Keeping a peaceful and steady heart in the midst of human suffering is one of the most important practices I can think of during times where we feel shattered, hopeless, and afraid. We all have or will have these moments of losing faith and struggling to return to some sense of wholeness. I wish our human spirits did not need to be challenged in this way, yet the reality is they often are. In our deepest moments of sorrow, we have a choice to respond with compassion or react with fear.
Easier said than done. This does not mean we can’t or won’t be afraid, get angry, or feel immense pain. The intent is to tap into our steady, peaceful, and wise heart and find healthy, helpful, and safe ways to feel and express all these emotions. This is the practice of equanimity. Jack Kornfield beautifully writes in his book A Lamp in the Darkness that “Equanimity is an attitude of open receptivity in which all experience is welcomed. It’s a way to keep a peaceful and steady heart in the midst of it all. It is finding a balance between pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame. For example, if we focus only on feelings of love and compassion without a balance of equanimity and peace, we can get overly attached to the way we want things to be. Also, while we can love the world and hold the sorrows of the world in compassion, we also need equanimity and peace to teach us balance with the things we cannot change.
I recently taught a yoga class in which we covered equanimity and peace and after I read the words above, I said “sounds lovely, doesn’t it?” The challenge and struggle with this is how do we find a balanced perspective and accept that we cannot change, for example, what happened in Parkdale Florida? I can’t answer that question, I still long to believe that while we can’t change that it happened, we can make changes, so it doesn’t keep happening. I wonder, and I guess hope that if we work individually and with our communities to relate to all the emotions we are experiencing around this event, others like them, or our own personal traumas in a more compassionate and balanced way we will return to wholeness and not stay heartbroken and shattered and reactive. I know I feel a responsibility to stay open and receptive to all of life’s experiences to promote a sense of safety and peace in this world and not live gripped in a reactive fear place. How do I do this? I work to practice mindfulness with an attitude of equanimity. This is both a simple and difficult practice.
The simplicity comes in that mindfulness is about awareness and compassion. The complexity is staying present with compassion while holding in our awareness violence, death, murder, and human suffering. Our instinct while being exposed to these realities is fight, flight, freeze a protective response. So, I encourage pacing yourself and finding a balance. Again, the practice of equanimity comes in finding the balance between pleasure and pain, love and loss, conflict and peace. I have a quote in my phone from Jack Kornfield, I’m not even sure where I heard it that says, “When we deny our happiness we lessen the importance of their deprivation.” This reminds me that when I am feeling consumed by another’s loss or tragedy and feel guilt for my happiness to be grateful for my happiness and not take it for granted. This I hope in some way honors the gravity of other losses and tragedies. I further think of what the poet Jack Gilbert wrote in his very powerful poem Refusing Heaven “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
Equanimity is often further explained with the quote “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. We sometimes can’t stop the waves of difficulty from coming but we can work to practice responding from a steady and peaceful heart. This does not mean withdrawal or indifference which could be the freeze or flight response, again that is a fear response. Equanimity calls for an acceptance. And again, easier said than done, who wants to accept that 17 people died senselessly in a mass shooting? Acceptance does not mean agreement, it means we do not fight the reality of the situation. We grieve, heal, and respond from a steady present heart vs. a reactive and fearful heart. We do not forget to practice gratitude and happiness during these times just as much as we do not forget to practice releasing our anger and sadness through tears, advocacy work, and courageous conversations.
“May we find balance and peace, compassion and equanimity, amidst all the things of this world.”
Resource: A Lamp in the Darkness Jack Kornfield.