The Pathway to Equanimity / Peace

Suddenly, a great stillness arises within you,
an unfathomable sense of peace.
And within that peace, there is a great joy.
And within that joy, there is love.
And at the innermost core, there is the sacred,
the immeasurable,
That which cannot be named.

The Fourfold Path to Wholeness sheds light on four aspects of dwelling in the present moment, the four powers: (1) love or loving kindness, (2) compassion, (3) joy, and (4) equanimity or peace. All are interwoven, aiding us to live and act more lovingly, more compassionately, more joyfully, and more peacefully. In this essay, I explore equanimity and its deep association with patience and peace.

Here are two teaching stories:

Evening in Los Angeles. A middle-aged African-American man scanned the restaurant looking for his friends. Tall with athletic build, he moved with an air of calm authority. Not finding his friends, the man decided to wait in the restaurant bar. As he started to sit down at the bar, another man, arriving at the same time, turned and said: “You’re sitting in my seat!” And after a slight pause, the new arrival continued. “Just like you people!” The black man paused a moment and said, in a voice somehow both courteous and compassionate, “What is happening with you?” The other – as if stopped in his tracks – responded: “My wife just left me.”

The African American who turned away wrath with compassion was Larry Ward, a meditation teacher in the tradition of the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Larry told the story at a retreat he was leading in North Carolina some years later. “This,” he said, “is the fruit of practice.”

Larry told a second story during that retreat – a story of being in China in the entourage of Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thây —pronounced “tie” — meaning “teacher” — as he is affectionately called). They were in the Chinese hinterlands where the Zen master had been invited to bless the re-opening of an ancient monastery. Restaurants of any size were few. In fact, only one nearby restaurant could accommodate the party. As the group entered, they noticed, high on the walls around the central eating area, cages with various animals in them. When someone ordered, the cooks would take the chosen animal, slaughter it, and prepare it to be eaten. The people in Thây’s party were mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, and, as such, vegetarians. The sight of animals ready to be butchered for their meal produced much discomfort among them. However, Thây walked with no perturbation whatsoever. As he and the group had their vegetarian fare, he ate as mindfully as if in his home monastery. At the end of the meal, he asked the restaurant owner, “Is it permissible to purchase some of the animals and release them?” It was indeed permissible and so it was done. Larry Ward again said: “This is the fruit of practice.”

What do these two incidents have to teach us about equanimity—about the practice of inner and outer peace? In both instances, reactivity arose or could have arisen. To react is to have no space between incoming stimulus and outgoing response.(2) In the first case, a racist remark was a possible trigger. In the second, a commitment to the well-being of animals was a possible trigger. Our dislikes (fears and challenges) and our likes (commitments and values) can both be triggers to reactivity.

The key to less reactivity is on a sign often posted by railroad crossings: “Stop, look, and listen!” First you must stop, pause, and interrupt the soap opera of your restless mind. When you stop, you can disengage. You realize that at your core you are more than what you do. At your core, you are more than what happens to you. At your core, you are more even than your commentaries on what happens to you. This stepping back allows you to be the calm observer, to be the “seer” not swamped by “what is seen.” This stepping back allows you to be the listener and not simply the unsorted static. Then, with a kind of protective distance, you realize that what is said and what is done—even if directed at you—need not be taken personally and reactively. Here is the invitation: to stop and look and listen more deeply, to be at peace and to presence peace. To me, this is the heart of equanimity—being at peace and bringing peace to the situations of life.

When you are at the effect of the winds and ripples of surface thinking, you are tugged “to and fro” by every fear and desire. All of these external factors energize your little, fearful, unsatisfied self. Breathe. Return to the fuller moment. Bring mindfulness to bear. Then you can “see” the anger, not “be” the anger. Then you can see the actions in the world more clearly, not simply as a commentary on yourself! Then you can act in a way that brings more peace to all.

The inner work is related to the outer work. Recall the surface, midpoint, and depth of a lake. When you “stop, look, and listen,” you go beneath the automatic patterning, the fight or flight reactions. In my lake analogy, you experience yourself at the mid-level of the lake, completely at ease, as if in a hammock, looking up and seeing your surface self as a ripple self in a surface world. From this mid-point, you watch and you listen and you do so lovingly and compassionately. You see the “little you”—your ripple self up on the surface—reacting to ripple thoughts, worried by ripple emotions, concerned with the ripple opinions of others. From the stillness of the mid-point, you see this “small-minded you” as a kind of cartoon figure—loveable yet basically without a clue!

