I was driving to the grocery store the other day and made the mistake of pulling in front of someone who apparently thought she owned the road we were driving on.
Legally, I was in the right. I came to a full stop at the red light. I looked left before I turned onto the road. My mistake, apparently, was not seeing how fast this woman was driving in her Lexus.
We were in a suburban area, in a thirty-five MPH speed zone. She had to be going fifteen miles over that speed zone.
Needless to say, she wasn’t happy that I had pulled in front of her and was impeding her progress to wherever place she was going. She zoomed up to within inches of my bumper. I could see her in my rear-view mirror gesticulating and mouthing curses at me.
Here I was, out to get some milk, and suddenly my life was in my hands.
Up ahead, where the road split into multiple lanes, she zipped around me, giving me the finger in the process. At the next light, I pulled up next to her and looked over. She was tapping away on her smartphone, oblivious to me watching her.
The light turned. She sped on. I took a deep breath and continued onto the store, having survived another skirmish in the war zone of modern-day living.
We live in a rapid-fire world where emotional response time is measured in nanoseconds. As our technology grows more powerful and more pervasive, so it seems does society’s collective impatience.
We tweet first and think later. Rage and intolerance are everywhere – on the roads, in our schools, in the workplace. We then get to see and hear these acts of bad behavior played out in the news and in social media, to be repeated by unthinking copycatters.
This instantaneous emotional act-react cycle happens unconsciously, leading to some awful stuff. Accidents. Shootings. Wars. Suicide. Misunderstandings. Tragedies of all shapes and sizes.
We display such impatience and intolerance not just towards others, but towards ourselves and our relationships. We place unreasonable expectations for what we think we can get done in a given hour, day, or lifetime. And then, if we don’t get it all done, we beat ourselves up in language as merciless as used by the woman shouting at me in her mirror.
But whether directed internally or externally, the act-react cycle of unconscious emotional responses leads to the same place: destruction. In our lack of awareness for why we act and react in certain ways (and why others do as well), we pile pain upon pain, corpse upon corpse, until one day one of those corpses is our own.
I’m convinced that what we desperately need more of in this world is a largely forgotten term by the name of equanimity.
Equanimity comes from the Latin roots of aequ, meaning even or equal, and anim, as in spirit or feelings. Webster defines equanimity as “evenness of mind” and the quality of having a “balanced disposition,” particularly under stressful or adverse conditions.
I like to define equanimity somewhat differently as the conscious insertion of awareness between stimulus and emotional response.
Every emotion we feel is a reaction to some stimulus: something we see, something we think, something we perceive. Positively perceived stimuli lead to positively expressed emotions such as love, joy, happiness, and peacefulness. Negatively perceived stimuli result in negative emotions like fear, dread, anxiety, and depression.
We tend to think of emotional responses as things that we have no control over. While that’s true for involuntary nervous system functions such as the flight-or-fight response, we do have a choice over most of our other emotional responses in life.
We make those choices in how we think, in what we say and do, in the situations in which we place ourselves, and in the belief systems that fuel our perceptions. But to make that choice, we must be aware of our own inner act-react cycle and emotional triggers.
Through conscious awareness, we get to decide where on the emotional spectrum we end up. We climb the ladder from negative emotions to positive emotions by being aware of our triggers and then choosing the response that leads to positive outcomes.
For much of my life, I was unaware of my own inner act-react cycle. In my mad drive to achieve, to prove to myself and others that I was worthy, I created an immense amount of suffering for myself, while missing out on the joy and peace of the present moment.
Fortunately, I awoke to the really important lessons of life before I burned out like a moth in a flame. Through my experiences, I have become more aware of my inner emotional machinery and am now better able to choose reactions that lead to peace, not agony.
I have gained equanimity.
What is this equanimity I’ve gained?
It’s the peace of mind that comes from experiencing emotions without being consumed by them.
It’s the fearlessness that comes from knowing that nothing I could ever go through in the future, not even death, could be as terrifying as the darkness I’ve been through.
It’s the freedom that comes from knowing that I don’t need to do anything, be anything, or prove anything – to others or to myself – to be worthy of this life.
It’s the quietude that comes from allowing life to unfold at its own pace, not the way I’d like it to be.
It’s the confidence that comes from knowing that, by and large, we create our own reality on this earth by the stories we are telling ourselves, and that if we want a different reality, we first need to change our story.
Equanimity is not about becoming some kind of emotionless automaton – far from it. How bleak life would be without emotions! Equanimity is also not about expecting that we will never experience pain or loss again – there will be plenty of it.
But when we finally come to accept that we live in a temporal world where all things come and go, including everyone and everything that we hold dear, we can be wise in how we choose to react and thereby minimize the amount of drama and suffering in our lives, and the world in general.
May you find wisdom and peace in your own journey to equanimity.