RBG and Finding Equanimity
Our country experienced a tremendous loss last week, and many of us have deeply mourned the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a source of strength, inspiration, wit, wisdom, and compassion.
But I think that, even more importantly, RBG had equanimity.
Equanimity was defined by Bodhi as “a state of mind that cannot be swayed by biases and preferences”. As humans, we are wired to assign particular judgment values (e.g., “good”, “bad, “painful”, “pleasurable”, and so on) to every stimulus that enters our brain. This process occurs so frequently that we are often unaware of it- this is how implicit bias becomes strengthened. As a judge, RBG recognized that "unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at." And yet she worked to overcome that tendency and embody equanimity with the same ethic of perseverance that pervaded every area of her life.
Equanimity is the ability to decouple the degree of desire or avoidance for a particular experience, and instead to objectively notice and accept it as it is, without unnecessarily adding to it. It is maintaining even-mindedness in all situations, whether the situation brings pain, pleasure, boredom, or big emotions. RBG, proponent for equality, knew that being too swayed by strong emotions could upset the balance needed for seeking justice, as she famously said, “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade.” Anger is the necessary spark to fuel the fight, but too much can burn us, can set secondary fires that distract from the cause.
Often, as humans, we frequently take a burden or a hardship and we let our thoughts, worries, and stories add unnecessary weight to it. This makes us more likely to drop the burden and run, or let it keep us weighted down. Lyrics from my favorite Erykah Badu song come to mind, “Bag lady, you gon’ hurt your back, draggin’ all them bags like that…..one day all them bags gon’ get in your way…so pack light.”
When I teach children about the practice of equanimity, I describe it as the ability to “be like a tree”. When a storm approaches, a tree cannot escape and run from it, and so the tree stays still, roots planted, and bends with the wind while observing the storm, knowing that all storms are impermanent and will eventually cease. At the center of the storm is a place of stillness and balance that is our natural state of homeostasis.
Equanimity is not a state of feeling neutral or indifferent, but rather the practice of returning to a place of peace and stillness to observe the storm, rather than to be controlled and blown around by it. Another aspect of equanimity is the gratitude that comes with all experiences, even and especially difficult ones; using the former example, the tree can be grateful for new growth after the rain. I think this is why I see powerful equanimity so much in people undergoing tremendous hardships and injustice….BIPOC women, children fighting cancer…these life situations bring tremendously deep growth of roots into in the deepest darkest soil. This is evident in the words of the brilliant poet, A Scribe Called Quess, as he pays tribute to his grandmother in this moving and powerful piece (the poem follows an opening song at about 1:27): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjrzemTroe8
Equanimity builds the larger understanding that all things are impermanent and that everything is connected to something else. When we embody equanimity, we are able to practice intentional gratitude and acceptance of impermanent and ever-changing life experiences and events, rather than a constant seeking of a perfect, ever-happy life. As RBG stated, “You can't have it all, all at once. Who - man or woman - has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time, things were rough.”
Equanimity also requires flexibility of thinking and response, and openness in the face of strong emotions and opinions. Even the biggest trees must be able to bend in the wind, or they will snap and fall. As RBG said, “"The greatest figures of the American judiciary have been independent thinking individuals with open but not empty minds—individuals willing to listen and to learn."
Finally, when we embody equanimity, we are able to not only grow into strong trees, but we can provide strength, shelter, fruit, shade and support for others. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has provided a very stable, tall, prolific tree for us to climb, to have a better view of a bigger life.
So how can we expand the forest by cultivating our own equanimity?
- Remember that all things, good or bad, pleasurable or painful, successes or failures, are impermanent. They will come and go, regardless of what we do.
- Life is difficult enough, so do not add unnecessary weight to burdens and challenges by worrying, over-thinking about the worst-case scenario, or embellishing on personal experiences and circumstances....though given that these are human tendencies, just bringing simple awareness to the fact that we are adding weight can be enough to help us release some of the load.
- Notice when we are being inflexible in our thinking, rigid in our ideas, or so influenced by our beliefs that we are willing to react in a way that hurts others. Be open to compromise that preserves values and advances goals.
- When faced with big emotions such as anger and annoyance, pause and let the emotions cool down before responding so that others hear the words louder than they hear the emotions.
- Understand that acceptance does not mean complacence. Acceptance is necessary fuel for even-minded advocacy and the fight for justice. Acceptance can foster innovation and an alternate path forward.
- Take time to sit and be present without trying to achieve anything. Let the mind settle, and BREATHE. There is a reason that the vessels of the lungs look like the roots of a tree.
- Practice gratitude at all times, for the highs and lows and the uneventful mediocre times. We grow not only upwards toward the sun, but down deep into the dark earth.
Rest in peace and power, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
With much love and gratitude,