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The Art of Equanimity: Finding Calm In Chaos

 e·qua·nim·i·ty
ˌēkwəˈnimitē,ˌekwə-/
noun
  1. mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.

This word continues to take on new meaning for me. It first entered my lexicon in the fall of 2007 when I attended an intro to meditation class at the Tibet House on west 15th street. Everyone was going on about the virtue of equanimity and ways it could be practiced, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Years later, I’d begin to understand… 

Some time, but not long ago, I found myself in a frenzy of turmoil, as the compounding losses of a relationship, a friendships and the lives of two people close to me, all coincided within a matter of weeks.

From one day to the next, it seemed, all joy was lost. Excitement, extinguished. For the months that followed, I remember feeling challenged to find my center, and how even the subtlest shifts in my environment, such as an unpleasant noise, or comment from a stranger, would be enough to send me spiraling into a hole from which I’d then have to struggle just to find my way out.

And then,

This word began surfacing repeatedly in my mind, as if urging me to do something but I didn’t know what. “Equanimity.” – What did it mean? What was it prompting me to do, or do differently? Change my attitude? Change my outlook? Perhaps, but from what? to what? and how?

My mind scanned fruitlessly for answers for weeks. It wasn’t until several months later that my subconscious produced this memory, and it suddenly all made sense:

A close friend of mine went to see an acupuncturist who made a wonderful analogy. Let me just preface this by saying that the practitioner was described as an archetypal Qigong master with a Fu Manchu, which for some reason, really pleases me. His manner of working was swift yet precise. – Somewhat nervously with needles in her neck, my friend spoke out:

“how is it that you can be so calm with so much going on?” 

“I’m like a race car driver” the practitioner replied.

“What does that mean?” – My friend was stumped.

“The race car driver” he said again.

“The race car spins around the track at 200 mph, but inside, the driver sits still. Other cars pass quickly. The race car makes constant maneuvers. The crowd outside is wild, but inside all is calm.”

Finding calm in chaos… this is equanimity, and it’s easier said than done. But it’s been my experience and it is of my opinion, as a long time meditator, that no practice is more important to cultivate than that which helps you find your balance.

Here is one example of how I fail at it daily:

Just this morning I set out feeling great. I’d gotten an early start to avoid feeling rushed on my way to work and entered the subway with time to spare. Then, SMACK – right into heavy delays. Stuck in the tunnel for over 40 minutes and my heart began to race. Needless to say that all of those calm and confident feelings that follow as the result from sticking to a plan that I control,  my pre-work morning routine, were now long gone and replaced with the panic that arises from being not in control.

One hour later and the train car screeches into the mid-town station. I dash out the door and bound up the steps, bobbing and weaving like Rocky Marciano. I push for the surface, taking the the last three steps all at once and finally, gasp, as if to fill my lungs with the freedom that comes from wide open space. But I’m in Times Square and it’s rush hour. So I imagine myself as a bulldog, or a bulldozer, whichever works best. And I steamroll my way over anything or anyone that dare obstruct my path. Until finally, exhausted, I arrive at my office, collapse behind my desk, and begin the day ahead.

Alternately, I do have instances when I make this same trip, under the same “treacherous” conditions, but somehow do so with a different frame of mind.* I can recall relaxing on the crowded train; feeling happy to have this extra time to breathe, daydream, and read AM New York. I stride off the subway feeling happy and refreshed. I view my fellow mid-town commuters, not as obstacles in my way, but instead, parts of a flowing river of which I am now one molecule. It’s as if I enter a natural stream that floats me toward my destination at its own intelligent pace. I do not resist, and my inner sense of satisfaction remains steadfast amidst my fluid surroundings. I arrive at work feeling calm, peaceful, and happy to begin the day.

EquanimityI wish I could say that this second way was the norm, but still, after so many years it remains the exception. But even experiencing it on occasion is enough to remind me of my equanimity and its worthwhile pursuit. You cannot, after all, always control your surroundings. But you can, with some practice, learn to control yourself.

*For me, the shift from feeling off keel and flustered to regaining my center happens when I:

  1.  Acknowledge my circumstances: I’m stuck in the train and I’m going to be late
  2.  Accept my new reality: I’m going to be late and that’s okay
  3. Re-calibrate my expectations and realign my mind in accordance with my new circumstances, whether chosen or accidental: My new arrival time at work will be 9:20, and for that, I’m right on schedule!

Life tosses us curve-balls. Some major, some minor. The key, I’m learning, is not to shy away from difficult situations but to participate in them, and do so with decency. Consider life as a training ground: Sitting in traffic; riding a train; waiting in line; uncomfortable meetings; riding in elevators – all opportunities to practice acceptance and relaxation under tension. The ability to find calm in chaos is an art, not a science, developed over time.

It doesn’t come easily, and I claim no mastery here. But now, when I find myself in an intense situation, that could cascade into something that is “too much to bear”, I remind myself of the race car driver. I let go resisting, and allow myself to be among the intensity without being consumed by it. Remembering, all the while, despite how tumultuous my environment may be – that inside… all is calm.

 

 

 

5 Comments

  • Riz says:

    This reminds me of one of the worst moments of my life. I took a girl to see the Rolling Stones, and got scammed into buying fake tickets. All the pain of seven hells began to needle my brain, but I decided to IMMEDIATELY ACCEPT IT and move on. I bought 2 more tickets legitimately and we went in.

    While inside, she looked at me and asked, “how are you not incredibly pissed off right now. Are you really this Zen?”

    I said, “The Rolling Stones are about to go on.”

    • Ben says:

      Love it! Perfect – and a good example of the flawless execution of “Acknowledge, Accept, and Re-calibrate” AKA – move on from the shite and enjoy the good. Thanks Riz

  • judith says:

    The Qigong Master’s analogy is a powerful image. Thank you!

  • Holly says:

    I have done this often, but out of necessity. Thanks for sharing the breakdown. Circumstantial chaos is easier than emotional.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Holly, Even “inner chaos” I would say, is external chaos. The true inner most Self, the essence is still. Tapping into that stillness, I agree, is easier said than done. Thanks for sharing

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