How to Find Deeper Access to Joy: Start with a Peaceful Mind

It's hard to find stillness in the face of life's ups and downs. Cultivate equanimity by practicing mindfulness meditation and calming breaths.
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A lot of people I know avoid reading the news first thing in the morning—being confronted with all of the injustices and bad deeds in the world is an unsettling way to start the day. It’s difficult to read about the latest school shooting or the obscenity of human trafficking and keep your peace of mind, and it’s even harder to know how to respond.

The conflict feels more immediate when you witness an unjust act firsthand or are yourself subjected to one—whether your wallet is stolen, your car’s broken into, or any sort of hurtful behavior is directed your way. The answer to this problem is upeksha (non-attachment), the fourth of the brahmaviharas—the qualities of true, authentic, and unconditional love.

This state of mind, taught in both yoga and Buddhism, allows us to respond to the nonvirtuous deeds of others and to all of life’s fluctuations in such a way that we are, as Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey describes it, the opposite of James Bond’s martini: stirred but not shaken. When we cultivate equanimity, we’re moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better, but our deep inner serenity is not disturbed.

Sometimes, commentators on the Yoga Sutra translate upeksha as “indifference” in the face of nonvirtuous, immoral, or harmful deeds of others, but upeksha is better understood as “equanimity”—a state of even-minded openness that allows for a balanced, clear response to all situations, rather than a response born of reactivity or emotion. Upeksha is not indifference to the suffering of others, nor is it a bland state of neutrality. In fact, it means we care—and care deeply—about all beings evenly!

This understanding of upeksha as equanimity stresses the importance of balance. A balanced heart is not an unfeeling heart. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging at it; it feels pain without condemning or hating; and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg speaks of equanimity as a “spacious stillness of mind,” within which we can remain connected to others and all that happens around us, while remaining free of our conditioned habit of grasping at the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant.

See also A Road Map to Acceptance

Find Balance with Mindfulness Meditation

One way to experience equanimity is to experiment with mindfulness meditation. Rather than fixing attention on a single object, such as the breath or a mantra, mindfulness meditation involves the moment-to-moment awareness of changing objects of perception. Mindfulness is like a floodlight, shining awareness on the whole field of experience—including sensations, emotions, and thoughts—as they arise and pass away in the dynamic, ever-changing flux that characterizes the human mind-body experience. Mindfulness allows you to see the nature of the unfolding process without getting caught in reactivity, without identifying with your sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

This insight changes your relationship to the mind-body. The waves will keep coming, but you won’t get swept away by them. Or as Swami Satchidananda often said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!” This ability to remain balanced amidst ever-changing conditions is the balance of equanimity.

There’s an old story that illustrates the wisdom of this state of mind: A farmer’s most valuable asset is the horse he owns. One day, it runs away. All the townspeople commiserate with him: “Oh, what terrible luck! You’ve fallen into poverty now, with no way to pull the plow or move your goods!” The farmer merely responds, “I don’t know if it’s unfortunate or not; all I know is that my horse is gone.”

A few days later, the horse returns, and following it are six more horses, stallions, and mares. The townspeople say, “Oh! You’ve struck it rich! Now you have seven horses to your name!” Again, the farmer says, “I don’t know if I’m fortunate or not; all I can say is that I now have seven horses in my stable.”

A few days later, while the farmer’s son is trying to break in one of the wild stallions, he’s thrown from the horse and breaks his leg and shoulder. All the townspeople bemoan his fate: “Oh, how terrible! Your son has been so badly injured; he’ll not be able to help you with the harvest. What a misfortune!” The farmer responds, “I don’t know if it’s a misfortune or not; what I know is that my son has been injured.”

See also Calm Within

Less than a week later, the army sweeps through town, conscripting all the young men to fight in a war—all except for the farmer’s son, who cannot fight because of his injury.

The fact is, you can’t know what changes your life will bring, or what the ultimate consequences will be. Equanimity allows for the mystery of things: the unknowable, uncontrollable nature of things just as they are. In this radical acceptance lies peace and freedom—right there in the midst of whatever pleasant or unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go. Cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, and joy will open your heart to others.

Equanimity balances the giving of your heart’s love with the recognition and acceptance that things are the way they are. However much you may care for someone, however much you may do for others, however much you would like to control things (or you wish that they were other than they are), equanimity is a reminder that all beings everywhere are responsible for their own actions, and for the consequences of their actions.

