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Making Peace with Our Differences: Cultivating Equanimity in Relationships
It’s been a full year since a dear friend succumbed to cancer. A longtime yoga student and generous soul, I was privileged to know her for 20 years. I think about her often. Even now, sometimes my mind has a hard time grasping her absence.
This friend was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer more than a decade ago. She opted out of treatment due to a longstanding fear of Western medicine dating back to her childhood. Instead of undergoing treatment, she committed to eating better and exercising more to cure her cancer.
Sometimes in yoga class, she would complain of sacroiliac joint and hip pain. As a grateful recipient of two hip replacements, I suggested she get x-rays to determine what was happening. But she feared radiation, and had it turned out she needed a hip replacement she likely would not have opted for the surgery anyway.
By the time severe pain and dysfunction finally drove her to get x-rays about two years ago, a simple hip replacement would not have helped. Her cancer had spread to her bones. Treatment was no longer an option.
At times, before I knew her diagnosis, I would become frustrated by her unwillingness to find out what was wrong. She was clearly in a lot of pain, and increasingly unable to do the things she loved to do—biking, cross-country skiing, most yoga poses, even simple walking. But her fear of Western medicine was more compelling than her desire to know what was happening to her.
I could empathize with her position to an extent. I did not see a Western doctor for 30 years. I learned what I could about treating whatever ailed me—all manageable conditions—and took some pride in not needing medical care. But when my hips degenerated to the point where simple movements were no longer accessible, I realized that no amount of yoga, bodywork or supplementation was going to regenerate my joints. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, I knew I was way out of my league.
Seeing my friend suffer was heartbreaking. Knowing that her fear of Western medicine trumped her fear of cancer was frustrating. After her diagnosis, I lay awake nights trying to make sense of the choices she had made.
Then I remembered: her choices for her body and her life were hers, and only hers, to make. As much as I wish she had chosen to treat her cancer all those years ago, her life—her personal integrity—demanded that she make the choices that she did. The choices I made when faced with cancer were different, and they were the choices that were right for me. Her choices were right for her.
My role, then, was not to try to persuade her of the rightness of my path, and by extension, the wrongness of hers. My role was simply to be a friend as she was going through her dying process, to share music and conversation, and most of all, to listen.
What is Equanimity?
The practice of the brahma viharas (divine abodes), includes metta (kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity). During the summer, after my friend had been bedridden for three months, I attended a retreat where we practiced cultivating the brahma viharas for nine days. I found that I could use my friend as the object of my well wishes in all four categories.
Metta practice reminded me of how much I appreciated our longstanding friendship. Karuna practice helped me tune into and empathize with her daily struggles. Mudita practice reminded me of the ebullient spirit she often showed, even in her dire circumstances. Upekkha reminded me to respect her perspective and the choices she made.
Equanimity is described as an “unshakable balance” in the face of life’s vicissitudes. Equanimity is one of the fruits of mindfulness and Brahma vihara practices. Equanimity allows us to be fully engaged with whatever is happening without being thrown off balance. This allows us to make wise choices, which, in turn, makes our lives less fraught with drama. Equanimity allows us to see past our preferences to a more expansive, inclusive viewpoint.
Cultivating equanimity allows us to live more peacefully in the world. It also teaches us to appreciate and respect everyone’s unique path, whether or not it conforms to our preferences. It is not the same as indifference, which turns away from difficulty. Equanimity allowed me to fully engage with my friend and her circumstances without being blinded by judgments about her choices.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the fruit of our yoga asana practice is equanimity. The three sutras that refer to asana are as follows (translated by Alistair Shearer):
2.46: The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.
2.47: It is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.
2.48: Then we are no longer upset by the play of opposites.
This suggests a direct correlation between our yoga practice and the development of equanimity in our lives. The fact that a physical practice can lead us to a more graceful and accepting life is inspiring.
Remembering that every being on the planet can and will make the choices they need to in order to fulfill their life’s purpose can bring clarity to our relationships. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should sit on the sidelines and observe while someone causes harm. But instead of acting from a place of hatred—which is not sustainable and often adds to the harm already being perpetrated—we act from a place of equanimity.
How to Practice Equanimity
In these divisive times, my equanimity is challenged daily. Sometimes it’s present. Other times, I get sucked into anger and even despair. But I keep practicing.
We can practice equanimity by putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. Looking at a situation from another person’s viewpoint brings us closer to the person and allows us to detach from our own fixed views.
We can develop equanimity through mindfulness practice. Seeing clearly the ever-changing nature of everything in our experience helps to decondition reactivity. When we see for ourselves that all experience—pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—is fleeting, we become less likely to be thrown off balance by the inevitable ups and downs of our lives.
We can practice equanimity by remembering that we are all on paths of our own. Someone else’s choices may not make sense to you, but it’s important to respect their right to make their own choices. This doesn’t mean that we sit idly by while another person makes obviously harmful choices. We can give support by making suggestions—even impassioned ones—but with the understanding that they may or may not change their behavior according to our wishes.
Finally, we can develop equanimity as a formal meditation practice along with the other brahma vihara practices. Here are some of the phrases you can repeat to yourself:
Things are as they are.
Joys and sorrows arise and pass according to natural law.
This is how it is. It’s like this.
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Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.