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Disability and Equanimity Need Not Be Mutually Exclusive

A Personal Perspective: Meeting experience with a mind at ease helps one cope.

Key points

  • Equanimity is characterized by mental calmness in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • To cultivate equanimity, one can learn to accept their limitations and “start where they are.”
  • One can take refuge in the universal law of impermanence, knowing that circumstances can always change for the better.
Source: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Source: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The dictionary defines equanimity as "mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation." It refers to a mind that is at ease even in the face of stressful and unpleasant experiences.

With that in mind, here are three ways to cultivate equanimity when chronic illness, chronic pain, or another disability turns everyday life into a challenge. In fact, these practices can help everyone with life’s inevitable difficulties.

1. Start where you are.

Most people know that “suffering” is a word from the Buddha’s first noble truth. That said, most people don’t understand what he meant by the term. He was referring to life’s inevitable painful experiences, including illness and loss. We suffer when we react to these inevitabilities with aversion. We all know the suffering of being caught in a web of not wanting our life to be the way it is.

In my experience, equanimity is the antidote for suffering.

When I became chronically ill in 2001, I spent my days in constant longing for my life to be the way it was before I got sick. This added a layer of emotional misery on top of my physical misery. Gradually, I came to see that the only way I could find a modicum of joy and happiness again was to stop trying to change circumstances over which I had no control. To use a phrase coined by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, I needed to start where I was, with a body that was sick and limited in what it could do but with a mind that was full of possibilities.

The calm acceptance that characterizes equanimity is not to be confused with resignation or indifference. The latter two are characterized by aversion to our life as it is. When we’re stuck in aversion, it’s hard to do anything but ruminate about how bad our life is. By contrast, equanimity is characterized by an "evenness of temper" as the dictionary notes. This calls on us to graciously accept that life is always a mixture of joys and sorrows and that we owe it to ourselves to take action to make things better for ourselves whenever possible.

Sometimes my limitations are severe. Not related to my long-term illness, for more than a year, I’d been living with shoulder osteoarthritis so severe in my right (and dominant) arm that it was painful to move it at all. Indifference or resignation would have had me lying on the bed all day, complaining about how unfair this was. But with equanimity at my side, I was able (for the most part!) to start each day without fighting my limitations. Instead, I worked on training my left arm to help with as many activities of daily living as it could.

Now, I’m recovering from shoulder replacement surgery, and this isn’t easy either. More than ever, I have to start where I am each day with a right shoulder that’s slowly healing and with tough rehab exercises I must do to regain full use of my right arm.

2. Take refuge in the universal law of impermanence.

Seeing the ever-changing nature of life helps us maintain that "mental calmness and evenness of temper" that characterize equanimity. I like to use weather as a metaphor. I think of physical symptoms and stressful thoughts and emotions as being as changeable as the weather. They blow in and blow out like the wind. Better weather may be just around the corner.

I also like to think of waves on the ocean (this comes from my years as a surfer!). Waves rise and waves fall. Instead of going rigid in the face of them, I try to calmly and steadily ride their ups and downs.

I take refuge in the ever-changing nature of life because seeing life as in flux all the time helps me not to identify with particular symptoms, thoughts, or emotions as permanent reflections of who I am. Seeing that I am not just pain, that I am not just frustration, that I am not just sadness, helps me calmly wait for things to change…as they inevitably will.

3. Take baby steps in the direction of equanimity.

Here’s a quotation from the Thai forest monk Achaan Chah from his book A Still Forest Pool. I'd committed it to memory before I got sick:

If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.

Treat this quotation as a suggested equanimity practice, not as an order. Ordering yourself to let go just gives rise to aversion. If I can't let go a lot, I let go a little. I can almost always nudge my mind a bit toward letting go of that longing for my life to be other than it is.

And if I can't let go even a little, with compassion for myself, I let it be until I'm rescued by the universal law of impermanence and things change, so I can let go a little. Each baby step makes it easier to take the next one.

Returning to Achaan Chah's words, his phrase "complete peace and freedom," to me, means not being dissatisfied in any way with the circumstances of my life. Imagine feeling that way, even for a moment. Simply imagining it gladdens my heart.

If I could rest in equanimity in this way, I'm certain that my "struggles with the world will have come to an end." (On this score, I'm definitely a work in progress!)

May you all experience the peace of equanimity—even for a few moments.

Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 18 ("Equanimity: Fully Engaging This Life as It Is") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

You might also find this helpful: What I Won't Forget Should I Regain My Health.

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