Equanimity: Standing firm at the edge of your self

A few years ago, I attended a half-day meditation retreat. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d been going to this meditation center with some frequency. The center offered a weekly Buddhist-based 12-step support group that gave me some different perspectives on what has now become a tried and true but well-worn path to living a sober life.

It was to be a four-hour retreat. At the beginning, the facilitator said she was going to “set an intention” for the retreat (Buddhist-types often do this). She didn’t say a word. Instead she said, “this is the intention:” and held up to the group of maybe 15 participants a small whiteboard with a single word written on it— “Equanimity.” She said, don’t worry if you don’t know what it means. Just “sit with it” (another thing Buddhist-types like to say). So, we all “sat with ‘Equanimity’” for a bit. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, though it looked familiar, like one of those words you run across in books that you think about looking up, but never do because it comes up so rarely. It looked like it had “equal” of some kind in it, so I latched onto that part of the word. Before offering to us the standard dictionary definition of the word, she asked each of us to say what came to mind when we saw the word on her whiteboard, after we had sat with it for a bit. I do not frankly remember what anyone other than the facilitator said about the word. After everyone said their thing about the word, she said the definition is: “staying calm, even you encounter difficult circumstances.” That’s pretty close to what google says too. “Equanimity: mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

Cool. To be honest, that hadn’t occurred to me, at all. Turns out, in the Buddhist way of doing things, this word (okay, the state of being described by the word) has a pretty high level of importance. It is the last of the “Four Abodes.” Don’t ask me what “Abode” means in the context of Buddhism, because I don’t know. I suppose it might refer to four ways of being with others or yourself or both? Not sure. Anyway, none of this has anything to do with the point of this blog post, but now you know how “Equanimity” came up in my life, in case that matters.

In addition to remembering what the facilitator said about Equanimity at the retreat, I have a piercingly clear image of what I was thinking the word meant before she gave us the standard definition. And that image will be the point of this blog post—so I guess it’s a really good thing (for me and maybe for you) that she gave us a chance to “sit with the word” for a bit before telling us what it meant. I do that all the time in therapy. If you’ve done sessions with me, you know I will ask questions, or just throw out a word or idea and then ask my client what it means to them. I don’t think I’ve ever actually said, “why don’t you sit with it for a bit to see what comes to mind.” I suppose I fear being typecast as a “mindfulness” guy, which isn’t such a bad thing, but then I don’t want to be any “that kind of guy.” I just want to be me. When I ask a client to think about a word or idea, I quite obviously already have a place I want to go with it, but first I want the client to give me something. I do this for two reasons. First, the client is more likely to take ownership and use ideas they come up with on their own. Second, I can’t tell you the number of times (because it’s happened so many times) that a client will come up with something really great that I hadn’t thought about at all, with reference to the topic, word, or idea I’ve raised with them. So, that’s exactly what happened with me at that Buddhist retreat—I came up with an idea about Equanimity that has little to do with the actual definition, which is funny, but hopefully also helpful.

For some reason, I guess I thought “Equanimity” meant something like “equal parts you and the world around you.” I was grasping for anything that would use “equal” in some way. So, even though I was, you know, dead wrong about the meaning of the word, it turns out the image created in my mind in response to seeing the word on the whiteboard is actually a method of achieving Equanimity in the more standard way it gets used. Here’s how. I had the image of a circle. On the inside of the circle is you, the inner you, your mental and emotional stuff, the stuff that makes you, you. Your self. And here we leave Buddhism behind because in Buddhism, from what I can tell, there’s a goal of actually losing your self. They call it the concept of “no-self.” Maybe I don’t really understand the Buddhist concept of “no-self,” but I can’t quite see it and that’s okay. I dig my self too much to want to get rid of it. Having a strong sense of self has saved my bacon quite a few times in my life. And I encourage it in therapy all the time, asking clients to begin with “I am…” and then once you figure out how to end that sentence, nothing and no one can take it away from you, ever (if you do not let them). I suppose that makes me kind of fierce about maintaining self-hood.