At the mid-point, you are dwelling in the observing, listening self with its love, compassion, and joy. We shall now add a fourth quality—equanimity—a balanced spirit that comes from and returns to peaceful living. Equanimity and the peace it brings also become present with the observing self.

From the mid-point, halfway down in the lake, you not only look up to see your surface self, all-too-ready to react. You can also look down to a depth dimension in you and in the world. Detached from the surface noise, you realize that the lake is connected to a great ocean, connected to the source. Glimpsing deep union and communion, you trust more. You realize all is water and you are that. You become more transparent. You let interdependent love move through you. You let communion with all suffering beings enlarge you. You let deep joy shine through you. You let a profound sense of serenity enfold you.

The word “equanimity,” though no longer widely used, has interesting roots—east and west. In Sanskrit, the root of the word is to “look over” as on a mountain top we can look over the situation and see various aspects, giving us an integral 360 degrees perspective.(3) In English, the root comes from a balanced or even-minded spirit (aequus = balanced or even or equal; animus = spirit). Whether approached from east or west, equanimity suggests calm and clarity, serenity and steadiness, patience and peacefulness. I think of equanimity as being at peace (within) and being a peace-maker (without), cultivating peace in yourself and in the communities where you dwell.

The Great Paradox A Tale of Two Realities That Are One

Here is a chant that I call The Great Paradox Chant:

Everything IS—quite alright; our worth secure and true
Everything’s NOT quite alright; we’ve worthy work to do.(4)>

I think of the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki who remarked to his students: “All of you are perfect just as you are . . . . and all of you could use a little more work!” A useful paradox. We might speak of a place where two worlds meet—the world of distinctions and the world beyond distinctions. This mode of speaking is only provisional—to be written with one hand and erased with the other. In a mysterious sense, the supposed “two” worlds reflect a wholeness. At base, there is no separation among Source, Circle of Life, and Self.

1.         Everything is quite alrightthe world beyond distinctions:

When we speak of the world beyond distinctions, we are already speaking as a poet, a lover, and a fool.(5) We are speaking playfully and paradoxically. We are gesturing toward something before the beginning—as if we could sense the ever-present origin where unity continually manifests as multiplicity, as a world. This is what the poet and mystic Rumi calls ”the threshold where the two worlds touch”—a zone uniting time and the timeless, the born and unborn. Here, moment by moment, all is well and all manner of things are well.(6) We see a completeness in the now. The full presence of abundant life in each point and time. Perfect yet we know not how.

2.         Everything’s not quite alrightthe world of distinctions:

In the world of distinctions, we experience time and movement, health and sickness, growth and stagnation, advance and decline. Here, we can declare that some ways of living are better than others: kindness is better than cruelty, compassion is better than hatred, “peace with justice” is better than war and violence, and so on. Here we seek to reinforce skillful habits and transforming unskillful ones. We amplify the movements toward health, toward growth, toward what is “still and still moving into another intensity, for a further union, a deeper communion.”(7) We foster what reduces surplus suffering and promotes creative possibility for all.

Equanimity is learning to live at this juncture, this threshold.

  • Breathing in, we recognize the Source and ever-surprising beauty of all beings. And we are that. As if at each moment the story is over and all is complete, nothing left out. Source, Self, and Circle of life in a profound oneness.
  • Breathing out, we participate in earth and cosmos unfolding. As if the story is beginning at each moment and we are called to amplify what is healthy and whole, to deepen life, and to transmute what is still unskillful—on the way to “the more and ever more.”(8)

At this threshold, there is place for both the prophetic voice and the contemplative voice.

The prophetic voice arises whenever and wherever our actions matter. And our actions always matter. So the voice of care and justice reminds those living in time of what they are called to be and do.

The contemplative voice returns to silence and affirms that already and always we are home, that already and always we have all we need to live a worthy life. Since we are always invited to the depth, these moments out of time are always with us. Always they remind us that the supposed “two” worlds are one or, more modestly, “not one, not two.”

