A Practice to Help You Handle Life’s Difficulties with Grace
A few months ago, I was being interviewed for a radio show and the host said to me, “What is equanimity? You talk about it in your books but I don’t know what it is. Tell me in one sentence. ” I’d never been asked to reduce equanimity to one sentence, but I had my second book, How to Wake Up, sitting next to me and as I hastily opened it, lucky for me, it opened right to a discussion of equanimity. I answered her question with:
Equanimity is greeting whatever is present in our experience with an evenness of temper, so our minds stay balanced and steady in the face of life’s ups and downs.
Today, I’d add the words calm and tranquil: balanced and steady, calm and tranquil, in the face of life’s ups and downs.
How does this aspiration play out in every day life? If we’re to “greet whatever is present in our experience” with calmness and tranquility, how about the many (many) times when those experiences are unpleasant? It’s not easy to greet unpleasant experiences with calmness and ease! It’s more common to be thrown off-balance when the day doesn’t go as expected, or when someone makes a thoughtless comment to us, or plans have to be changed at the last minute due to something such as chronic illness (which I use as an example because it applies to so much of my life).
I know from over 25 years of practicing equanimity (learned from my Buddhist studies), it’s a challenge—every single day. But with practice, it becomes easier to reach that place of calmness and tranquility, if only for a few moments at first.
In this piece, I want to share a practice I’ve been using recently. It’s simple, really. I intentionally start a sentence by saying to myself “It’s okay if…” Obviously, not everything is going to feel okay (certainly not the loss of a loved one) and so this is a practice to use only when it’s wise to do so—that is, when you think it might help you accept and feel okay about what’s happening in your life.
Starting a sentence with “It’s okay if…” helps me stay steady and calm when everyday challenges start to throw me off balance. For example, on a day I’m feeling particularly sick or my pain levels are high, I’ll say to myself, “It’s okay if I feel awful today. Sometimes that’s how chronic illness feels.”
You can be as creative with this practice as you’re comfortable with. With health-related issues, you might say to yourself: “It’s okay if I can’t do all the things I used to do”; “It’s okay if my friend doesn’t understand what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Some people have to suffer from something themselves before they can empathize with what it’s like.” With other issues, you could say: “It’s okay if my new job didn’t turn out to be all I’d hoped for. Nothing’s perfect”; “It’s okay if my kids have problems. Everyone does.”
The more I use this practice, the braver I become with my “It’s okay if…” formulations. Recently, I’ve been trying this out: “It’s okay if I’m chronically ill the rest of my life.” Whoa! The rest of my life? Can that ever be okay? It turns out that, for me, it can.
It’s true that sometimes when I say that sentence, resistance arises and I get thrown off-balance and feel scared. But if I’m honest with myself, I might very well be chronically ill the rest of my life. If that’s the case, I know from experience that I’ll feel better emotionally and I’ll be happier the more I can accept that possibility with grace. That’s equanimity in action for me. When I feel equanimous, a sense of well-being arises and I feel at peace. That’s why I keep practicing.
I hope this idea was helpful and that you’ll try it.
Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.