Equanimity & Mindfulness

by Brent Menninger

Equanimity is characterized by steadiness of mind under stress. It is the quality of being calm and even-tempered; it is a balanced state of mind distinguished by the lack of strong attachments. The person with equanimity is able to remain poised and calm even when attracted by cravings and desires or repulsed by negative feelings.  This state of mind has been likened to a heavy metal sphere on a perfectly level floor. The sphere is full of potential; once it starts rolling it will be hard to stop, but there is no incentive for motion.  The value of equanimity is that both difficult and desirable life experiences are attended to with equal attention. In equanimity, you would still notice and care (even deeply) about what is going on, the difference is that instead of reacting to your thoughts or feelings, your actions are governed by your Wise Mind.
So how do you develop equanimity?  Mindfulness meditation is a way to learn to non-reactively observe your emotions, de-center from them, and assume an open problem-solving approach to coping with them.  The idea is that the practice of mindfulness meditation helps you practice mindfulness skills and concepts in everyday life.
Mindfulness meditation is easy enough for a beginner and challenging enough for someone with years of practice.  In mindfulness meditation, you focus on your breathing.  With inhalation, you say to yourself in.  With exhalation, you say to yourself out. Inevitably, your mind wanders. When your mind wanders, take note of the experience, maintain an open approach to observing your experience without judging or resisting, while subsequently bringing your attention back to your breath. The real work of mindfulness meditation is refocusing on your breathing.  The process of observing without judgment and subsequently bringing your attention back to the neutrality of your breath is a means for being able to be mindful of a painful thought or unpleasant emotion without becoming consumed by the experience.
In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed by a thought or a negative feeling, practice increasing your ability to observe and de-center from your thoughts and negative feelings as you learn from the practice of mindfulness meditation.  The process of learning to de-center and observe your negative thoughts and emotions which often can include regrets, fears about the future, shame and guilt about the past, is more relevant than actually changing the content of your thoughts, particularly when the negative thoughts are based in reality but are not useful thoughts upon which to dwell.  Thus, you change the relationship to your thoughts and feelings.  Some people have found that if they change their relationship to their thoughts and feelings then different thoughts and feelings follow naturally.

In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed by a thought or a negative feeling, practice increasing your ability to observe and de-center from your thoughts and negative feelings as you learn from the practice of mindfulness meditation.

The skill of equanimity depends upon the ability to detach from emotions and thoughts.  One place to start is with the belief that negative emotional states are to some degree inevitable. Depression, anxiety, fear, jealousy, hatred, anger, and other painful emotions are natural and human so you can expect them sooner or later. By accepting this fact and understanding the nature of emotions, you will continue to change your relationship to your emotions.  You will not be able to eliminate negative emotions, painful memories, or harmful thoughts, but you can change your relationship to them. This is particularly important for people who suffer from strong emotional reactions and need to be able to tolerate painful feelings in order to pursue the rewards of long-term goals.

If you are at war with your thoughts and feelings and you are fighting life events and problems, mindfulness meditation is a way to step out of the battle and approach these difficult situations and feelings instead of avoiding them.
The capacity to recognize all thoughts as being transient mental events, rather than decisive descriptions of reality is crucial to relieving suffering.  The capacity to observe fearful thoughts and feelings in a non-reactive way makes freedom of choice possible.  The ability to observe in a non-reactive way is a way to experience peace and mental stability that reactivity does not allow.
Researchers have found that if patients are able to change their relationship to their thoughts and feelings then healthy thoughts and feelings are able to follow naturally. The patients in these research studies learned the process of assuming a de-centered observing position in relation to their negative thoughts.  The goal is to recognize the earliest sign of a negative mood or thought and apply de-centering skills. De-centering is a three-step process that involves learning to recognize, observe, and detach from negative thoughts.  To be able to do this with negative thoughts, the patient must first learn to de-center from bodily sensations, ordinary thoughts, and common feelings  mindfulness meditation.
You can visualize your mind as an open sky with thoughts and emotional experiences as transient phenomenon like clouds, which pass through but do not become permanent structures in the expanse of the sky.
One person likened the concept of mindful de-centering to perceiving distressing thoughts of shame or regret about his past mistakes as being cars in the ever present flow of traffic.  He identified how he is learning to relate to these distressing thoughts and feelings as vehicles that he can observe and let them pass by rather than climb inside.

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