Back to the image of Equanimity. The circle. On the inside is your self. On the outside of the circle is the outer world—everything that is not you. This is reminiscent of an image I used in the chapters on “Authenticity” in Firewalking on Jupiter, but simpler and with a slightly different purpose. So, equanimity is you standing right on the line of the circle, able to face outward to the world and inward to your self simultaneously, as often as you can or must. Equanimity is a choice to stay on that line of the circle, no matter what happens outside of you or inside of you.

Why is this important? How does this lead to “mental calmness, even in the face of difficulty?” Is it related to mental health? Let’s take a look and see.

Long ago now, I defined “mental health” (as opposed to mental illness, which is the purview of psychology and I am not a psychologist) as more or less, having the capacity and willingness to search, to know, to embrace, to experience every aspect of your inner life in whatever way is necessary and could benefit you in your life. (For more on this topic, see my chapters “What is Mental Health, Parts 1 and 2” in Firewalking on Jupiter.) This idea came to me after several years working with clients who seemed to have “dysfunction” of all kinds in their decisions and relationships based on their desire to do whatever they could to avoid their inner selves. To put it mildly, they were afraid of themselves. So much so, they would often ruin their lives just to escape having to be with their self.

Think of addiction. Any kind of addiction. I’ll use gambling. I’ve listened to clients who had really good lives: financial security, long term relationships with love and respect, great careers, and they end up squirreling it all away spending hours and days, weeks and months and years at the Casino, throwing their money down the drain, and wasting their lives thinking of nothing but winning back something, something big, constantly preoccupied by the rolling dice, the cards, or the ringing of slot machines, to take themselves out of their selves. And so, of course, they are all the while paying no attention to their inner life, because they existed almost entirely in the outer world, outside the circle of Equanimity I mentioned before. This is where they want to exist, on the outside of the circle. This happens for all kinds of different reasons, but usually can be summarized as needing the outside world to validate what they cannot tolerate on the inside of their world. When I work with people suffering from addiction, we look at what they were or are trying to escape within themselves, while building back some level of comfort with their inner lives, so they feel less compelled to escape it and live completely outside the circle, so they can eventually stand on the line, the boundary, between their inner selves and the outer world.

Now, let’s go in the other direction of the circle of Equanimity. Psychology has this word: Agoraphobia, which means “fear of the marketplace” more or less. In the common vernacular, it refers to a “shut-in.” You know, the older lady with 12 cats, who never leaves the house. For years, she’s been moving her life down a funnel, which as funnels do, gets increasingly narrow. Maybe she had a marriage, and it went south. She left it while retaining only the bitter fruits of resentment and betrayal. She goes to her job, does her thing, goes home, stays home, stays in her head, lives a fantasy life of what might be, what could be, binging on stories from Reader’s Digest (whoa, look at my age with that reference), okay then, Netflix, mulling about, muttering to herself about how she wished the world was different, less cruel, less uncertain, less unfair, and these thoughts swirl around day and night, as she moves further from the line in the circle of Equanimity, sinking ever closer to the center, leaving the outer world further and further behind in her self-created misery. Think Eleanor Rigby (if you don’t get that reference, you seriously need to start listening to the Beatles, right now).

