Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cultivating Happiness: Equanimity

In previous posts on cultivating happiness we've looked at Attention, Relationships, Loving Kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy. In this, the last post in the series on cultivating happiness, we’ll look at Equanimity.

Identifying Equanimity

Like Loving Kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy, Equanimity is an ordinary state of mind that we all enjoy from time to time. In earlier posts we’ve illustrated sublime states using parental feelings: Loving Kindness is a feeling that arises for a much-wanted first child; Compassion arises when your toddler skins a knee; Sympathetic Joy comes when your fifth grader crosses home plate to win a baseball game. Equanimity is typically a feeling we parents must wait for: It comes when our kids grow up, finish schooling, get married, settle down and begin to take over for us. (I’m not quite there yet.)

Luckily we don’t have to wait until we’re grandparents. We can experience Equanimity earlier in life and learn to cultivate it. The best place to start is to get a sense of what it feels like. And what does it feel like? Peace and serenity. A peaceful heart and serene mind.

A Bob Marley song I sing in kindergarten from time to time cultivates equanimity. It’s called “Three Little Birds.” Part of its refrain goes like this:

“Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing,
Cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

It appears also in Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

The serenity he's talking about here is equanimity.

Near and Far Enemy

Equanimity’s near enemy is apathy. Equanimity is not apathy. Apathy’s quite different. It feels on the surface like simple indifference. "I don't care," says the voice of apathy. Dig deeper and apathy seems to hold stealthy ill will towards ill will. Stealthy because it wants us to ignore the ill will we're feeling. Ignoring ill will doesn't work, though. Ironically, suppressing or ignoring ill will strengthens it.

Equanimity’s far enemy is resentment.

Cultivating Equanimity

We can invite more happiness into our lives by cultivating Equanimity.

To water the seeds of Equanimity repeat these phrases in the morning to cultivate the intention to be happier:

“May my heart be peaceful, may my mind be serene.”

My Spouse
“May my spouse’s heart be peaceful, may her (or his) mind be serene.”

My Children
“May my children’s hearts be peaceful, may their minds be serene.”

My Teachers
“May my teachers’ hearts be peaceful, may their minds be serene.”

My Parents (They don't have to be alive.)
“May my parents’ hearts be peaceful, may their minds be serene.”

My Brothers and Sisters (adapt as appropriate)
“May my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts be peaceful, may their minds be serene.”

Other Relatives
“May all my relations’ hearts be peaceful, may their minds be serene.”

Other People
Use these same phrases and fill in the names of friends, neutral people, and difficult people.

Finish with all beings:

"May all beings everywhere dwell forever in the limitless realm of the ever-present peaceful heart and serene mind."

Stabilizing Sympathetic Joy

By repeating these phrases in the morning, we invite them into our hearts as welcome guests. Once close at hand, these feelings have a greater chance of arising as we go through our day. Instead of feeling apathetic (Equanimity’s near enemy) we recognize opportunities to connect with the world just as it is, without judging or rejecting it.

We may become aware that happiness increases as we accept the world in exactly the way it appears. We may see our understandable desire to “Save the Earth” or “Change the Planet” can actually make us quite miserable and render us incapable of doing anything of the sort.

When we accept things as they are—no easy task for me—we can begin to see things we can do to make the world a better place. We start with simple things, those random acts of beauty and those senseless acts of kindness suggested by the bumper sticker on the car just ahead. We yield at the intersections. With a smile. We pick up the litter across the street. We buy two lemonades from the kid on the corner.

With all this practice, we might feel able to take on other challenges: volunteering in your kid’s classroom; working at a homeless shelter or hospice; hosting an exchange student; taking a foster child; adopting an orphan. Our world widens. We become, as Gandhi suggested, the change we wish to see in the world. And that feels good.

(A personal note on the news media: There is nothing more challenging to my equanimity than the news media, all of it: public radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet. Mercifully, I don’t have a problem with Fox News, CNN, or any of their friends since I don’t have a TV set. Very often I am discouraged by what I read or see in the news. My equanimity goes out the window. I subject myself to this angst because I feel it is my duty as a citizen to stay informed. I sometimes take short “vacations” from the news by shutting it off altogether or by substituting a jazz CD for the news on the way to work. This is my area of particular challenge. Maybe someone out there can suggest a stratagem for dealing with my problem.)


Earl & Vickie said...

I don't know about a stratagem, but it might be helpful to think about when we were younger. Even in our time, the speed at which things are reported and transmitted around the world has increased dramatically. Contrast coverage of both of the gulf wars to coverage of the Viet Nam war. Does that speed improve, or change our lives in any way? Go back 100 or 150 years, how fast did news travel then? I think it is cultural conditioning, just like the idea that someone calling on the phone some how has the right to interrupt any thing we might be doing, however important it might be. I found myself trying to talk on the house phone AND the cell phone at the same time yesterday..... that's stupid.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...


Yes, it's interesting to consider the effect of immediacy in our world. Perhaps we'd be happier if news traveled more at the speed is sailing ships. With the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, that day may return.

As for phones, I agree! In fact, I got rid of my cell phone after one year. It seemed to degrade rather than improve my life.

Thanks for chiming in.

What grades do you teach?


Earl & Vickie said...

I teach kindergarten. I just discovered you blog and have been reading back a bit. You are giving me a lot to think about.

Teaching said...

I agree that we need to cultivate equanimity by not behaving in an ultra reactionary manner... that it serves us and those around us best MOST of the time. But life is an up and down thing, asking us also to be flexible. Sometimes "the house is on fire" and the right action is one of intensity and properly motivated reaction. Same with stuff we hear on NPR or other sources. Sometimes the feelings (which don't feel peaceful or serene) are absolutely appropriate if they motivate us to participate in creating healing somehow, somewhere. I'm not sure that occupying a space outside of serenity means that you are "off the mark". Right action promted by accurate understanding of the situation at hand, it seems to me, would lead one to live a life of equanimity, which may or may not feel particularly serene in any given moment.
I enjoy your posts, Mr. Gurney. I am glad my granddaughter is in your classroom. BTW- she read a paragraph of a Junie B. Jones book to me last week. Well done! I called her last weekend to say that I had bought some books for her at a garage sale and she said, "Oh good, Grandma. Because I'm a reader, you know." Just want to say "Thank you."

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...


An appropriate response might not look too peaceful. But if underneath the agitated surface there is equanimity, that's what I (not always successfully) strive for. With little kids, though, my equanimity is pretty available most of the time.

I am very proud of Kiyana's reading achievements, too. She IS a reader.