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.

Advertisements

Intentional living

Many yoga teachers suggest setting an intention at the beginning of a practice. It helps ground you in the moment and keeps you focused on why you are there. But an intention is not the same thing as a goal. Philip Merrill wrote about the difference in Yoga Journal: “It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment…You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”

Life has been busy and stressful for me lately. Luckily, most of the stress is the good kind: getting ready for an upcoming vacation, planning a move. But as much as I want and look forward to those events, they have upended my life a bit, and made me anxious at times. So two weeks ago I began to set intentions as I woke up each morning. Working with an intention has helped keep the stress at bay and provide clarity about what is important.

Some of my daily intentions have been:

Joy. Waking in the morning and setting a simple intention of being joyful that day has been very powerful for me. So many times our days are spent dealing with problems and mistakes, and things that go wrong. We lose the feeling of innate joy that we are born with. Setting an intention of joy helps me laugh with people, find humor in bad situations, and stay focused on the overall happiness of my life even on a bad day.

Organization. While this sounds more like a goal than an intention, my purpose was very immediate on the day I woke and this word came to mind. I think at that moment it was about having an organized mind as much as an organized life; about acting in an organized way rather than jumping from task to task, and worry to worry.

Equanimity. Like organization, the intention of equanimity is about how I react to what’s going on in my life. It’s easy when we’re under stress to overreact, to catastrophize, to overlook the solutions or silver linings. Setting an intention to foster equanimity in my life helps me recognize that while I cannot control what happens, I can control how I react to what happens. It’s my choice of reaction that will lead to either suffering or happiness.

Kindness. It seems to me that kindness is deeply connected to mindfulness. It’s hard to act kindly without being present to what is happening around me and noticing what others are experiencing. Practicing kindness and compassion gets us out of the mind and into the heart. We forget our own problems for a while to focus on someone else. It’s a win-win for all.

Setting an intention for each day helps guide my actions. The Chopra Center quotes from the Hindu Upanishads to explain the connection between intentions and actions:

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention. 
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”IMG_0648

When we set intentions, we direct our will in such a way that all our actions take the course we have chosen. If my intention is kindness, and I choose to act kindly, then I have set myself on that path for the day. It becomes my destiny.

Winston Churchill said that, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” In that sense, setting a new intention each day keeps us present-focused, touching just the one link that will lead to the next.

Juggling Act

“Balance doesn’t mean things stop moving,” Kathryn Budig says in her “Aim True” yoga practice video. She goes on to say that what balance really means is that you are able to handle the wobbling and the moving better. How does this relate to time and energy management?

The concept of life “balance” is complicated; we think of it in terms of choices, in having to give up some of one thing to have more of another. It’s certainly true that we have to make trade-offs in life, and that we sometimes have to consciously choose to devote time to something. Otherwise, it would be just too easy to say, “I don’t have time.” But no matter how good we are at setting priorities and saying no to things that aren’t important, we often end up with a lot on our plates. In those times, how do we handle all the moving pieces with grace and balance?

Having to do my taxes this week is a good example. Yes, I started working on them last month, but I stopped when things got busy, and now only a few days remain before the deadline. Sometimes I think I might be what’s called an “arousal procrastinator”, someone who gets a thrill from doing things at the last minute. Yesterday, when I sat down to work on the taxes for a couple of hours, I felt a little undercurrent of excitement; I was energized to get it done.

Was I truly getting a burst of energy from the sense of “crisis” (essentially a stress response), or was I simply aware that I was moving the pieces of my life productively? Is there a difference, and would I be able to tell?

I like to think that I am not as much of a crisis-maker as I used to be, that I’ve learned to live my life with more equanimity and calm. I plan better now; I don’t do crazy things like decide on Monday to make a dress for a party on Friday; I let other people help me even if I know I can do the job better; I just let more things go.

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher of Buddhist meditation, describes equanimity as a translation of the Pali word, upekkha, which means “to see without being caught up by what we see”, or to see with a somewhat detached understanding and patience. Another Pali word that translates to equanimity is one that means being able to remain centered even while in the midst of everything that is happening around us.

Would I like to stay centered while doing my taxes? Yes! For one thing, I think it will lead to fewer mistakes. When we’re overly stressed, the quality of our work usually goes down. So what I’m trying to do is take plenty of short breaks from the work – getting up to stretch, walk around and look out the window – while not stopping for so long that I lose the flow.

I’m also trying to stay present with what I’m doing. In other words, while I work on the taxes, it’s just the taxes. When I’m finished with that for the day, I’ll turn my attention and focus to the next thing that needs to be done today, instead of worrying about it while I’m working on the tax return. That’s not easy for me – sometimes I feel like my mind is all over the place – but I’m getting better at it. As Fronsdal says, “As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity.”

Keeping balanced doesn’t necessarily mean we have less to do. It’s more about finding that sweet spot where all our best qualities – attention, joy, wisdom, humor – come together to help us appreciate the wobbly ride of life.

“A change is gonna come”

My favorite line about change is one I saw a few years ago on the sign at a church near my house. It said, “When you change how you look at things, the way things look changes.” I love mulling over that line — it’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

Sometimes we choose to change, sometimes we expect change, and sometimes change is thrust upon us. But how we deal with it, from person to person or situation to situation, runs the gamut from graciousness to grumpiness to downright kicking-and-screaming resistance. The only constants are that change will happen and that we have a choice in how we react to it.

All change is potentially stressful, even if we welcome it, because it throws us off balance and out of our comfort zone. But since we cannot grow in our comfort zone, the ability to see change as a challenge or an opportunity has a lot of potential. It depends on what kind of meaning we attach to the change.

Daniel Gilbert, in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, wrote that “When the experience we are having is not the experience we want to be having, our first reaction is to go out and have a different one…It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience…We find silver linings only when we must…”

Another way to change our view of experiences is to cultivate equanimity, or calmness.  In the August 2010 issue of Yoga Journal, Frank Jude Boccio talked about this quality of equanimity .  It is a “state of even-minded openness that allows for a balanced, clear response to all situations, rather than a response born of reactivity or emotion.” In other words, developing this quality within ourselves enables us see the truth of our circumstances more clearly, and to deal with them more appropriately.

An important aspect of cultivating equanimity is recognizing that we can’t control everything, much as we might want to. So it helps us accept the things that cannot be changed, as well as the things that aren’t important enough to change. It helps curb our tendencies to judge and resist the way things are.

Conversely, there are times when we want to make changes, and we rush to do too much at once. The starting point for all change is accepting where we are, and believing in our ability to change and to accomplish our goals. The most achievable goals involve small steps that, one after another, add up to big change. I always tell the people I work with at health fairs not to change too much at one time. Wait for one small change to become a habit, and then move on to something else.

Herbert Benson says that “change in our lives, because of our wiring and conditioned responses, is gradual and cumulative.” If you learned one way of doing something, you can unlearn it, but it will take time. So take a breath along with that first small step, and be patient with yourself.