5 Tips On Equanimity From Sharon Salzberg
By Colleen Crowley
Bay Area residents recently packed themselves into 4th Street Yoga in Berkeley to spend an evening with Sharon Salzberg, one of today’s most beloved and relatable meditation teachers. Salzberg’s topic for the evening was Equanimity.
If anyone would know about equanimity, it would be Sharon Salzberg. Her younger years were filled with a great deal of loss and turmoil. She later discovered the power of meditation to overcome personal suffering. In 1976, she founded the Insight Meditation Society with Jack Kornfield. She has now been meditating for forty-five years, teaching for the bulk of that, and she is a New York Times bestseller.
When she walked into the room, a distinct calmness settled over. It was hard to be agitated in the presence of this calmness, and easy to slip into meditation under her guidance. It was clear what meditating day in and day out, year after year had yielded: a calm, distinct, quietly potent presence, with a few chuckles to put everyone at ease.
Equanimity is defined as mental calmness and composure, especially in the face of difficult situations. It’s fairly safe to say that most of us would prefer equanimity to its opposites – panic and agitation. It was a pleasure to explore the topic for the evening with Salzberg, who gracefully weaved Buddhist thought with everyday examples to provide some keys to understanding how we might cultivate equanimity in our lives.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness has hit the mainstream and seems to be everywhere we turn these days. In most contexts, it is a reference to not being distracted. The broader concept of mindfulness is one that allows us to go deeper into an experience. For example, if we have a strong emotion, first, we recognize it. Equanimity would say to take an interest in the emotion. Don’t judge ourselves for it. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t deny it, but don’t go into a story about it. Just experience the emotion in the moment as it lives in our body. This power to view what is with a quiet, steady, yet engaged composure is equanimity. Equanimity, we learn from Salzberg, is the secret ingredient of mindfulness.
Balance. Equanimity in a Buddhist context means balance. Salzberg cautions us not to make the common mistake of assuming this means coldness or apathy. Do not assume there is a passivity in equanimity. She is referring to a balance born of wisdom, the peace of seeing things as they are. Equanimity allows us to have an evenness of mind rather than habitually clinging too tightly to the pleasurable and resisting the unpleasant. Balance also reminds us to have compassion for ourselves as well as others.
Spaciousness. Spaciousness is a key component of equanimity. It means that we have a healthy distance from the situation at hand. We have a spacious stillness of mind that allows us to see things as they are. Common reactions to stressful situations can add suffering. Spaciousness brings a stillness that allows us to accept things as they are. We can know them intimately, yet stay planted within ourselves, not so close to a situation that we have no perspective. We do not react, yet we are not apathetic. We see broadly, rather than being lost in tunnel vision. This ability to really look at our experience clearly leads to wisdom.
The Pairs of Opposites. The Buddha said that one of the bedrocks of bringing forth equanimity is the Eight Vicissitudes: praise and blame; pleasure and pain; gain and loss; fame and disrepute. A key point here is how we relate to suffering – both our own and others’. Salzberg notes that we can make a bad thing worse by resisting it, by not accepting it, which just adds to the suffering. Equanimity allows acceptance of whatever may transpire. Being human will have us praised by one person for an action we take and blamed by another for the same action. Equanimity allows an evenness of mind whether we are experiencing praise or blame. Salzberg is a realist, though: Sure, we care. We care what others think; we are human, after all. But putting too much stock in what others think is sure to topple us and cause us to lose our center.
Compassion. Combining compassion with equanimity will allow us to keep going in the face of challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed. Salzberg does a lot of work with caregivers, who see a high rate of burnout from their work. Noting new science which differentiates empathy from compassion, she states that there is a way in which empathy can go too far, and, according to psychiatrists, lead to psychic distress.
Alternatively, we can have a compassionate response, a movement of the heart toward someone, but not becoming so drawn into another’s pain that we burn out and have no energy left to help them. When we are hurting, we want kindness, but we don’t really want someone to lose it and fall down on the floor, overwhelmed. To really make this point, she gave an example of an acquaintance of hers who was having a panic attack and called 911 and the operator freaked out, which was not particularly helpful at the time. Compassion allows us to be present, but with enough distance that we are able to retain our own composure and energy that will best serve another.
All in all, it was a rich evening, densely packed with food for contemplation that is sure to come in handy as we navigate the world around us.
Salzberg will be spending time in the Bay Area next year, with the publishing of an upcoming book, Real Love. We can’t wait!