On being … a remarkable display of equanimity

By Ingrid Sapona

Though I usually don’t make formal New Year’s resolutions, while I was taking time off at Christmas and on vacation in January, the idea that I should work on cultivating equanimity entered my consciousness. Equanimity is something I’ve thought about before, but I always suspected it’s because I simply find the word pleasing. (I don’t know about you, but there are just some words whose sound and meaning mesh in a way that just tickles me -- like serendipity, salubrious, and equanimity.)

Anyway, the notion kept popping into my consciousness so by the end of January I decided I would embrace it as an actual resolution. And, as is so often the case once you commit to trying to change, “opportunities” that challenge you to “practice” the new behaviour seem to turn up everywhere.

Thankfully, the challenges that have had me working on attaining an evenness of mind, especially under stress (which is basically how Merriam-Webster defines equanimity) generally result from work-related pressures. Indeed, the fact that work is the busiest it’s been for me in years, and that suddenly every client has decided to take on big projects that they all would like done in ridiculously compressed timeframes, has challenged my equanimity often over the past few months. But, so far at least, every time I’ve come close to being swept up in a client’s vortex of panic, just as I’ve found myself headed there I’ve managed to pause and remember my resolution.

I have to say, quite often (not every time, but hey -- I’m a work in progress like everyone else), as soon as I realized I was feeling uneven of mind, the idea that I should be cultivating equanimity popped into my head. Whenever it did, I’d stop, take a breath, and then smile to myself, knowing that, yet again, I was given an opportunity to take action on my resolution.

Even during the few slow times I’ve had the past few months I’ve found myself thinking about equanimity quite a lot. For example, I’ve thought about the nature of it and about whether fostering it is strictly an internal adjustment, or whether you should look for ways to change your life so that there’s less that challenges your sense of equanimity. I’ve also looked for examples of it in others, to see what I might learn from them.

Then came the March 11th earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. Now, please don’t think for a moment that I’m somehow trying to make those tragic events in any way about me. I’m not -- not for a moment. I know that I can’t possibly imagine what the people in Japan are going through, but I have watched with wonder at the reactions of those most affected.

I saw a news report the other day, for example, about a village that was wiped out by the tsunami, but because they had practiced tsunami drills so long, as soon as they felt the earth shake, everyone ran for higher ground. As a result, only a few dozen people were killed. But, another result is that for weeks now, hundreds of them have been living together in the only shelter around. They’re making do with a meager amount of food, no personal belongings other than the clothes on their backs, and no privacy for anything, including to grieve their loss. And yet, there have been no reports of unrest or even complaining that more isn’t being done for them.

In some respects, the lack of general panic about the radiation has been the most amazing to me. I’ve always been afraid of things nuclear, so almost immediately I would have started worrying about radiation impacting the food and water supply in the region, not to mention the air. And yet there has been no sign of mass panic even when, for example, authorities reported the disturbing news that tap water as far away as Tokyo was unsafe for children.

I’m sure many are still in shock at this point (or, from what I’ve heard more recently, suffering post-traumatic stress). And, of course, it’s way too early to get a sense of how people will cope over the long term as they try to re-build their homes and earn a livelihood. But even so, the calmness, stoicism, and bravery I’ve observed has taken my breath away.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve talked with some friends about this and, though many find the overall calmness equally remarkable, some have just chalked it up to a “cultural thing”, or to the fact that Japanese have lived through tragedies on this scale before. While I think those factors do come into play, the equanimity people there have displayed is a model I think we all can learn from.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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