There’s a corollary of the circle of Equanimity to Attachment Theory. This will require a very basic, and I do mean very basic, summary of Attachment Theory’s recitation of relationship attachment styles in adults. There are essentially three modes of dealing with attachment as an adult, but four categories. There’s “secure attachment,” which is “healthy” and allows flexibility for a person to move into and out of relationships with relative ease and devoid of excess emotional disruption. “Secure attachment style” is basically to relationships what Equanimity is to life. For a securely attached person, they can be part of the relationship without losing a sense of self, or feeling threatened. They can slide back and forth between the relationship and its needs (the outer side of the circle of Equanimity) and then back into themselves (the inner part of the circle of Equanimity) with relative ease. Then there are the “insecure attachment styles.” First up is “Anxious/Preoccupied” insecure attachment style. Someone with this kind of attachment style is “preoccupied” with their relationships, on the constant look out for what might go wrong, and frequently testing it to make sure it is okay, stable, not about to implode or go away. A person with this attachment style could be said to exist on the outside of the Equanimity circle, always looking for external validation from someone other than themselves to soothe their inner insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. This is a bit oversimplified, but there are definitely overlaps here. The last attachment style is “Avoidant,” which falls into two subcategories, of “Avoidant-Fearful” and “Avoidant-Dismissive.” As the name implies, people in these categories avoid attachments in their relationships either because they fear getting hurt or because they are disinterested in keeping up with the responsibilities to someone outside themselves. Whichever the reason, people with Avoidant attachment style live mostly within the Equanimity circle, avoiding too much attention to the outside world, which is where all relationships (other people) reside. Attachment theory (I am a big fan) basically says that moving back and forth on the edge of yourself to the inner part of the circle and the outer part of the circle with relative ease is the most healthy way to give to your relationships and the people in them what they need without engrossing yourself so much into it that you do not pay attention to your own needs. This is part of why Equanimity is good for your mental health and your relationships.

One of the most prominent theories in my field (Marriage and Family Therapy) is called Bowenian Family Therapy, named after a guy named Murry Bowen, who came on the therapy scene in the 1950s or thereabouts. One of his ideas was that family disfunction is related to poor boundaries between family members. He referred to this as “undifferentiated ego mass,” similar to what we would more commonly call co-dependency or an enmeshed relationship. These problems can occur between partners, between parents and children, and between siblings. Bowen thought problems can occur when it is not possible for one or both people in a relationship to exercise sufficient autonomy without causing the other person to feel that their bond, their connection, their “attachment” is being threatened. The goal in therapy with Bowen was to attain what he called “differentiation of self,” in which each member of the family is able to exercise adequate levels of autonomy while also staying engaged and connected with the other person. Like “secure attachment,” “differentiation of self” looks a lot like someone standing on the line of the circle of Equanimity, where they can move out beyond their inner self to enter into the needs of the relationship, whenever they need to, and then move back toward their inner self and away from the relationship when that is what they need, without risking that the relationship or they will suffer from moving in either direction. If two or more people are all standing more or less on the line of the circle of Equanimity and can have a relationship with each other while staying on the line, they will be able to have “differentiation of self” with each other.

If we can become increasingly comfortable staying right on the line between our inner selves and the outside world, we will be able to stand strong no matter what is happening in either place. If you have a strong sense of your self, including your character traits, your personal values, your worldview, your actual and potential contributions to the world, then no matter what might happen in the world (like, say, a Pandemic), you may not be great, but you will be okay. If you have little fear and great comfort with the inner life you lead, you can stand firm on the circle of Equanimity and you will not need to run to the outside world to avoid whatever pain, fear or discomfort arises within you for whatever reason. Attachment Theory might say this scenario means you have developed a “secure base” within yourself. We should not need to run either into our selves to avoid the outside world or run to the outside world to avoid our inner selves. Doing either can be highly destructive, and it has the necessary impact of not addressing the very thing that is causing you to run, which is by itself often destructive.

Staying on the line between your inner self and the outer world while looking in both directions frequently also has the advantage of creating opportunities internally and recognizing opportunities created by others to attain our goals, objectives and overall improved life satisfaction. We will minimize the impact of negative disruptions to our sense of well-being which are sure to come with the random drift of entropy and uncertainty in everything from career, finances, health and the behavior of others. Imagine if you can the advantage of knowing that, no matter what happens, you will be in the best position to weather any storm? This position is right on that line of the circle of Equanimity. Stand on the line, grow strong on the line, and don’t let anything or anyone, including yourself, push you off the line!


Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.