The Trouble with Overreaction

Think of those moments when you found yourself overreacting to the fluctuating circumstances around you. These instances often plunge us into a cascade of emotional upheaval. It’s you, being stuck in the hustle-bustle of an unexpected traffic jam, or feeling irritated by an insensitive comment off-the-cuff from a colleague or friend. Or perhaps it’s the anxiety that grips you when things don’t go as they were meticulously planned. In these whirlwinds of overreaction, we tend to distort our understanding of the situation, thereby spiraling into stress, confusion and dissatisfaction. What is it that you need in these moments?

In the quest for inner peace and outer expressions of wisdeom and stability, the concept of equanimity offers a compelling perspective. Rooted in ancient wisdom yet incredibly relevant in our modern world, equanimity teaches us about maintaining mental calmness, composure, and balance, especially when faced with life’s inevitable challenges.

Different Defintions That Round Out the Concept of Equanimity

Equanimity, as a psychological and philosophical concept, has been the subject of various research studies and scholarly interpretations. Here are three research-backed definitions that capture different aspects of equanimity:

  1. Equanimity as Emotional Balance: A study published in the journal “Mindfulness” defines equanimity as “an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).” This definition emphasizes the even emotional response to different experiences, highlighting the ability to maintain stability and composure irrespective of whether the experience is positive, negative, or neutral.Reference: Desbordes, G., Gard, T., Hoge, E. A., Hölzel, B. K., Kerr, C., Lazar, S. W., … & Vago, D. R. (2015). Moving beyond mindfulness: Defining equanimity as an outcome measure in meditation and contemplative research. Mindfulness, 6(2), 356-372.
  2. Equanimity in the Context of Mindfulness:  Other researchers discusses equanimity in the context of mindfulness and meditation practices.  They defines equanimity as “a process of experiencing sensations fully while maintaining a balanced state of mind.” In this view, equanimity is about the ability to confront and accept sensory experiences (including emotions) without over-identifying with them, allowing a person to respond to situations with a sense of clarity and calmness.Reference: Hadash, Y., Plonsker, R., Vago, D. R., & Bernstein, A. (2016). Experiential self-referential and selfless processing in mindfulness and mental health: Conceptual model and implicit measurement methodology. Psychological Assessment, 28(7), 856.
  3. Equanimity as Non-Attachment in Emotional Response: In a study exploring the facets of mindfulness, equanimity is defined as “non-reactivity to inner experience.” This definition focuses on the aspect of non-attachment in emotional response, where equanimity involves observing thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. It’s about allowing emotions and thoughts to be present without being driven to automatic reactions by them.Reference: Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27-45.

These definitions, coming from different research perspectives, collectively underscore equanimity as a balanced, non-reactive state of mind, achieved through mindfulness and emotional regulation. They highlight how equanimity involves experiencing emotions and sensations fully, yet without being overwhelmed by them, allowing for a more composed and clear-minded approach to life’s challenges.

Equanimity and the Nature of Existence

At its core, equanimity is deeply intertwined with the understanding of three fundamental aspects of existence as highlighted in Buddhist teachings: Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering), and Anatta (non-self). This triad forms a framework for understanding the transient nature of the world and our experiences within it.

  1. Anicca (Impermanence): Recognizing that all things are transient and ever-changing helps in cultivating a mindset that is adaptable and open to the flow of life. The acknowledgment of impermanence encourages us not to cling too tightly to any moment, be it joyous or painful.
  2. Dukkha (Suffering): Understanding that suffering is an inherent part of human experience allows us to face difficulties with a more accepting and compassionate attitude. This doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to suffering but rather acknowledging it as a part of the broader human experience.
  3. Anatta (Non-self): The concept of non-self challenges the notion of a permanent, unchanging self. This can be liberating, as it frees us from the confines of a fixed identity and opens us up to a more fluid and interconnected existence.

