Whenever I search for a photo that accurately depicts equanimity and the art of mindfulness meditation, I come up short. Stock photo libraries are full of images featuring blissed out models meditating on serene beaches and mountaintops. As an amateur photographer, I appreciate the beauty of these scenes. As a meditator, I know the images are aspirational—not depictions of reality.
Let’s face it, meditation practice can be messy. Not only do we have to carve out a space to practice in a home that might be full of other living beings, but we have our own internal mind clutter to deal with. Taxes. Relationships. To-do lists. Not to mention the barrage of external stimuli — dogs barking, children crying, the sound of traffic, and cell phones chirping.
Life can be messy, too. Fortunately, we do not need to have a pristine internal or external landscape to practice meditation. Meditation, rather, allows us to deconstruct our moment to moment experience so we can separate the feeling tones of our experience from the stories and add-ons that cause us suffering.
Equanimity is the ability to be with what is happening–whether it is pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral—without reacting to it one way or another. It is one of the four brahmavihāras—the sublime attitudes of Buddhism—along with lovingkindness, compassion, and empathetic joy.
These virtues are developed through practice. They are not prerequisites to practice. In fact, equanimity itself is not a natural human mental state. Spend a few minutes alone with your own mind, and you will quickly learn that we are geared to seek out pleasure and avoid pain and boredom.
I like to think of cultivating equanimity as similar to lifting weights at the gym. Each time you invite your mind back to the present when it wanders, and each time you simply receive sensory input without reacting, it is as if you are lifting weights for your brain.
New neural pathways are developed, and weeks or months later you realize you are less reactive to disturbances of any kind. Buddha’s Brain Author Rick Hansen, Ph.D. explains:
“With equanimity, what passes through your mind is held with spaciousness so you state even killed and aren’t thrown off balance. The ancient circuitry of the brain is continually driving you to react one way or another—and equanimity is your circuit breaker. Equanimity breaks the chain of suffering by separating the feeling tones of experience from the machinery of craving, neutralizing your reactions to those feeling tones.”
Equanimity Reduces Suffering
Once the idea of distraction melts away, we are left with the pure experience of our six senses. Once we are able to meet each moment with equanimity, we can stop our painful struggle with reality.
I gave up on searching for the perfect image. Instead, I commissioned a cartoonist to illustrate my typical morning meditation practice, in all its glory. Sound arises, sustains, and fades away, and I wouldn’t change a thing.