Preventive Medicine: Three Possible Misunderstandings

There are at least three misunderstandings about equanimity:

  • Equanimity does not mean being emotionless. Emotions are in fact integral to being human.
  • Equanimity does not mean pretending that nothing is preferable to anything else. In the world of time and form, some ways of living are better than others.
  • Equanimity does not mean being changeless—as if life were fixed and relationships static.

Equanimity and Emotions

In the Buddhist tradition, each member of our four powers has a near-enemy, i.e., a counterfeit close enough to be confused with the authentic.(9) The near-enemy of equanimity is indifference. A cold detachment. A wall of isolation. A futile attempt to protect yourself from hurt by refusing to connect with, to care for, to love, to enjoy what is ever-fragile, ever-changing. Such might be the tranquility of a stone (though I have my doubts). It is not the tranquility of a human being.(10)

We are exploring how affection and love, empathy and compassion, gratefulness and joy intertwine with equanimity—with what I have called “being at peace and being a presence for peace.” All four aspects of wholeness have emotional tones. And the tones are part of the harmony. What sort of harmony would there be without diverse notes dancing together? Without affection, how would we recognize love? Without empathy for the suffering of our fellow fragile creatures, how would we know compassion? Without gratefulness issuing in joy, how would we smile at our brothers and sisters in the human and the natural world? Without caring for peace and harmony, without seeking peace at every step, how would we be at peace and for peace?

Dan Goleman has written well of what he calls emotional intelligence. It includes character traits such as the ability to:

  • Know and manage one’s own feelings. (I would say neither to repress nor act out.)
  • Motivate self (and others)
  • Persist
  • Empathize
  • Read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings.(11)

The Buddha is often seen as having overcome emotions. I believe that this is also a misunderstanding.(12)The issue is not to extinguish feelings—even strong feelings. The way to equanimity is to notice and tend the feelings in a mindful way and where needed to transform them or allow them to transform on their own.

Thich Nhat Hanh once heard news of a young girl raped by sea pirates off the coast of Vietnam. The girl was so ashamed she jumped overboard and drowned. Hearing this, the gentle monk felt anger well up within him. He brought mindfulness to that arising. He looked deeply so as to understand in a 360 degree way. The result of his grappling with that incident was the poem “Call me by my True Names.” In the poem Thây writes:

OI am the 12-year-old girl, refugee
on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after
being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.(14)

Equanimity and Ethics

 One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. “The battle,” he said, “is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil—it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed,  arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority,  and ego. The other is Good—it is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility,  kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
 The grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
  The old man replied, simply, “The one you feed!”(13)

This story, even with its simple dualism of good and evil, still speaks to us. The tendencies we feed will grow. Thich Nhat Hanh moves beyond such a dualism by shifting the metaphor to seeds in a garden. He notes that each of us has the seeds of all tendencies and traits within us. We have within us the seeds of Hitler and Stalin and the seeds of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Some seeds are beneficial to us and to the whole, the common good. Other seeds are destructive to us and to all. Realizing this, we are called to good “seed watering.” In the garden, other things being equal, the seeds that will flourish are the seeds we water.

Seed watering brings us to the matter of ethics. I consider ethics to be a set of reminders of who we are—as we journey in time, as we journey together. You and I stand in time—between the ancestors and the children. You and I are asked—again and again: What do we stand for? Are your actions and mine honoring the ancestors and serving the children? Is what we do and how we live reducing unnecessary suffering and promoting creative possibility for all? By what standards are we living? How do we ground those standards in fundamental realities. The Rotary Club has a simple yet inclusive “Four-Way Test of the Things We Think, Say, or Do”:

Is it the truth?

Is it fair to all concerned?

Will it build good will and better friendship?

Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Of course, these touchstones still require wise judgment and constant evaluation, yet they point the way—simple steps arising from an expansive heart. In fact, in these essays I invite us

  • to favor love and loving kindness over hate and greed
  • to favor sensitivity to suffering and the impulse to alleviate it over cruelty and indifference
  • to favor gratefulness and joy over ingratitude, resentment, and despair
  • to favor being at peace and promoting peace over being reactive and promoting violence and discord.

