A good place to start a conversation about equanimity is the serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous: God grant me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And there is a popular meme that has emerged in the activist community that emerged as an answer to that, which says, “I want to change the things I cannot accept.”

I love that meme, because there’s just something so human about railing against our universal predicament. Why are there things I cannot change? There is so much suffering, and I want to fix everything! Especially because so many of the things that are wrong are our fault—climate change, infection, mortality rates, injustice, inequality, access to resources.

But many of us are activists and advocates, and people who do world-improving work, and we have found out, the hard way, that this desire to change everything has a price.

First, the world at large sometimes resists our grand plans. Think about the efforts to educate people to self-isolate. I’ve seen really good people go bananas online in the face of evidence that others are not staying home. It makes so much sense to isolate and stay home, and yet—how can it be that this logic, that is so obvious to you, is not obvious to others? And I’m seeing millennials blame boomers, and boomers blame millennials, and Gen Xers blaming everyone else, and this place of compassion for humanity and care for others just becomes a battlefield of mudslinging—and people get more and more frustrated that the world doesn’t fall in line with their plans to fix everything, and their frustration leads to anger, and the anger doesn’t help, because—have you ever seen anyone being blamed and chided and yelled at smiling a beatific smile and saying, “now that you’re yelling and cussing and offending me and publicly humiliating me, I get it, and I’ll change my ways”?

Second, the indiscriminate struggle to change everything has an impact on the person who is struggling. Psychology Today reports that compassion fatigue used to be a problem that was most commonly seen among health care professionals. Because their work puts them in situations where they commonly see or hear about ongoing and sometimes unspeakable suffering, it is not unusual to see some of the most skilled, caring, and compassionate “helpers” fall victim to compassion fatigue. I’ve seen really interesting and heart-wrenching literature on secondary trauma among human rights lawyers, public defenders, asylum attorneys, people who see awfulness at work every day. However, in today’s world, where every tragedy is instantly broadcast directly into our living rooms (TV), laps (laptop), and/or hands (smartphone), compassion fatigue is no longer unique to certain professions. As Dr. Amit Sood points out in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, “… we are inundated with graphic images of the unimaginable suffering of millions. We can fathom the suffering of a few, but a million becomes a statistic that numbs us.”

Sometimes, this incessant stream of suffering makes us feel burdened by the suffering of others, and occasionally we slip into blaming others for their suffering. We could also develop our own destructive habits – sinking into overeating, or excessive use of drugs or alcohol, or being glued to the TV, and we can start closing our hearts with deprecating humor, and worst of all—we can deny ourselves self-compassion by denying that there’s anything wrong going on.

In fact, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms” because it prevents those who are experiencing compassion fatigue from accurately assessing how fatigued and stressed they actually are, which prevents them from seeking help.

I’m going to suggest that this feeling is real, and yet if someone told you to just shut it all out and distract yourself with a new purchase or a bubble bath, that would ring very wrong to those of us who want to open our hearts. Clarissa Pincola Estes writes in Women Who Run with Wolves about talking to women who are very invested in social justice work. Sometimes they’ll tell her, “I just can’t go on with all the suffering that’s going on.” But when she says, well, why don’t you just go ahead and give up, they say, “give up??? How can you tell me to just give up with all the suffering that’s going on?”

Great ecological and spiritual teacher Joanna Macy pioneered “Despair work”, otherwise known as “Despair and Empowerment.” this approach acknowledges despair and “burnout” as honorable, springing as they do from the interconnectedness of all being. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered over, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

So, equanimity is not ignoring other people’s suffering or being cold. On the contrary, it’s all about sitting with the suffering with a full heart and accepting the nature of the suffering, to the point that your acceptance gives you a moment to make the right choices about where to put your energy. Because of that, equanimity is the virtue that balances the other three immortal virtues. It makes sure that you are not so attached and embroiled in the suffering of others that you can’t make good choices about how to help them.

