“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
~ Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
In our day-to-day lives, we often surrender the power to choose our attitudes and reactions. We allow ourselves to fall prey to conditioning and habitual reactions and then blame the external forces we believe to be responsible. When studying equanimity, I was struck by reading Viktor Frankl’s accounts of the Holocaust. Ultimately, no matter the circumstance, we have a choice.
When we choose to cultivate the virtue of equanimity, we acknowledge our own power. With patience and awareness we can begin to greet success and failure, pain and pleasure, and insult and compliment as equals. These apparent opposites are simply two sides of the same coin. We have the ability to shape how we receive even the experiences we feel no control over. This ability in fact is our power.
How though do we receive pain and insult with the same joy as praise and pleasure? The trick is to refrain from judgment and attachment. As soon as we place judgment upon a situation, as soon as we label it as good or bad, we have lost equanimity and given away our power.
As we begin to detach ourselves from extremes in reactions, are we to be indifferent? No. We are simply cultivating the ability to not be shaken from our centers, our true selves. There are atrocities and injustices in this world and we should be moved to action. Many inspirational examples of great leaders such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and extraordinary citizens like Anton Schmid and Oscar Schindler, embodied the virtue of equanimity. They were able to make unbelievably hard and courageous choices despite the personal risks.
Working towards equanimity is a life long practice. As our fortunes inevitably change, we will be challenged by our conditioning, habits and an ego that seeks comfort and praise. Cultivating equanimity ensures that we are not moved out of reaction. We can feel pleasure without clinging and experience pain without hating and condemnation of ourselves or others. Working towards even minded openness allows us the freedom and space to choose our attitudes and responses despite our circumstances. When we let go of our habit of judging and telling ourselves stories we are able to connect to others on a deeper level. We are strong enough to act from our true selves whether we are faced with the monotony of life or extraordinary choices.