Practicing Equanimity in a Time of Emergency

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh

When I first heard about COVID-19 in January, I knew I’d have to dial up my equanimity mode. Equanimity is an evenness of mind, considered by Buddhists as one of four Brahma Viharas (sublime attitudes, or immeasurable abodes). Equanimity enables us to remain alert for danger while calm – and level-headed in the midst of emergency – all on an even keel.

Equanimity doesn’t mean indifference. Mindful equanimity is grounded in caring. When I’m open-hearted and present with the suffering within and around me, then I can engage in meaningful compassionate action. Since a person can be a carrier of COVID-19 and remain asymptomatic, when I’ve done all I can to be safe, then I’m glad to know I’m not a vector for the virus to travel on to others.

Equanimity means inclusivity. It’s interesting to note how this isn’t an epidemic we’re living through but a pandemic. The Greek roots of the word pandemic mean “pertaining to all people; public, common.” It’s vital we not let this pandemic fracture or fragment our commonality. The fact we all could eventually contract this virus is a most strange but very real reminder that we are all one.

The inclusivity of equanimity means embracing our pain and our joy as one. It also means acknowledging obstacles as well as breakthroughs. While I’m hopeful for breakthroughs, I’d like to point out three common obstacles in our path. With mindfulness, we can stop, breathe, and smile at ourselves before our awareness gets hijacked by our habit energies of denial, anger, and fear.

It’s a common tendency to shut down, go numb, and ignore any 800-lb gorilla in the room. Our deluded tendency to ignore has two toxic cousins: anger and fear. It’s needful to be aware of anger so we don’t blindly act out from its knee-jerk impulses. If I had tickets for this year’s now-cancelled SXSW festival in Austin, I might feel bummed that it was cancelled, push away my disappointment, then let out my micro-aggression on some innocent passerby. Moreover, other people are now living close to the edge, too, and so my anger can easily trigger their own. Say traffic stalls: rather than honk my horn and set off a chain reaction, I can pause, breathe, and smile at my natural instinct, that of others, refrain from honking back, and remain in equanimity.

An equally prevalent, third danger is fear. In these times, we need to stay careful, not fearful. Being in my 70s, I’m in the high-risk COVID-19 demographic. Naturally, I immediately felt scared learning this fact. But encountering my fear with mindfulness, and seeing it for what it is, I knew I needed to recognize, accept, embrace, and let go of my fear, or else it would consume me.

It’s interesting to understand fear through evolutionary science. Fear is a natural warning in the face of danger, but it works differently for humans than other species. A gazelle can leap into fright, flight, or fight mode, sprinting off in an instant. Whether it senses a cougar running behind it or has only heard the sound of a twig snapping – once the gazelle feels it’s safe, it shakes off the adrenaline and goes on its merry way. There’s a lesson here which humans are still learning. Our veins keep pumping the chemistry of fear long after any stressor is physically no longer there; mentally, we still conjure it up. All the more reason to practice mindfulness.

Please consider too how this pandemic has come at a time when anyone can go on the Internet and read dozens of points of view. An intervention you can practice when you feel overwhelmed by fear-mongering media is to ask yourself, “Am I sure? Am I responding to something I’ve experienced first-hand? Or am I thinking there’s a snake in the road when it’s really just a stick?”

To flex your mindfulness muscle, you might try this brief exercise. Visualize the now-familiar COVID-19 virus for a moment. As you see it, what comes to mind? Notice if your body signals fear. If so, where does your body express it? Is your breathing shallow? Heart skipping a beat? Are there tingly sensations? A stab of cold? Since our body is often the first-responder at the scene of emotional difficulty, it’s wise to discern, accept, and understand these patterns before they proliferate.

The great Persian poet Hafiz wrote: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” He reminds us that in the grand hotel of life, fear is a room whose windows face a blank wall. We deserve a better view: the vast world beyond our window. To soothe fear, we can nourish its opposite: trust. When we trust in our inherent strength and essential good nature, and that of those around us, then we know we can get through this storm. We can water our courage and renew our vision at this well of trust.

In these dark times, it’s good to gladden up and counterbalance darkness with light. You might pause, breathe, and smile at all the causes for happiness at your fingertips. Eyes that can see the blue sky. Mother Earth beneath your feet. The luxuriance of green vegetation, and the blooming buds of Spring. You might even take a posture of relaxed, quiet dignity, becoming aware as you breathe in and out a few times. Breathing in, say to yourself, “Breathing in, I heal myself.” Breathing out, say to yourself, “Breathing out, I heal others.” Repeat as needed.

Gary Gach