Now, the traditional phrase used to meditate on equanimity is:

“All beings are the owners of their karma; their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

The term “karma” can be rather loaded, because it is used in two very different contexts. The first one is as part of a complicated belief system, which actually precedes Buddhism: as I learned during my work on Yesterday’s Monsters, The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains a very intricate cosmology and a theory about the cycle of death and rebirth that has been, to a great extent, lost in translation and in cultural context. And because of that, the second context is the popular reduction to “do good deeds, get enlightened; do bad deeds, get reborn.” This popular interpretation rankles many people, and understandably so, because many of us understand it to mean that everything bad that happens to someone is that person’s choice. And those of us in the social sciences know that’s not the case: there are a lot of environmental factors that build into the fate. Example: audit studies. Two people apply for the same job and send the same CV. Comparable education, comparable skills. But the one called Brad gets the job and the one called Jamal doesn’t. So how is Jamal an “owner” of his own karma?” If viral testing is available only to wealthy celebrities, is it some sort of divine reward for being good?

So when I say “accepting” this reality I don’t mean shut down your social critique or delude yourself that this is okay. This is where the difference between “is” and “ought” is critical. You can believe that some social or political or economic situation should be better, but it will be very hard for you to make it better if you get caught up in not accepting that it is, in fact, not better now. Come to terms with what is actually going on, and with the fact that many factors come together to create these inequalities, or miscarriages of justice. Not only does it help you shift over faster, but it also shrinks your own complicity in whatever is going on to its true size.

At Al-Anon, a sister organization of AA catering to relatives and friends of people with alcoholism, the slogan is The Three C’s. We didn’t cause it – it is not our fault that the other person drinks, it is their private battle, We can’t control it – we have no power over the other person’s desire to drink, We can’t cure it – it is an illness that cannot be cured through any known medical remedies. This can be very hard for family members to accept, because sometimes a relative who has a drinking problem will accuse us of driving them to drink. And there are of course a lot of conditions and causes that come together in creating a drinking problem, some that are the person’s choice and some that are not. But accepting this, and being able to sit with the suffering of the problem without selling ourselves a story about it, is a key step.

So the idea is not for you not to care. You care deeply and open your heart. And you accept that things involve suffering. And you sit with the suffering, and your willingness to sit with it without leaping to “fix” it gives you the pause that you need to respond skillfully to the task ahead.

Let me give you some examples. One of the aspects of my job is that every day I learn about something that is going on in the world that is absolutely horrible. In 2013—and this is after many years of work!—I sat with a California Senator and he said, “we have to do something about juveniles in solitary.” And my mind began to reel: Juveniles in solitary? And immediately the mind is thrown in a thousand different directions. I get letters from prison every week. People sharing things that are really hard to believe are happening. And having this equanimity practice, developing the capacity to accept that yes, this is a thing that happens in the world, and just sit with it—gives you the pause you need to come up with a plan.

When my colleagues started hearing about COVID-19 in prisons and jails, and knowing what we know about the conditions in prison, the really flawed healthcare. So these places are a real Petri dish for contagion, and the suffering is immense. And a group of friends of mine put together a spreadsheet, and they are collecting information from all the prisons and the juvenile facility and the immigration detention centers about how many people are infected, and what the visitation policies are like, and what quarantine is like. Now each and every one of these stories is a microcosm of suffering magnified, and you can just stare at this and think, “this is unbearable.” But taking the pause to look at this—and yes, we are all collectively responsible for how many people are in prison, but each of us personally is not responsible for the entire crisis. That would be an oversized perspective of the self, and there’s even a little bit of megalomania that can sneak in there. But instead, this pause gives us the chance to make a group effort to propose regulations, to reach out to administrations—each in their own locality, each according to their skills and abilities, and make a difference from a place of skilled response.

Perhaps it would be helpful to end with an anecdote that Frank Ostaseski tells in his book The Five Invitations:

Once during a talk in Germany, Bernie Glassman Roshi referenced Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The deity is pictured with a thousand arms. In each hand, there is an ear to hear the cries of the world. A thousand arms are there to respond. Bernie was suggesting that compassion is a natural and appropriate response to suffering. A man stood up and said, “This is all well and good, but I don’t have a thousand arms. I have only two arms. What am I supposed to do to alleviate all that suffering?” Bernie paused, then very beautifully said, “You’re wrong.” The man insisted, “No, I am quite sure I have only these two arms.” Bernie asked everyone in the room to raise both their hands up in the air. There were over five hundred people in attendance. “Look,” he said. “A thousand arms.”

Glassman provided the best example of the important mix between compassion and equanimity, which you can also find in the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishna: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Go forth and build the world; add the one block that is within your power and skills. 

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