Equanimity: Not Detachment, But Deep Understanding

Contrary to some misconceptions, equanimity is not about indifference. It’s not about suppressing or ignoring emotions and experiences. Rather, it’s about a profound understanding of their nature, which allows for a balanced and centered approach to life.

Equanimity enables us to fully experience all parts of life – the joys, sorrows, successes, and failures – with a mind that remains steady and clear. This mental state is free from extreme attachment or aversion, and it steers clear of delusion. It allows for a clearer perception of our experiences and fosters a more compassionate interaction with the world around us.

A Look at the Wisdom of Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron, an esteemed Buddhist nun, teacher, and author, has espoused equanimity throughout her work. She stresses that equanimity is not about detaching ourselves from emotions, but about walking through the fire of feelings with a composed heart and mind. Or, as Chodron puts it, “not biting the hook.”

According to Chodron, equanimity is like the sky. The sky does not obstruct the clouds (emotions), nor does it clutch onto them – it allows them to come and go freely. That’s equanimity at its finest: A state of non-reactive awareness and acceptance.

Cultivating Equanimity in Daily Life

While the roots of equanimity are deeply embedded in Buddhist philosophy, its application is universal. Here’s how we can cultivate this balanced state in our daily lives:

  1. Mindfulness Practice: Regularly observing our thoughts and emotions without getting swept away by them. This teaches us to respond to life’s events with awareness and clarity. The practice of noting thoughts and emotions as they arise without attaching to them can be helpful. When an emotion or thought comes, you simply note it without engaging it. When you feel anger, you simply say, “anger, feelings of anger.” Once you have noted you simply let the feeling move on without bolstering it with justifications and thoughts.
  2. Embracing Change: Accepting the impermanent nature of life can help us become more adaptable and less resistant to change. This acceptance reduces our suffering and increases our ability to enjoy life’s fleeting moments. Stoics recognized the impermance of all things. They noted that some expereinces are preferred and some not preferred. But they tried to reamin indifferent to both. Indifferent here is not about a lack of care about one’s expereince. Rather, that when preferred or not preferred expereinces occur, there is an acceptane of them as “what is happening.” This doesn’t mean we should never seek to change unwanted elements of life. It means that we don’t get lost in the emotional ups and downs that accompany the situations of life.
  3. Compassionate Living: By practicing compassion towards ourselves and others, we can develop a deeper understanding of the interconnected nature of our experiences, fostering a sense of shared humanity.  When I recognize that the irritations of others are similar to the ones they find in me, I develop the ability to appropriately tolerate, and offer grace for, the difficulties I find in others.
  4. Recognizing the universality of our frustrations – that the annoyances you experience might very well mirror those that irritate me – encourages an empathy that can guide us to act more compassionately. When we understand that we are not alone in our struggles, that our experiences reverberate within the collective human experience, we are empowered with a deeper sense of compassion. This enables us to respond to others’ irritations with patience and understanding, offering solace instead of further resistance. This shared empathy fosters a nurturing environment where equanimity can flourish.
  5. Time for Reflection: Taking time for reflection  can help us connect with a sense of inner peace and stability, essential for maintaining equanimity. This reflection can be directed in that the goal of the reflection is to consider my own need for equanimity and the obstacles I encounter. This could be done in the form of journaling or guided meditation, for example. Reflection, could also be non-directed. Here I put myself in an open space to recieve whatever may come to me about my own life, or the lives of those I care about. This could be done in the form of walking, or simply sitting in space that is appealing to you.

Conclusion: A Path to Inner Balance

Equanimity is a powerful tool for navigating the complexities of life. It’s about finding a middle path that allows us to experience life fully, with all its ups and downs, while maintaining a sense of inner peace and balance. By understanding the transient nature of our experiences and adopting a compassionate, mindful approach to life, we can cultivate a state of equanimity that enhances our resilience and overall well-being. This balanced approach, deeply rooted in wisdom, is a timeless guide for anyone seeking a more harmonious and fulfilling life.