May 18, 2011

3 Ways to Cultivate Equanimity Despite Illness or Disability. ~ Toni Bernhard

Photo: Bill Stilwell

The Buddha taught that there are “four sublime emotions.” By cultivating them, we can help alleviate our suffering. The fourth of these emotions is equanimity. The dictionary defines equanimity as,

“mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

Even if your health is that difficult situation, there are three ways to cultivate equanimity.

1. Use the Buddha’s teachings on suffering to help you “start where you are.”

By suffering, the Buddha was referring to our dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives. All of us have experienced this dissatisfaction. It’s found in our longing for our life to be different than it is, even when we have no control over the particular circumstance in question.

After becoming chronically ill in 2001, I spent my days caught up in constant longing for my life to be the way it was before I got sick. This just made me miserable. Gradually, I came to see that everyone’s life has its share of both joy and suffering, and the only way I could find joy again was to stop trying to change circumstances over which I had no control and, instead, start where I was, with a body that was sick.

Accepting my life as it is, suffering included, is a daily practice and I still fall short at times. A few months ago, a friend was in an auto accident that almost took her life. When I talked to her after she was home from the hospital, we joked that although, right now, she was worse off than I was, in a few months, she’d be better off again.

Sure enough, she’s on the mend and will even be traveling across the country soon. When I heard this news, my mind drifted back to when she was in a neck brace and in terrible pain. Now she’s up and about, but I’m still mostly housebound. The thought arose, “This isn’t fair.” Because I know we can’t control the thoughts that pop into our minds, I didn’t blame myself for that self-focused thought. But we can learn to respond skillfully to those thoughts.

So, I reflected about my friend’s life and about mine, and said to myself, “This is the way life is—it’s that way for her and it’s this way for me.” Then I rejoiced in her recovery and got on with my day.

Don’t confuse the calm acceptance of equanimity with resignation or indifference. The latter two are characterized by aversion to the way things are; then we feel stuck and unable to act. By contrast, equanimity is characterized by that “evenness of temper” from the dictionary definition—an open acceptance that’s not a deterrent to action.

And so, with equanimity, I’m able to remain pro-active about my health, always looking for new treatments. But I try to start each day with where I am. I encourage you to do the same: “Start where you are,” suffering and all. Then look around to see what life has to offer.

2. Regard the universal law of impermanence as a friend.

When the going gets rough, seeing the ever-changing nature of life helps us maintain “mental calmness and evenness of temper.” I engage in what I call “weather practice,” recognizing that physical symptoms and stressful thoughts and emotions are as changeable as the weather; they blow in and blow out like the wind.

I also like to think of physical symptoms and stressful thoughts or emotions as waves on the ocean of life. They rise and they fall. Instead of going rigid in the face of them, I try to calmly and steadily ride the ups and downs (a skill I learned from years as a surfer!).

Seeing clearly the ever-changing nature of life is a big relief because it helps me not to identify with a particular physical symptom or stressful thought or emotion as all that I am. When I see that I am not just pain, I am not just frustration, I am not just sadness, it helps me calmly wait for things to change.

3. Be content to take baby steps in the direction of equanimity.

There’s a quotation from the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, that I’d committed to memory before I got sick:

“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.”

Little did I know the profound effect these words would have on me as I face the difficulties of chronic illness. I use this “letting go” practice to help me cultivate the mental calmness and evenness of temper that are at the heart of equanimity. If I can’t “let go” a lot, I let go a little. I can almost always nudge my mind a bit toward letting go of longing for my life to be other than it is. Each baby step makes it easier to take the next one.

Returning to Ajahn Chah’s words,“complete peace and freedom” for me, means not being dissatisfied in any way with the circumstances of my life—opening my heart to its joys and to my own suffering.

If I could do this 24/7, I’m quite certain that my “struggles with the world will have come to an end.” On this score, I’m definitely a work in progress!

*Previously posted on Psychology Today


Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. She can be found online at How to be Sick.

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