Shinzen Young, with characteristic rigor, defines equanimity as “Radical non-interference with the natural flow of sensory experience”. Let's start the discussion by unpacking this definition a little.
In this context, the word “radical” is used to mean “at the root”. At the root of what? At the root of the neurological system that processes sensory experience, down to the very neurons. This is the deep level at which resistance exists in every sense stream, and the level at which mindfulness transforms consciousness. The important point to remember here is that even though our mindfulness practice is VERY conscious, applying extraordinary attention to “ordinary” experience, much of the transformative work performed by mindfulness happens subconsciously. So it is best not to be very concerned about what states or insights arise (or don't arise) during formal practice. If you are applying the mindfulness techniques correctly and regularly, the transformation will take care of itself and the benefits will emerge, in time, as if from nowhere.
The term “non-interference” attempts to characterize the attitude of equanimity. It is significant that the term is expressed in the negative, implying that equanimity involves somehow intentionally NOT doing something we normally do. Some different descriptions of equanimity include: non-judgmental present-centered awareness; loving acceptance; giving complete permission to sensory experience to arise, abide, and pass; letting go of the push and pull on sensory experience; and surrender to the will of God. My current favorite term is “deep contentment”. But all of these terms refer to the same non-coercive, non-adversarial processing of sensory experience. In more traditional terms, equanimity is conscious awareness without craving or aversion.
Shinzen's definition is explicit that the focus of equanimity is on “sensory experience”. This is important for distinguishing equanimity from some kind of attitude of inertia towards the circumstances of self and world. Equanimity is not about acceptance of non-optimal circumstances over which we have some control. Trying to improve the world around you and your own behavior is perfectly consistent with equanimity – so long as you are not attached to, or driven by, the results of such efforts. Equanimity is letting go of the internal struggle with your own perception of self and world. This internal struggle, that makes an enemy of the activity of our own sensory system, is at the heart of human suffering. Equanimity is the specific antidote. Concentration and sensory clarity create the environment in which the medicine of equanimity can alleviate suffering by transforming consciousness at the deepest levels. But, as the saying goes, this is often easier said than done.
Everyone begins mindfulness practice from their own place. A variety of factors influence what people experience and what challenges they face when they first sit down to carefully, systematically examine consciousness. Beginning mindfulness students arrive at the cushion with differing levels of physical or emotional discomfort, pre-existing mindfulness skills, history of trauma, attitudes about such practices, and so on. Equanimity is a natural power available to the human nervous system and so some people find their way to it, in varying degrees, by random accident. These people, who already have some native experience with, or propensity for, equanimity may be able to readily follow a teacher's instructions to greet challenging sensory experience with “complete acceptance” or “radical non-interference”. But many people, upon first attempt (or hundredth), are wholly unable to surrender to challenging sensory experience. Saying “give those challenging sensory experiences complete permission to arise” is unhelpful to those who arrive at the cushion with a well-established, radical habit of internal resistance and struggle. So what is to be done?
Concentration and sensory clarity skills can be practiced, and thereby developed, by intentionally directing conscious awareness into a chosen sensory stream. When the mind wanders, you intentionally bring it back. When a sensory event is in focus, you intentionally direct your awareness to penetrate its subtle contours and characteristics. And so concentration and sensory clarity can be developed as acts of will. Not so with equanimity. The paradox of equanimity is that intentionally trying to make it happen is a species of the “interference” with sensory experience we are trying to avoid! But all is not lost.
We cannot make equanimity happen directly by force of will, but we can take some steps that may invite equanimity by pointing our nervous system in the right direction. Trying to systematically maintain relaxation in the body by periodically scanning for tension and releasing it, and being aware of judging thoughts and releasing those as well, tends to induce equanimity in some people. But it is important to remember that trying to create relaxation in the body and dismissing judging thoughts from the mind do not, in themselves, constitute equanimity. In fact, because they constitute acts of will to intentionally interfere with the sensory experiences of muscle tension and judging thoughts as they arise, they are examples of the sensory interference we are trying to learn to abandon.
It is easy to understand the difference between methods used to invite equanimity and the state of equanimity itself, when you consider that it is possible to have complete equanimity with the experience of severe muscle tension. On the other hand, it is possible for practitioners to crave relaxation so strongly that it interferes with their ability to purify consciousness by working with challenging sensory experiences. It is rather common to find some of my students habitually fleeing into states of relaxation because they are pleasant, and avoiding challenging emotional experiences because they are not. Shinzen calls this “getting stuck in a good place”. As relaxed and pleasant as it might be, this clinging to restful states is not equanimity. These students are often not happy (at first) when I try to push them out of their safe, relaxed abode into more challenging experiences. But it is necessary for their progress.
Besides indirectly inviting equanimity, which is often not effective, especially for those facing challenging experiences, what can be done? You will recall that earlier I wrote that equanimity is a natural power of the human nervous system and that some people stumble upon it accidentally. But most of us, apparently as an unfortunate side effect of the evolution of our powerful brains and our immersion in an anxious cultural milieu, have lost the ability to easily access equanimity as a cure for the suffering caused by our illusory sense of a separate, static, reified self. The equanimity path to freedom is still available to us, we just have to rediscover it. But to relearn the equanimity path, we must experience the relief it brings while in a state of high concentration and clarity. But let's examine the whole picture from the perspective of a model of behavior and learning called Perceptual Control Theory.
In our brains, we maintain a highly-detailed model of what self and world are supposed to look like. (When I say “look” I mean also feel, taste, sound etc.). It is an internal text book of EXPECTED sensory perceptions ranging from the very simple, such as the sensations associated with standing vertically, to the very complex, such as impressions of our social status or reputation. When the actual perception of self and world arriving into our brains through our sense organs matches the internal model, all is well. We are content. But when a mismatch occurs – for example we sense that our standing posture has begun to list to one side – alarm bells begin to go off, demanding that we act to correct the mismatch. In response to the sensation of deviating from the vertical standing posture, muscles in the legs very quickly will be directed to re-balance the posture. Once the perceived posture matches the internal model posture, the alarms go off and all is well again.
These neural circuits that attempt to correct any mismatch between perception and the internal model have at their disposal all of our instinctive and previously learned behaviors. When confronted with a mismatch, known behavioral remedies are deployed. If one doesn't fix the problem, others will be tried. Now here is the key point: if no known behaviors fix the mismatch and shut off the alarm, the brain begins to randomly generate new, untried behaviors. When a new behavior proves to be successful at turning off the alarm, it is added to the repertoire that the brain can call on when a mismatch occurs. Consider an illustration.
When you first try to ride a bicycle, it is a dismal affair. You fall and fall and fall again. This is because your brain has no known behavior patterns that can correct the unwanted experience of being unable to control the bicycle. No amount of verbal instruction or demonstration will create the missing control circuits in your brain. But eventually, through random trial and error, the brain finds a new behavior that works for stabilizing the bicycle and adds that behavior to the tool box. The brain will then have a known behavior to keep the actual experience of riding a bicycle in coincidence with the relevant internal model. But for the brain to learn the new, randomly discovered behavior, it must be conscious of the struggle and the resolution. You could not learn to ride a bicycle in any reasonable length of time while simultaneously having an intense conversation on the phone or playing the violin. Learning equanimity happens in the same way.
Consider a formal mindfulness practice, sitting in stillness, in which challenging emotions are arising, causing suffering as you struggle internally. Because this state of emotional upheaval is mismatched with your internal model of what your emotional state SHOULD be (tranquil), the alarm bells go off demanding a correction. Your brain tries to find known behaviors to correct the mismatch, but none are available because you have intentionally cut off the usual escapes of movement, rumination, and distraction. And so your brain, trapped in suffering without a known remedy, begins to generate random solutions to try to turn off the alarm. These random solutions may include frantic thinking, strong emotions, involuntary body movements, even some complete nonsense. But eventually, your brain will stumble onto equanimity. Equanimity makes an adjustment to the alarm mechanism itself, either turning down the intensity of the alarm or turning down the sensitivity of the trigger. And when it does, there is relief from suffering and, if you are in a state of high concentration, your brain will learn that equanimity provides a way to turn off the mismatch alarm and adds it to the tool box. So the next time the alarm bell goes off, your brain can find and apply equanimity. Each time your brain is able to solve the discomfort of a mismatch with equanimity, those circuits get stronger so equanimity arises faster, goes deeper, and lasts longer. This mechanism can help to make sense of some traditional practices. For example, the traditional zen monastic practice appears to be designed to induce the greatest possible sustained physical discomfort and mental confusion in the monk. If we think of this in terms of “cornering” the self into finding equanimity as the only way to turn off the internal alarm system, it makes sense.
Our mindfulness practice, while not necessarily as uncomfortable as the zen monk's, consists of maintaining concentration and sensory clarity for as long as we can, no matter what challenges arise, and denying to our brains the known (non-equanimous) escapes – like abandoning the practice and distracting ourselves with other activities. In a sense, we “corner” our brain into grappling with challenging experiences, in the floodlight of concentration and sensory clarity, until it finds the path of relief through equanimity. For some, the path to equanimity is relatively easy to find. For others, very difficult. But everyone can find equanimity if they persist with concentration and sensory clarity practice.