even a skill that we can cultivate. The skill of equanimity is linked to notions such as resilience, emotion regulation, emotional reactivity, mindfulness, cognitive flexibility, and perspective taking. Equanimity understood in that way remains closely related to ancient Stoic ideals.

Gross and John (2003) have shown that individuals with greater emotional regulation skills exhibit higher levels of equanimity. Conversely, by developing the ability to effectively understand and manage our emotions, we can cultivate equanimity and experience enhanced wellbeing.

Mindfulness — the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment — has been closely linked to equanimity. Garland et al. (2010) suggest that engaging in mindfulness-based interventions can lead to increased equanimity and decreased emotional reactivity.

Practicing mindfulness helps us observe our thoughts and emotions without getting entangled in their narratives, thus fostering equanimity in the form of detachment or defusion from our thoughts.

Cognitive flexibility, the capacity to adapt our thoughts and perspectives, also plays a vital role in the cultivation of equanimity. Bonanno and Burton (2013) have shown that individuals with higher levels of cognitive flexibility are more likely to maintain emotional balance during challenging situations. Developing cognitive flexibility enables us to approach difficulties with open mindedness and adaptability.

The Importance of Equanimity

Various researchers have now established what the ancients knew all along: Equanimity is crucial for our psychological wellbeing.

Hölzel et al. (2011) have shown that mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Their study examined the structural changes in the brain associated with mindfulness practice, including areas related to emotional regulation and equanimity.

Desbordes et al. (2015) explored the impact of meditation training on the amygdala’s response to emotional stimuli, suggesting that mindfulness practices can enhance equanimity and reduce emotional reactivity. It is worth looking more closely at the link between mindfulness meditation and equanimity.

Meditation and Equanimity

We can understand mindfulness as “close, clear-minded attention to, or awareness of, what is perceived in the present” (Quaglia et al., 2015, p. 4) and as “the quality of mind that notices what is present without judgment, without interference” (Goldstein, 2002, p. 89).

Mindfulness is also associated with the psychological skill of paying attention to the present moment (including to what is happening in the mind, body, and environment) and remaining nonjudgmental and non-reactive (Cheever et al., 2023).

Many researchers have shown that equanimity is a fundamental component in mindfulness and a highly desired effect of those who meditate (Eberth et al., 2019). Cheever et al. (2023, p. 148) understand equanimity as “an accepting and non-reactive mental state that has gained increased recognition as a key mechanism of mindfulness-based interventions.”

Eastern views – Buddhism

Mindfulness is of course an ancient Buddhist technique, and the valuation of equanimity is central to Buddhist thought. According to Buddhist beliefs, we often relate to our experiences through a lens of craving, attachment, or aversion, all of which increase suffering.

Buddhists understand equanimity as an antidote to all of these – as “a balanced reaction to joy and misery, which protects one from emotional agitation” (Bodhi, 2005, p. 154).

In Buddhism, equanimity refers to a state of mental balance and even mindedness. It is one of the Four Brahma-viharas, which are considered the sublime or divine abodes of the mind. Equanimity involves maintaining an inner calm and steadiness regardless of the external circumstances.

The concept of equanimity holds great significance in Buddhism because of its profound implications for personal wellbeing, ethical conduct, and spiritual development. In Buddhist thought, equanimity also involves treating all beings impartially and without discrimination.

It encourages practitioners to develop a sense of universal compassion and understanding, recognizing the inherent equality of all living beings. By embracing equanimity, we can transcend personal biases, prejudices, and judgments, leading to a more inclusive and harmonious outlook on life.

Equanimity is also deeply connected to the Buddhist understanding of impermanence. It recognizes that everything in life is subject to change and flux, including our own mental and emotional states. By accepting impermanence and not clinging to or resisting its inevitability, we can develop a balanced perspective that avoids excessive elation or despair.

Buddhists also realize that equanimity plays a vital role in fostering healthy and compassionate relationships. By maintaining equanimity, we can relate to others without being swayed by personal preferences, biases, or expectations. It promotes an attitude of acceptance, patience, and understanding, creating a conducive environment for effective communication, conflict resolution, and empathy.

Finally, equanimity is regarded as an essential factor in the path toward spiritual awakening and liberation from the cycle of rebirth in Buddhism. It is considered a higher state of mind that arises through the cultivation of mindfulness, wisdom, and the eradication of ego-centered desires. Equanimity allows practitioners to detach from the illusion of a separate self and experience a deep sense of interconnectedness and peace.

Western views – Stoicism and Buddhism

Western psychological definitions of equanimity are profoundly influenced by both Stoic and Buddhist concepts. For example, Desbordes et al. (2015, p. 357) define equanimity as “an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) or source.”

Equanimity is also related to stillness, even mindedness, and non-self-referential processing of experience, and is considered an antidote to learned reactivity (Cheever et al., 2023).

Hosemans (2017) created a 20-item Phenomenological Experience of Meditative Equanimity Scale to measure trait equanimity, which is defined as being receptive (open minded to thoughts, emotions, experiences) and centered within oneself.

Juneau et al. (2020) found that equanimity generated by mindfulness practice is related to improved emotional reactivity and reduced stress. Finally, Mann and Walker (2023, p. 371) found that “overall, empirical evidence suggests equanimity is a psychological skill that is related to psychological wellbeing and may offer a protective factor in times of stress.”

How to Cultivate Equanimity

Now that we understand the spiritual and psychological underpinnings of equanimity, let’s explore practical strategies for cultivating this invaluable mindset.

1. Mindfulness meditation

Engage in regular mindfulness meditation practices to develop present-moment awareness, acceptance, and non-reactivity.

Allocate a dedicated time each day to sit quietly, observing your breath and bodily sensations. Over time, this practice can foster equanimity by training the mind to remain calm amid the fluctuations of experience.

2. Emotional regulation techniques

Learn and practice strategies for emotional regulation, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and journaling for mindfulness.

These techniques can help you regulate intense emotions, prevent impulsive reactions, and cultivate equanimity during challenging situations.

3. Cognitive restructuring

Develop cognitive flexibility by challenging rigid thought patterns and embracing alternative perspectives.

Engage in activities that encourage creative problem-solving, explore different viewpoints, and cultivate a growth mindset. The flexible thinking of cognitive restructuring will support the development of equanimity.

4. Practice cognitive defusion

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers a range of excellent tools for practicing the art of defusing from our emotions and cognitions. We can practice observing rather than becoming entangled in our thoughts on a daily basis.

3 Examples From Real Life

Sarah walked into the interview room, her heart pounding. She had prepared extensively for this job opportunity and desperately wanted to impress the interviewers. As the questions began, Sarah noticed her mind racing with self-doubt and anxiety. However, she took a deep breath and consciously activated a more equanimous state of mind.

Sarah’s equanimity practice helped her to remain composed, and she was able to answer each question thoughtfully and calmly. Despite the pressure, her equanimous mindset allowed her to stay focused and present. As a result, she conveyed her qualifications with confidence, making a positive impression on the interviewers.

David and Emily had been together for years, but lately, their relationship hit a rough patch. Arguments became frequent, and emotions ran high. One evening, during a heated disagreement, David decided to practice equanimity. Instead of reacting impulsively or getting caught up in anger, he paused and took a step back. He consciously forced himself to adopt a more balanced perspective, considering both his and Emily’s viewpoints.

By maintaining his equanimity, David approached the situation with more clarity and empathy. His calm demeanor diffused tension, allowing for a more productive and compassionate conversation. Through the practice of equanimity, David transformed a potentially destructive moment into an opportunity for growth and understanding within their relationship.

Maria found herself in a high-stakes tennis match. The crowd’s cheers and her opponent’s intensity added to the pressure she felt. However, Maria had been honing her equanimity through mindfulness practice. With each point, she focused on her breath, grounding herself in the present moment.

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the circumstances, Maria remained composed and focused on her game. Her equanimity allowed her to make calculated decisions, react to unexpected challenges with grace, and maintain a steady performance. In the end, Maria’s equanimity became a significant advantage, helping her secure victory and achieve her athletic goals.

These anecdotes highlight how cultivating equanimity can bring numerous advantages in different aspects of life, such as job interviews, relationships, and competitive situations. By remaining calm, centered, and non-reactive, we can learn to navigate our challenges with more clarity, resilience, and an increased likelihood of positive outcomes.

Original article posted here.