Equanimity: How to be Happy No Matter What

When the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, describes the way his country and people have been ravaged by the Chinese he looks sad. But he has been known to follow this description by saying, “But I’m pretty happy.” How is it possible that a man living in exile, having been through so much, could be happy?

We can all relate to him in some way. We live in a very imperfect world and injustice is all around us. It’s the young person dying of cancer, it’s the genocide occurring on the other side of the planet, it’s the way our boss treats us. Things often aren’t right and it’s easy to fall into one of two patterns. We pull away from what’s wrong and turn off. “I don’t care,” we say. We shut down emotionally and refuse to feel. Or we get overwhelmed and find ourselves exhausted by anger or sadness.

This happened to me when I was student working with people with cancer. I was seeing a 17 year old with Leukemia and he wasn’t getting any better. The worse his prospects became the harder it was to go into his hospital room to talk with him. The closer I would get to his room the more anxious I would feel. “How could this be happening?” I wondered. “He hasn’t even had a chance to live and he’s already dying.” I was so upset I couldn’t concentrate on what he needed. I would go home every day exhausted.

Mindfulness was a profound help to me, particularly the practice of equanimity. Equanimity is balance of mind. Imagine you are riding a bicycle. If you lean too far to the right or left you fall down, but the sweat spot in the middle allows you to keep moving forward. Equanimity is that sweet spot. Once I found it I could do my job again.

There are many ways to practice equanimity and the payoff is that you feel overwhelmed less and more able to reach out and help yourself or others. With equanimity you can move through challenging situations at work or at home more effectively.

One way to practice is to recognize that life is unsatisfactory at times and it always will be. This isn’t apathy, it’s accepting that it’s the nature of life to be full of both ups and downs. It’s not your fault or your responsibility, it’s just the way things are. When we forget this we risk exhausting ourselves by struggling against the way things are. That energy can be better spent in many ways, such as looking at how we might change our situation or better respond to problems.

A second practice comes in the form of an equanimity phrase that has been used for a very long time. It goes like this, “All beings (or people if you prefer) are the owners of their karma, their happiness or unhappiness depends upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them.” Think of it as a reminder or a reframe. When I close my eyes and repeat this phrase I can feel myself relaxing.

When I began to use this phrase with my patient with cancer I realized that he wasn’t the victim I imagined him to be, that he had some say in how he experienced his illness. I started to see that he was doing better emotionally than I had thought. The phrase can seem cold, as if it’s suggesting that we forget about other people’s problems, but I find it has the opposite effect. When I remind myself others are in charge of their happiness I don’t stop caring, instead I feel more energetic and more able to explore whether and how I can help.

People wonder how the Dalai Lama can be happy despite his circumstances and how he can say he has no ill will toward the Chinese. Equanimity, I believe, is the answer. If he can be happy, then why can’t we?