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Cultivating Equanimity -- How to Remain Calm, Composed and Present

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"I found the secret to life. I'm okay when everything is not okay." -- Tori Amos

What if you could have mental calmness, composure, and presence of mind, especially in difficult situations? That's the definition of equanimity, a state of mind that exemplifies the polar opposite of what many of us experience in our daily lives -- anxiety, stress, and distraction. It doesn't take drugs to achieve this state of mind, just a simple mental exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day, every day.

Life is constantly throwing new things at you. To deal with them, you could take one of three approaches. You could stand your ground, like a rocky crag in the ocean, resisting and striving to fight against the barrage. However, ultimately, resistance is futile. The ocean of life is stronger than you, and it will break you down if your only response is resistance. Alternatively, you could try floating on the surface, like a cork, just going with the flow. Although this approach seems safe, as a piece of flotsam you risk being dashed against the rocks or thrown upon the shore. The third approach is the middle way, a buoy that is tethered to the ocean flow, allowed to rise and fall with the waves, but not to get thrown around. The buoy exhibits a kind of equanimity, a centered resilience that allows it to survive in any kind of weather.

Or consider the entertainer who spins plates balanced on sticks. Life is like their trusty assistant, who is constantly throwing new plates into the mix. The entertainer also has three options. He could try to catch them all and keep them all spinning, but eventually there will be too many, and he will fail. He could try to dodge the plates, but he would be missing important opportunities, and there would be a lot of broken plates. Or he could develop a way to catch each plate and quickly decide whether to spin it or gently set it aside. Obviously, this way requires practice and focused attention, just as it does in real life. But practicing focused attention is not something most of us do, or even know how to do.

Much like exercising our bodies to keep them functioning optimally, we all need an exercise regimen for our minds. Humans have been wanting equanimity for thousands of years, and a very specific technique has been honed over that time to cultivate the presence of mind that results in calmness and composure: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is not mystical or religious. Like working out in the gym, it is also not hard to learn, but does take some discipline. And it really works. The scientific evidence demonstrates that mindfulness meditation results in overwhelmingly positive effects. It has been shown to minimize rumination, emotional reactivity, distraction, anxiety and depressive symptoms, while simultaneously improving emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, resiliency, relationship satisfaction, immune function, intuition, and information processing speed.

As humans, we all have shortcuts for handling the onslaught of events and information in our lives. Emotions and habits are two such shortcuts that serve as real, useful strategies, but which, like some drugs, we come to rely on too heavily. The primary shortcoming of both emotions and habits is that they take the conscious mind out of the decision making loop, and it's not uncommon for the resulting behavior to be completely out of line with our goals. Mindfulness meditation teaches us to insert two important steps between an event and our response to it: noticing and reflecting.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise that repeats a simple four-step cycle: 1) focusing on your breath (this is the "action" or "response"), 2) inevitably getting distracted by a thought or emotion (this is the "event"), 3) stepping back and noticing that you've been distracted, 4) reflecting on the thought or emotion without judgment and letting it pass (this prevents you from perseverating on it), and then 1) returning the attention to the breath. During the course of a given meditation, this cycle is usually repeated dozens or hundreds of times. Each time it's repeated, it's kind of like doing "reps" at the gym -- you learn to make noticing and reflecting default responses, instead of relying on other habits or emotions.

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Mindfulness is so closely linked with equanimity because it directly teaches you to take the middle path -- to not resist or cling to things, and to not just let things happen to you willy-nilly. You quite literally train yourself to notice and reflect before responding, and as a result, your behaviors become reasoned, conscious responses.

Personally, since adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice of about 20-30 minutes per day, I've noticed a myriad of positive, equanimous effects. My relationships with my closest loved ones have improved significantly. I've relearned the importance of listening and noticing, and am experiencing a rebirth of my child-like sense of wonder and amazement. My resilience, persistence, and willpower have improved, making it easier for me to get things done. I feel centered, grounded, and able to weather any storm. My tolerance for "disagreeable" things has increased, and I've started to feel the beginnings of a true sense of compassion for others.

Convinced that you'd like to try to cultivate equanimity through mindful meditation? Try taking a class -- they are becoming common as parts of well-being programs in corporations and through health care providers. Look for classes that teach MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). You can also try using one of the many meditation apps -- Headspace is a particularly good one for beginners. To make it stick, try joining a meditation group. Making it regular and consistent will have you on the middle-path to equanimity in no time.

This article was adapted from a talk entitled "Cultivating Equanimity" given at Convox 2014. Click through to see a video and slides.

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