Secrets to tightrope walking without a net

Why can one person walk with ease across a rope strung between two tall buildings, while another wobbles on a beam five times as wide? Why can one person meet life’s challenges with calmness and purpose, while the next person seems buffeted by the slightest turbulence? The difference may well be the quality of equanimity, “mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

My own recent failures to maintain composure led me to reflect on my capacity for equanimity. I realize that when I am over-tired or surprised, or when dealing with phone or cable companies, I can sometimes completely lose any equanimity I possess. But at least I am noticing when it happens, which I believe is a step toward deepening my ability to stay calm.

Benjamin Franklin was well-known for developing his character through self-monitoring. He had a checklist of 13 virtues that he considered important, and he evaluated himself every day to see how he had done. His virtues included things like temperance, frugality, sincerity and humility. But number 11 on his list was the virtue of tranquility, which he described as, “be not disturbed by trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” That sounds a lot like equanimity to me.benjamin-franklin-scorecard

Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal writes that the Pali word “upekkha” can be translated as equanimity.  It literally means “to look over”, to become the observer rather than the thinker, to see the big picture. Perhaps the tightrope walker is practicing upekkha when he calmly walks between buildings without a net – is he observing himself from above, visualizing not just himself, but the rope, the buildings, the sky, the earth?

It’s important to realize that maintaining an even temper during difficult times doesn’t mean that someone is apathetic. It is merely the balancing point between suppressing emotions and feelings on the one hand, and overly identifying with them on the other. It’s the sweet spot where you accept that you can’t control the actions of other people, only your own actions and reactions.

Equanimity is considered one of the four great virtues in Buddhism (along with lovingkindness, compassion and the ability to feel joy with others). A study at UCLA on spirituality in higher education concluded that “Equanimity may well be the prototypic defining quality of a spiritual person,” someone who can find meaning in times of hardship and who feels generally at peace with life.

DSCN3334So how do we develop equanimity? Pay attention. Observe what you are experiencing in body, mind and spirit. Engage in self-reflection so that you are more in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Notice when you are reacting rather than responding. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we commit to “meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible,” and embodying an “openhearted presence” when engaging with others.

Bringing more mindfulness to each situation will help you make the subtle shift to being the observer, but it takes practice. You may not always succeed, and sometimes your composure will be shaken, but look back at the end of each day, much like Ben Franklin did, and set an intention for greater equanimity tomorrow.

Time travels

Ready to spring forward? That cute mnemonic device we use to remember to set our clocks ahead sounds so positive and energetic, but it feels the opposite. The benefits of daylight savings time are few, if any, and the costs are high. Do we really still need it?Analog Clock

Our bodies are finely tuned to respond to cycles of light and dark. There’s truth in the adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The facts are these: getting enough sleep is important for physical health, helps you be more productive (leading to wealth) and even affects your ability to learn and remember (making you wise). When the phrase was coined, people didn’t know the mechanisms by which it worked, but they certainly could observe the results.

When we switch on and off of daylight savings time, we take an already-artificial construct (time) and make it more artificial. Our bodies are telling us one thing – it’s time for dinner, or it’s not time to get up – and the clock is forcing us to do something else. Even without daylight savings time, most of us suffer from what’s called social jet lag, a disharmony between our internal clocks and our daily schedules that causes chronic sleep deprivation, contributing to obesity, increases in smoking and higher alcohol consumption. We’re all sleepy when we need to work and wakeful when we want to sleep.

Monday mornings are consistently the peak time of the week for hospitals to see people come in with heart attacks, probably because of the early morning rise in stress hormones combined with the dread of starting the work week. But on the Monday after we switch to daylight savings time, that incidence of heart attacks goes up by 10%. Accidents of all kinds also increase for the first few days after the time change (in either direction).

Benefits of daylight savings time: not too many. Although it was touted for years as a way to save energy, the savings is really only about 1%. Let’s face it, we live
in a 24/7 world and if the lights aren’t on in the evening, they’ll be on in the morning instead. Gasoline consumption actually goes up during daylight savings time because we go more places after work.

IMG_0239Is it nice to be outdoors in the evenings during the nice weather? Of course! It might even help people get more exercise if they go out for a walk, or play a game of softball after work. But I’ve found in my house that everything gets later during daylight savings time. The bright sunlight makes it seem too early to make dinner, so dinner starts shifting to 8 or 8:30. That makes bedtime later. But we still have to get up for work, so sleep is what is sacrificed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t see any groundswell of opposition to DST, though, so I think it will be with us for the foreseeable future.  Just be aware for the next few days that none of us will be operating at 100%. It will take most of the week to have our bodies adjust, so don’t jump out of bed too quickly in the morning – take a moment to breathe deeply before you start the day. Pay more attention on the road and be mindful in the kitchen to avoid accidents. Get plenty of sunlight during the middle of the day, even if it’s just by looking out the window.

Above all, listen to what your body tells you it needs. As Golda Meir said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”