October 9, 2011

Equanimity (kind of like Xanax)

On the elusive state of mental calmness.

Of all the concepts talked about in the yoga and mindfulness communities, equanimity has always intrigued me the most. I didn’t get whatever gene inclines a person thusly.

In a very basic sense, “equanimity” implies that one strives to abide in a calm, unruffled state all of the time, off the emotional rollercoaster and completely detached from reacting to the turmoil of daily life. In other words: me on xanax.

There’s more to equanimity, though.

One of my favorite go-to sources for postmodern spiritual wisdom is Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx and founder of the Urban Dharma movement. In his second book, Against the Stream — a nice tidy little “manual for Buddhist revolutionaries” clocking in at a reasonable under-200 pages — Levine describes equanimity as the state of being able to retain compassion and loving kindness for all people — even when they really, really bug you — while still keeping your boundaries and realizing that they have to deal with their own stuff.

It can be really hard to see people going through their sh*t. Sometimes I confuse compassion with pity (these are near enemies in Buddhist parlance) and I find myself feeling bad for people, quickly followed by a compulsion to help FIX THEM. Sometimes my fixing-them compulsion takes the form of generosity, sometimes it takes the form of unasked-for advice, and sometimes it takes the form of bossiness or tough love. Sometimes I can so clearly see what they need, and why can’t they see it? I get frustrated if they won’t listen to me, since I’m just trying to make them better.

I’m not crazy about “karma” language because I don’t believe in reincarnation (bad Buddhist) and feel like this word gets oft misused as it’s bandied about in pop-spiritual circles. But some Buddhists might say that everyone has to deal with and process their own karma. So, when you try to solve other people’s problems for them, you’re basically unlawfully kidnapping their karmic heritage. In other words, you can extend all the compassion and loving kindness you got in you, but at the end of the day, everyone has to walk their own path. You can’t fix their problems, and they can’t fix yours.

This is not to say you shouldn’t be kind, or generous, or offer advice (when asked), or apply your wisdom and experience to new situations that come up. I’m not suggesting that no one ever do anything for anyone else. I don’t want to become one of those arrogant spiritual assholes whose boundaries preclude them from actually being good friends.

But for me, equanimity looks like this: 

All the processing I do with my friends, all the knowing how to ask for help, all the desperate wishing that someone else would just help me figure this whole conundrum out, is not going to lead me to the answers. Because when it comes right down to it, I’m the only one that can solve my own problems. And whether that’s due to karma or just good ol’ psychological development, it’s a sad fact that we are all alone in this world.

Unless you believe in non-dualism, of course.


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