In saying these things, I am not proposing an ethics that is fixed for all time. I believe that any ethics worthy of us must have within it the possibility of self-revision. The theologian and philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, gives us what he calls the Transcendental Imperatives: “Be attentive. Be insightful. Be reasonable. Be responsible. Develop and, if necessary, change.” Here is a sketch of healthy, revisable, knowing and growing.(14) Being attentive, we notice new data. Being insightful, we come to appreciate new patterns in the data. Being reasonable, we test to see if we have covered all the bases and have a warrant to distinguish merely “bright ideas” from grounded judgments. Lastly, the imperative “Be responsible” takes us from knowing to doing. When we are on the path of self-correcting learning, we develop. When we are not in alignment with this dynamism, we need to reverse the process and get back on track. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo was fond of quoting a dictum: “We must spread the gospel that there is no gospel that will save us the pain of choosing at every step.”(15) Not only are we called to extend the healthy and wholesome, we are also called to transmute the unhealthy and unwholesome. All of this is for the sake of widening the family of our concern to embrace all beings across space and generational time.

Equanimity and Dynamic Equilibrium

Ever changing, never less than whole.
Ever present, never twice the same.

Artist and designer Robert Irwin placed these words on a plaque at the garden he designed for the Getty Museum outside of Los Angeles.

I mentioned early on that we can speak of the four powers (a) as nouns, (b) as verbs, and (c) as adverbs.

As nouns, we name the four powers: love, compassion, joy, and peace. Valuable as a start, yet liable to give the false impression that the four are static and unchanging.

As verbs, we shift to see four tasks, four action plans: (1) to love, (2) to sense and respond to suffering, (3) to be grateful and rejoice, and (4) to be at peace and for peace.

As adverbs, the four qualify all we do. Thus, we are invited to do all we do lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully. Little by little, we see the four as mutually intertwined, each modifying each.

Coming from interconnection, coming from the source, we begin with mystery, with a fruitful unknowing. All is far more beautiful than we can imagine. At the threshold between time and the timeless, we embrace change and the changeless both. We welcome impermanence as part of the mystery. The “pain of choosing at every step” is also the joy of responding to “beauty, ever ancient, ever new.”(16)

In time, we follow a moving horizon, like headlights on a car moving along a road in the dark. In time, we are invited to pursue what opens and enriches life as best we see that. We are invited to revise thoughts, words, and actions when we find we are out of alignment with “the good and true and beautiful” in our most honest discernment.(17) It is no small challenge to remain committed yet open.

Equanimity calls us to be at peace (accepting the beauty of each moment) and to be for peace (being a stand for the best of what our brothers and sisters of high achievement commend). A well-known saying counsels: “If you wish for peace, work for justice.” The opposite is also true: “To seek justice, walk in peace.”(18) This means developing the capacity to love our enemies and, at the limit, not to have enemies. People are not the positions they take, even though the positions —translated into policies—can cause great harm. So the examples of peace and reconciliation of Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela, of Gandhi and King, lead us on. Only love overcomes hate. Only gentle peaceful wisdom overcomes ignorance. Only quiet and enduring joy overcomes despair. Only being at peace allows us to seek peace peacefully. Living more lovingly, compassionately, joyfully, and peacefully is both the goal and the way.

Concluding Words

Some years ago, I was working with one department at my university. The department was, by all accounts, dysfunctional with all manner of crosscurrents and cliques abounding. After some sessions, I asked them to do a ritual of respect, an exercise of bowing and being bowed to in silence. One member of the department said: “I refuse to bow to those I do not respect.” A chill arose in the room. After a pause, I asked him: “Is there nothing you can respect and bow to in these, your colleagues — not even that they are children of God?” A pause and then “Yes,” he said and did the exercise with the others. In the debriefing that followed, he was humble and eloquent in reporting what he had experienced. Finally, he said: “Sometimes you really have to go deep, don’t you?”

Here are some steps toward peace within and without:

  • Reduce Reactivity — Stop, look, and listen before responding.
  • Reduce Stories about self and others — The reality of each of us is richer than the stories we tell about ourselves and others, richer than our personal and our collective stories. Reducing the power of such stories allows us to see the complexity in ourselves, in others and in what binds us together. It allows us to sense in one another the fear and pain, the conditionings and dreams that shape us still. We are each so much more than the positions we take. Listening from the heart and to the heart is a courageous way of waging peace.

