Following is an exchange of emails regarding the experience of equanimity between Todd, a participant in our Des Meditation and Mindfulness Group, and myself. Hopefully, this exchange will facilitate a more refined understanding of the meaning of "equanimity" within the Buddhist framework.
Todd: Equanimity has always been difficult for me to completely understand as part of a skillfully, active, and engaged life. It holds a sense of arbitrary, uninvolved ambivalence - neither attracted nor repulsed, not siding with causes; how do we transcend the conceptual right and wrong, good and evil, and do we want to? I know I'm not grasping the non-dual Buddhist meaning, but it is difficult. Todd
Charlie: Equanimity implies a calm and peaceful recognition and acceptance of the reality of whatever is being experienced, that what is, is, in thinking, in speaking, and in acting, particularly in the face of negativity or adversity. It is one of Buddhism’s divine virtues along with lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative and altruistic joy that may or may not predominate in any given circumstance.
It is not arbitrary, since it can potentially be present in any experience. It is not nondual, since it is one of different emotional states. And it does not mean being detached or having no emotion, nor does it imply being passive, insensitive, or indifferent.
I think equanimity is best reflected in the classic Buddhist statements, "The way is not difficult for those without preferences for their preferences" or "The way is easy for those who do not cherish their opinions." One is equanimous in holding and expressing one's preferences and opinions and in accepting or not accepting those of others. Answers.com defines equanimity as "The quality of being calm and even-tempered; composure" and its opposites as "agitation, alarm, anxiety, discomposure, excitableness, upset, worry." I think that definition would have been acceptable to the Buddha. Equanimity is a mental state that can accompany all thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.
Equanimity appears to underlie all experience for the fully enlightened individual who spontaneously experiences the divine abodes (positive feelings) while transcending and overcoming negative emotional states, as they are ordinarily experienced. Negative thoughts and feelings may occasionally be triggered as a result of previous conditioning, but they are simply observed as they arise and pass away. They are not resisted, indulged, or acted out in proliferating thoughts, speech, or action, because there is no sense of a separate self that is attached to or identified with them. I hope this changes the way you think about equanimity in the future. Any thoughts, Todd?
Todd: Yes, but this is where it gets slippery. I see this issue now in "my own" thoughts and actions. One can get to a "that's the way it is" or "that is just the unfolding." Detached and non-attached are very close in attitude.
Charlie: Your comments still suggest that you interpret the word equanimity to mean a kind of passive, indifferent, or uncaring response. That is what the word detached is meant to imply. To be non-attached means one is free to have and to choose to let go of or act upon a thought, opinion, preference, or passion depending upon whether such a response is appropriate and beneficial.
These distinctions may be slippery for you, but for whatever it's worth, they are not for me. Admittedly, semantics may blur the differences conceptually, but experientially the differences are clear for me, even on those occasions when my conditioned negative responses prevail.
Todd: That helped. Maybe it seems more like a passionlessness. I don't know. I used to have such strong convictions and now even my attitude toward something like injustice and equality seem muted.
Charlie: I do know what you mean by muted responses, Todd. I've even experienced grief for what I felt were previously quite passionate responses to certain issues. The lessening of emotional passion is, I think, a definite phase on the path but should not be interpreted as leading to total indifference or absence of any passion. I still experience passion, but it is now with a degree of equanimity that wasn't present before that allows me to see the whole picture with a lot more clarity and to respond in much more appropriate and effective ways.
Todd: I definitely do "see the whole picture with a lot more clarity and respond in much more appropriate and effective ways."
Charlie: And that's why we love the path. Peace, Charlie