The Human Condition:

On Valuing Equanimity – February 10, 2013

We all live in a sea of details. Daily encounters, decisions, opportunities, interruptions, and setbacks confront us. Some are important, some inconsequential. All get in the way of pursuing our own goals and purposes. If you don’t know how to tell the difference between big matters and small, you will spend your life in a constant muddle. And then, as a clever magnet on our refrigerator reminds me every morning: “Some days it’s not worth chewing through the restraints!”

We all must spend a certain amount of our daily allotted time in sorting out all this stuff. And then we must weigh the results against our long-term goals, perceived advantages, and guiding principles. Given that even the busiest among us still gets only 86,400 seconds each day—and we must spend about half of that time in the forced activities of sleeping, grooming, eating, and commuting—it becomes imperative that we manage the remaining 43,000-odd seconds well and not waste them on “the small stuff.”

But where to begin? Where to draw the line between small and big, between inconsequential and important? I’ve learned over the years that the best guide is to cultivate and value my personal equanimity.1 Aside from the usual definitions, I interpret equanimity as seeking peace in my life, harmony in my relationships, balance in my actions.2 I’m not allergic to stress and excitement, nor immune to the allure of battle, but I want the excitement and conflict to be the result of my own choices and not a mindless reaction to circumstances thrust upon me.

In these terms, I’ve come to look at every potential quarrel, every cause that clambers for my attention, every slight and hurt, every lost advantage—and asked if the goal, the recovery, the revenge, the satisfaction, or the sense of justice would be worth what its pursuit will cost to my equanimity. Sometimes the answer is yes. Some hurts are too great to be overlooked. Some intrusions are intended as a probing shot, trying to set a pattern of escalating conflict that will come to no good result. Some causes are right in themselves and demand our defense no matter what the cost: we are willing to stake our lives to them, so peace of mind is really secondary.

Learning to recognize and commit to these deeper, more involved circumstances and causes is necessary. In my rulebook, you can’t abide murder and slavery as offenses against individual purpose and freedom—although some dangerous beasts do need killing and some wild humans need suitable restraints until they can learn to be sociable. You don’t let a man beat a woman or a child—or, by extension, anyone of vastly superior strength and skill abuse someone who is unskilled or unarmed—regardless of the provocation. Some cases of need and suffering are also indisputable and must be redressed. And some situations are fraught with danger: for example, you should never put yourself under obligation in potentially hostile circumstances.3 Conversely, you must not try to box in an opponent.4

But in most situations, the decision to take offense, to seek advantage, to stake a position, or to champion a cause is purely voluntary. Words, actions, and consequences must be weighed. And then you must ask, “Why would I disturb myself over that?” And, “Is that really worth my focus of time and effort?”

All around me I see people who work themselves up over small matters. They take offense at tiny slights and insults—even those resulting from careless or clumsy speech and not intended to cause actual harm. They fight bitterly over transactions involving tiny amounts, being cheated of a few dollars or receiving a smaller portion than others. They set impossibly high standards of cleanliness, precision, or fairness and become angry when those standards are not met. And all this time I ask myself, “Is this really worth the trouble and strife it causes?”

If challenged, they will say, “It’s a matter of principle.” Or, “If you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Or, “All I want is what’s right.” What they’re really doing in squandering some of those 43,000 precious seconds: time wasted, energy expended to no constructive purpose. For me, the larger question of principle is, “Will I trade my equanimity for satisfaction in this cause?”

A life spent on petty issues is usually incapable of achieving great things. A soul disrupted in the pursuit of petty injustices and small claims will not find peace.5 When you learn to value equanimity—peace in your life, harmony in your relationships, balance in your actions—you naturally put aside the small causes and aggravations that, for most people, cloud everyday life. You clear the decks for taking on the important issues, the ones that matter, the ones that will build your reputation, secure your future, and make you glad to have lived. You’ll make each day one that’s truly worth chewing through the restraints.

1. From the Latin aequus for “equal,” and animus for “mind” or “soul,” it means evenness of mental disposition, balance, composure, and even self-possession.

2. Come to think of it, peace, harmony, and balance are almost the perfect formula for good and safe motorcycling.

3. For example, don’t accept favors from anyone with unknown interests when war or litigation may be pending.

4. This goes back to the Dune books and the ethics of the Bene Tleilax, that every trap must have an escape—if only the victim can find it. My personal version of this ethic is, wherever possible, to allow an opponent an escape route, a way to avoid a fight, a way to save face. Even the weakest humans with their backs to the wall, with no escape in sight, can become savage and resourceful fighters; then the battle may unexpectedly go against you. And your dream of cornering and killing your opponent, of obliterating him completely, is usually just that—a dream.

5. My mother used to say, “Pick your battles.” I never understood that she was speaking pure Zen.