It’s been a roller coaster of a year. Between finishing up my coursework for my doctoral program and some challenges on the work front, I found it easy to feel on the edge emotionally and spiritually at several points throughout the past ten months. In the little time I have for pleasure reading, I picked up a book called Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. In their book, they describe the Buddhist philosophy of equanimity. The idea of equanimity is that we should create a space around experience so that we don’t have to react to it. Experiences both good and bad are going to trigger a neural response but equanimity teaches us that we are not required to react emotionally to that neural response. In many ways, this reminds me of the great Dr. Viktor Frankl’s statement from Man’s Search for Meaning where he suggests that the last of the human freedoms is “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So how do we cultivate equanimity in the face of trials? A few thoughts:
- Do your best to look for the positive- When it all seems bad this can be difficult. However, I have found it tremendously helpful to intentionally find reasons to be grateful even for small things. Ann Marie Klotz, @annmarieklotz, often asks folks on Twitter and Facebook, “What was your victory of the day?” It’s important to reflect on those victories when it sometimes feels like defeat is all we see.
- “Limit the amount of time you freak out about it.” Another great quote from @annmarieklotz (you really should follow her if you don’t). I am a big fan of the TV show Lost. In one of the first episodes Jack, who is a doctor, relates a story about a surgery gone badly and how he started to feel panicked. He says, “So I just made a choice. I’d let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing, but only for five seconds, that’s all I was going to give it. So I started to count: one, two, three, four, five. Then it was gone. I went back to work, sewed her up and she was fine.” Dwelling on the negative will only give it more power. Limit it.
- Get some sleep! Seriously! This is a case where it is hard to take my own medicine as the first symptom of stress in my life is serious insomnia. In a great article from the Franklin Institute, they discuss that those who handle stress through emotion and anxiety tended to suffer from insomnia much more than folks who were able to channel their stress into a focus on tasks. Control what you can control and then DO SOMETHING about it.
- Tap into your network. Glen Weppler, @wepps, offered some great advice and said that he found it helpful to connect with trusted colleagues and to rely on relationships that he has built. Talking to a colleague can be tremendously helpful in gaining perspective and sometimes triangulating our own feelings or anxieties about a situation. When we are knee (or neck) deep in something it can be very difficult to look at things from another vantage or viewpoint. On the other hand, it can also be emotionally cathartic to have someone validate your feelings and where you are coming from. Just don’t ride too far down the pity train together!
How about you? What are some of the ways you’ve developed equanimity in your own work and/or personal life?
A special thanks to Glen Weppler (@wepps), Ann Marie Klotz (@annmarieklotz) and Christina Schafer (among others) for their words of wisdom!