On two opposite sides of the world, 2 different groups were discovering a key to freedom, clarity, and the path to wisdom. While mindfulness may have played some part in the practices of both, modern research, Buddhists and Stoics indicate equanimity is a pearl of great value.
What Is Equanimity?
Equanimity is the ability to view pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, all with equal interest. Equanimity treats all experience as old friends welcomed into your home. Each gets the same level of attention, each holds our interest. None tire us or need to be handed their hat.
The Stoics used 2 words associated with the English “equanimity:” apatheia and ataraxia.
Apatheia- Free From Passions
Apatheia should not be confused with the modern English word apathy (implies an uncaring attitude toward something one should care about or own some responsibility for). Apatheia described a mind free from being disturbed by passion and suffering. Think of it as not being trapped in a course of action that was triggered by emotion. It was not a detachment from the world or from emotion – it was the realization that emotional reactions are the opinions that our minds/bodies give to us regarding a situation. When you feel afraid, for example, you might evaluate the situation and say that “X made you feel afraid.” But it wasn’t X itself. It was the memories, emotional reactions, information you know about X, etc. to X that elicited fear. For Stoics, apatheia is freedom from being driven by the mental, knee-jerk reactions and the ability to see and choose more appropriate ways to interact with X.
Apatheia does not mean ignoring feelings either. Sometimes emotions point us in the right direction- but many times they do not. If the physical response fear is appropriate, use it as a tool. Let the physical manifestations we label “fear” help you get out of danger- use your quickened pulse, your heightened senses, and your tensed muscles to respond. When you no longer need the tool of fear, notice how it feels to put the tool away (i.e. the subsiding of the emotion) until it is put to necessary good use in future experiences.
Ataraxia- Without Disturbance
Ataraxia can get confusing in its relation to apatheia. Ataraxia describes the urges associated with pursuing the good and avoiding the bad. It can be translated as “without disturbance.” When you are freed from being hemmed-in by unhelpful mind/body reactions (apatheia), you enter a state of being undisturbed, and experience tranquility (ataraxia) with the events of life.
Buddhists explain equanimity differently. Equanimity is one of the Four Sublime States that include:
Metta– Loving-kindness, a boundless heart, or unconditional love.
Karuna- Compassion. “The quivering of the heart in response to suffering.”
Mudita- Sympathetic joy.
Upekkha- Equanimity. The ability to remain stable when our hearts are open; freedom from emotional entanglement.
What Equanimity Is Not
As the descriptions above suggest, neither Buddhists nor Stoics shunned emotion. The goal was never to repress or deny emotion. Emotions are a kind of energy of the mind, and can be used as a sailing ship uses wind. Sometimes the winds do not blow in the most favorable direction, but equanimity positions us to better accept and a harness that energy for positive use.
In fact, some research is calling for further investigation of equanimity as the actual benefit of mindfulness (although mindfulness isn’t necessarily the only method for cultivating equanimity). If so, more robust metrics and definitions are needed to asses the depth and benefits of equanimity in relation to other mind states and mental processes.