  • Recommit to Peace as the Way—Being at peace and for peace is the fruit of practice. When there is stillness within we can come from interconnection and together discover what is good for the whole and fair to each participant-part.(19)

We dwell in the midst of the Great Family (and within it, the Human Family) across space and time. Often we are tempted to react in the old ways that continue the stories we know are too small to live in. Suppose instead we were to heed the more excellent way that Rumi suggests in his poem, “The Guest House:”

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.(20)

Then might we not also know what the Rabbi from Nazareth taught us:

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”(21)


1 Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. (Novata, CA: New World Library, 1999), p. 187.

2 I take this characterization from Stephen R. Covey’s work. See his The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster Fireside Book, 1989), Habit 1. An example of reactivity is someone cutting you off in traffic, anger arising and you finding your hand offering a rude gesture—all by itself!

3 Equanimity is upekka in Pali; upeksha in Sanskrit. The prefix “upa” means “over.” And the root “iksh” means “to look” As in climbing a mountain you can love over the whole terrain. And there is a mark of upeksha called “the wisdom of equality” wherein one can understand both sides even when one is a party to a conflict.  See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), pp. 169, 174–175.

4 The accent is meant to be on the capitalized words.

5  I echo Shakespeare here: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”  See A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act Five, Scene I.

6  Julian of Norwich’s phrase, quoted at the end of T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”

7  T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets, East Coker.”

8  I take this lovely phrase from the Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast.

9  To recap: The near-enemy of love is possessiveness; the near-enemy of compassion is pity; the near-enemy of unselfish joy is comparison, and, as we are now exploring, the near-enemy of equanimity is indifference.

10  I think of the Vulcan Mr. Spock in the first generation of Star Trek and the android Commander Data in the next generation.  Both were exploring in different ways the contributions of emotions in a fuller life.

11  See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995, 1997), pp. xii, 36, and throughout.

12  In support of this view, see David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha (New York: Fromm International, 1997; 2000).

13  I take this telling of the tale from my colleague, David Noer in an op-ed piece called “Which Wolf Will We Feed?”  See the Greensboro News and Record, December 31, 2006, p. H1.

14  For this articulation of the transcendental imperatives, see David Tracy, The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), p. 228.  For a fuller treatment, see Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 53 and throughout.   Assessments grounded in these imperatives are to be developed. Positions at odds with this self-corrective process are to be reversed.  Inattention is to be corrected by further attentiveness. Oversights are to be corrected by further insights.  Misunderstandings by further understandings. What is untested is corrected by further testing.  What is irresponsible is corrected by a wider and deeper response, realizing the relevance of aspects which were earlier disregarded or misunderstood. Both what we know and what we do and even the standards by which we judge can themselves undergo review and revision.  In this sense, as in driving on a dark night, the headlights of the car describe a moving horizon. There are intellectual and moral and religious horizons.  When we know the questions and the answers, we can say this lies within our horizon.  When we know the questions but do not yet know the answers, we can say this lies at the edge of our horizon.  When we neither know the questions to ask nor the answers, these matters lie, for the time being, beyond our horizons.

15  The statement was made by Professor Powell in a private letter to Cardozo.  It is quoted by Cardozo in Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, The Growth of the Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1924), pp. 65 and 67 and again in Selected Writings of Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, ed. Margaret E. Hall (New York: Fallon Law Book Company, 1947), p. 380.

16  Here the echo is from St. Augustine in his Confessions.

17  The good, the true, and the beautiful” are Plato’s way of speaking about three aspects of all that is.

18  I owe this insight to the work of Paul F. Knitter.  See his book, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009), Chapter 7: “Making Peace and Being Peace,” pp. 167–212.

19  To explore the courage needed for waging peace in non-violent and non-demonizing ways, see West Point graduate and U.S. Army Captain Paul K. Chappell’s book, The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity Our Planet and Our Future (Westport, CT: Easton Studio Press, 2010).

20  See The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A.J. Arberry and Reynold Nicholson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 109.

21  Matt. 5:9 – Part of the great teaching we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount.