What is equanimity?
Equanimity is a powerful and particularly useful concept within Mindfulness as we grapple with our global pandemic. This word can commonly be misinterpreted as a form of chilling out or achieving a detached state.
It’s actually a long way from this and is vital in chaotic times.
To define equanimity, it’s best to look at the roots of the Pali word used by the Buddha. There are two words that it translates to and are worth defining. The first is upekka which means ‘to look over’ and refers to the power of observation and means we can see something without being caught by what we see. Upekka can also relate to the ease that comes with seeing the bigger picture i.e. ‘to see with patience’. The second word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata which translates as ‘to stand in the middle of all of this’.
Mindfulness is all about cultivating equanimity. And equanimity isn’t cultivated on mountain tops, it’s cultivated in times of chaos.
A pathway not a quick fix
Back in the noughties, my job was planning and running big European technology and education conferences for a tech giant. The conferences moved around Europe and there were multiple stakeholders to handle, such as national Education ministries, local councils, speakers, sponsors etc. There were big, logistical and practical challenges but I was perfectly capable of dealing with them. However, my thoughts took over and I experienced intense anxiety. I remember waking up with my first panic attack in the middle of the night thinking I had had a heart attack and my thoughts became uncontrollable.
After that, the insomnia ensued, which lead to a downwards spiral.
Fortunately, all of that eventually brought me to the practice of Mindfulness. Mainly because I found all the other techniques ineffective. Mindfulness was different. It was philosophical, yet practical and evidence-based, with lot of research being done at the University of Oxford. If it was good enough for Oxford, it was good enough for me! For the first time I wasn’t promised quick fixes. Instead, I found a practice I could work on and develop each day.
So how does equanimity help us as leaders?
As leaders we have to support our teams and, like many of these things, it’s starts with you. This is all about the way you hold this situation for yourself and others.
I’m keen to emphasise how this is not about being in some zen’d out state. My keynote talks often start with myth-busting about Mindfulness as NOT being about achieving a state of calm. There is often a falsely help belief people tend to have about meditation. More on that in my previous blog ‘The biggest myth about Mindfulness: tuning in not zoning out’ and why this is a trap. Mindfulness is right here in the real world, not on a beach or in a more blissful world – it’s grounded, helping us deal with the here and the now.
What this is about is acknowledging what’s going on in our minds and bodies and dealing with it differently. It’s about learning to build and maintain distance from our thoughts, feelings and body sensations so they have less control over us.
Images of calm people on mountaintops are highly misleading. My meditations are sometimes not at all calm and that is OK – that is not the point.
The point is how what we do next.
At the moment, we may be in having thoughts about how our business will survive, how we will pay our office, suppliers or what happens if we have to make people redundant. All are potentially valid thoughts that may need action but they can become pervasive and keep us up at night so as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say (the founding father of Western Mindfulness), we need to ‘catch the thinking in the act’.
Catch me if you can?
Firstly, it’s important to point out the difference between things we can do something about and things we can’t. It does concern me that people think Mindfulness is just about sitting around doing nothing. If there is change to enact, meetings to plan, people to talk to and you know what to do, by all means do it. I promise you, developing self-awareness skills won’t stunt your productiveness or blunt your business edge. I talk about that one here —Will I lose my edge? And other myths about Mindfulness.
But what if we’re going around in circles and our productivity is low? What if our mind-state is wired and anxious?
Equanimity is useful for the things we can’t change about our internal state, such as the thought-cycle of trying to resist feeling stressed (even if this is our reality). From my own experience, that kind of loop of ‘why am I feeling this way’ just makes us feel worse.
So, the point of equanimity is to get closer to our experience just as it is and learn and treat ourselves differently over time, to cultivate friendliness and curiosity. From this place, change occurs naturally. This is all about taking your foot of the accelerator pedal, not to limit ambition but to allow yourself the space to develop a new perspective.
With perspective and that bigger picture we talked about earlier, we’ll look after ourselves better and make more skilful decisions as this crisis unfolds.
For a practical initial step, feel free use my three stage breathing space meditation (4 mins). It’s best done often e.g. three times a day at set points and take time to check in. Go easy and stay safe.
Ruth Farenga, Founder, Mindful Pathway