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Real Happiness Day 3: Equanimity

In Sharon Salzberg's new book, Real Happiness at Work, the first chapter is about balance. She discusses several dimensions to balance, but one that I find fascinating is equanimity.  Equanimity is considered one of the four Heavenly Abodes in Buddhism, suggesting not-too-subtly that Heaven can be lived here on earth.  Do we really think the workplace can be one of the levels of Heaven?

Let's suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that equanimity could be achieved at work.  What would it mean? By equanimity, I mean that sense of freedom and balance when we're not reacting strongly to things and wishing they were different than they are.  At work, this could manifest by giving your full attention to the task you are doing now, without worrying about the one after it.  In business, this is sometimes called Just In Time inventory management -- you make the part you need when you need it and not before.  Wait a minute, I hear you saying.  Isn't that just concentration?  What makes equanimity different? Let's explore some questions people often have about equanimity. 

Question 1: Won't trying to maintain equanimity just get me taken advantage of? If people are abusive to me at work, do I just have to sit there and take it? 

Answer: No, equanimity does not mean that we simply accept anything that happens. Instead, it means that we don't spend our time worrying about it when it isn't happening. By focusing on what is actually happening right now, we may see opportunities to act to keep the situation from getting difficult, or see when we need to get out of a bad situation. Usually, however, we are so wrapped up in the story we are telling ourselves about the situation that we miss the opportunities and we blunder ahead unskillfully. One goal of equanimity is to help us to see what we can do as well as what we can't, which allows us both to take the actions we can as well as to accept that we are not solely responsible for everything. By being mindful of what is happening right now, we can see when there is an opportunity to act to improve things. But once we've taken that action, then we have to let go of needing one particular outcome. If we focus too much on one outcome, then we are likely to miss the next opportunity to take action.

Question 2: Is equanimity the same as having a Pollyannish attitude that "it's all good"?

Answer: Definitely not. Real injustice happens. Evil actions happen. It's not all good. Recognizing this is part of equanimity. When something difficult or harmful happens, we recognize it and we feel the hurt, and we remain mindful to find the opportunity for the right action. This might mean getting away from the situation. It means that we don't spend time blaming the perpetrator; neither do we blame ourselves. Understanding that everyone goes through similar circumstances sometimes allows us to connect with the pain that all people feel. Thanissaro Bhikku notes, "There's a passage in which the Buddha taught the monks a chant for spreading goodwill to all snakes and other things...Strikingly, the chant concludes with the sentence, 'May the beings depart.' This reflects the truth that living together is often difficult."

Two stories in the book help to show this use of equanimity. On page 25, David, an executive assistant with a boss who frequently lost her temper, found that the boss's temper tantrums were just like our daily passions -- they arise and pass fairly quickly. "I saw how mental explosions happened and how quickly they passed if I didn't freak out and break my mindfulness...I no longer live in fear of her tirades or take them personally. I know how quickly they pass."

Similarly, Stephanie, a bank manager reacted to being publicly insulted by an abusive boss by quitting. This story shows that equanimity does not mean doing nothing. It means accepting that both good and bad happen regularly, they both pass quickly, and they present opportunities for action if we are able to not get stuck in our story about blame, needing a specific outcome, or worrying about whether we "deserve" what we is happening.


Douglas Gentile is a member of the Interdependence Project and regular contributor to the IDP blog. Photo source: Here

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A world where that little share of happiness alloted to beings is mostly secured after many disappointments, failures and defeats; a world where only the courage to start anew, again and again, promises success; a world where scanty joy grows amidst sickness, separation and death; a world where beings who were a short while ago connected with us by sympathetic joy, are at the next moment in want of our compassion - such a world needs equanimity. - psd to bootstrap

Real Happiness Day 3: Equanimity

Equanimity is considered one of the four Heavenly Abodes in Buddhism, suggesting not-too-subtly that Heaven can be lived here on earth.
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