Be it election campaigns, Brexit or the war on terror, it’s safe to say that the world faces a plethora of issues on which people are divided. The fate of what is rightfully ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ echoes in the streets, whether expressed around the state of border controls, proclaiming intellectual superiority over our neighbours, or using milkshakes as missiles to bolster our ideals - as British right-wing politician Nigel Farage experienced to his cost in May of 2019.
At the same time, we are supposedly in the midst of a ‘mindfulness revolution,’ through which a spirit of calm, focus and non-judgement will come to reverberate around our classrooms, courtrooms, parliaments, global conglomerates and even the NHS. But what of the people who are supposed to populate this revolution? Are we really creating individuals who can focus on improving their capacities for engagement and mediation while simultaneously pushing back against the wider socio-economic decline that surrounds them? What is it about political life that turns so often and so quickly to violence instead of love?
I think there’s a missing link in this equation that’s best described as cultivating equanimity. Equanimity runs deeper than the attitudes of non-judgmental acceptance and open curiosity that are advocated by most contemporary enthusiasts for mindfulness. It can buffer people against the harsh political and economic frameworks within which they live and work by offering each individual a unique intelligence. With more equanimity, mindfulness turns increasingly towards the needs of others, but why, and what exactly is it?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines equanimity as “mental composure and evenness of temper,” but this language ignores the finer details of the concept. For the last three years I’ve been studying equanimity for my PhD, exploring both the latest developments in neuroscience and the teachings of Buddhism.
On the basis of this research I’ve identified two essential elements: ‘inner equanimity’ is the open acceptance of non-reactivity towards your discrimination faculties (like pleasure, displeasure and neutrality), so that you can respond with compassion for self and others at all times; ‘external equanimity’ can be defined as accepting another individual's discrimination faculties with patience, so that it’s easier to engage in that same spirit with people with whom you disagree.
Taking these two elements together, the idea of equanimity suggests that we examine our own ‘judgmental blueprint’ by taking into consideration all the different facets of our biological, nurtured and conditioned selves. Using our mindful attention to monitor our own discernment, we can then ‘see through’ the reasons why we make hard and fast divisions between what we like and dislike, and who we think is good or bad or right or wrong.
Mindfulness enables us to pause before taking action according to these categories, and equanimity provides us with the wisdom to allow things to be as they are for a while as a precondition for developing mutual understanding. Mindfulness must be developed with equanimity in order for compassion to flourish towards all groups and communities, and compassion is the foundation of right action.
At present however, it’s rare for compassion to embrace those we do not like or ideas that we detest. Usually, compassion is easy for our families and other things that we are fond of, but for everything else, the default option is building walls. Equanimity shifts our inner peace outwards and brings it into the world, because our cognitive rigidity is softened with a greater intelligence. This doesn’t mean that we become dissociated from reality or full of intellectual mediocrity; rather, it means that we are buoyant with our passions and wise in our actions.
As we move from the personal to the political, an individual on a mission to cultivate equanimity learns to monitor their own discernment of, and reaction towards, others, and to withhold from immediate fight-or-flight responses. They have the ability to remain calm in times of conflict, while still holding onto the wish that everyone will benefit from a successful resolution. This isn’t a matter of simple-minded acceptance; nor does it mean that you dissociate yourself from your values or beliefs. Rather, it means you are always present with your views yet open to those of others, even as you stay tenacious in your quest for social change.
Equanimity teaches you that you can shake hands with your most hated political leader and not harbor negativity or anger in your own mind, yet still detest his or her doctrines and ideologies; that you can walk next to fascists and not spit in their faces but offer compassion towards their concerns; that it is ok to feel discomfort or even hatred in your heart yet express only love and calm in the very next moment. With equanimity comes a lessening of attachment, repulsion, and indifference toward others, and a loosening of the feeling that some are close and others distant. These qualities could be revolutionary if they were to be brought into the mainstream of politics.
In practical terms, for example, you could remain balanced in the face of policies you disagree with. You could practice catching yourself when you noticed that you felt attraction or aversion to a concept before it hardens into an immovable position. By monitoring your internal reactions to external ideas, you would still be able to disagree with others but without the fog of anger which clouds your discrimination. These capacities could equip politicians and activists with the ability to remain even-tempered in the face of adversity, and to rise above standard political manoeuvres.
Think of this as lessening the grip of your own ‘internal magnet’ of what you regard as good, bad and neutral. Instead of attaching instantaneously to these labels, you can reverse your magnetic poles and create a buffer between ideas and people before you react. When debating inequalities in access to health and education services for example, passion is present but your emotions don’t get the better of you.
In times of conflict, your dealings with others are more balanced and more open to healthy communication and compromise. You begin to notice when political tension builds inside of you, so that you can avoid the tendency to build those hard and rigid internal borders. With greater mindfulness, you can monitor your breath and observe your bodily sensations when they are in disarray. With greater equanimity, you turn inward to observe your thoughts from a distance, and act accordingly.
Perhaps it is time to keep our milkshakes in their cups - and approach our differences with greater equanimity.