Without this recognition, it’s easy to fall into compassion fatigue, helper burnout, and even despair. Equanimity will allow you to open your heart and offer love, kindness, compassion, and joy, while letting go of your expectations and attachment to results. Equanimity endows the other three brahmaviharas with kshanti: patience, persistence, and forbearance. So, you can keep your heart open, even if the kindness, compassion, and appreciative joy you offer to others is not returned. And when you are confronted with the nonvirtuous deeds of others, equanimity will allow you to feel compassion for the suffering that underlies their actions, as well as for the suffering these actions may cause others. It is equanimity that brings immeasurability, or boundlessness, to the other three brahmaviharas.

See also Curvy Yoga: A Sequence for Feeling at Home in Every Pose

Observe Your Asana Practice

Your asana practice offers an opportunity to become better at recognizing where, when, and how you get caught in, or swept away by, reactivity, and to observe your attachment to results. You may even observe an attachment to results in your motivation to practice in the first place! The desire to feel good and avoid the unpleasant may very well condition your whole experience of practice. But fixating on the results can cause you to miss key aspects of the process.

As you continue in your asana practice, at some point it’s likely that factors outside your control—anatomical realities, injury, aging, or illness—will affect your practice. When they do, you’ll have a chance to practice equanimity by letting go of your attachment to the results you had been seeking.

Equanimity gives you the energy to persist, regardless of the outcome, because you will be connected to the integrity of the effort itself. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that this attitude of focusing on the action without attachment to the outcome is yoga: “Self-possessed, resolute action without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” Similarly, Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutra (1.12–16), that abhyasa (continuous applied effort) coupled with vairagya (the willingness to observe experience without getting caught in reactivity to it) will lead to freedom from suffering.

See also 16 Yoga Poses to Find Instant Calm and Peace

Use Meditation to Cultivate Equanimity

For a formal practice that will cultivate equanimity, begin with some calming breaths or a mantra meditation. Once you feel calm, reflect on your desire for happiness and freedom from suffering, both for yourself and for others.

Contemplate your desire to serve the needs of others and to be compassionately engaged in the world. Acknowledge both the joy and the suffering that exist—the good deeds and the evil ones. As you continue to breathe into your heart’s center, acknowledge the necessity of balancing your desire to make positive change in the world with the reality that you cannot control the actions of others.

Bring to mind the image of someone for whom you have no strong feelings one way or another. With this person in your mind’s eye, repeat the following phrases to yourself, coordinating with the outbreath if you like:

• All beings like yourself are responsible for their own actions.

• Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.

• Although I wish only the best for you, I know that your happiness or unhappiness depends on your actions, not on my wishes for you. May you not be caught in reactivity.

Feel free to use other similar phrases of your own devising. After a few minutes, shift your attention to your benefactors, including teachers, friends, family, and the unseen workers who keep the societal infrastructure working. Silently repeat the phrases to yourself as you contemplate these benefactors.

See also A Flow to Calm Your Crazy Monkey Mind for Meditation

After several minutes, begin to reflect on your loved ones, directing the phrases to them, and then to the difficult people in your life. Although feeling kindness, compassion, and joy for those we love comes more easily than it does for those with whom we have difficulty, it is often the opposite with equanimity. It’s a lot easier to accept that those we dislike are responsible for their own happiness than it is for those we care for deeply, because we feel more attachment to them.

Whatever your experience, simply note any reactivity, and see if you can be equanimous with your reactivity! Broaden your reach after a few minutes to include all beings everywhere throughout the world, and then finally contemplate equanimity in regard to yourself, noticing how taking responsibility for your own happiness and unhappiness can feel the most difficult of all. Repeat these phrases to yourself:

• All beings, including myself, are responsible for our own actions.

• Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.

• Although I wish only the best for myself, I know that my happiness or unhappiness depends on my actions, not my wishes for myself. May I not be caught in reactivity.

When you cultivate the other three brahmaviharas: metta (the friendly quality of kind regard), karuna (the compassionate response to the suffering of others), and mudita (the delight in the happiness and success of others), it is equanimity that will ultimately allow you to truly expand your capacity to experience this kind of boundless love for those beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, opening to the infinite capacity of your heart to embrace all beings.

Story originally published in August 2010.

See also Real Joy, Right Now: Stop Waiting to Be Happy