This summer was hot. Burning sun, yellow grass, sticky rooms, and during the night no rest possible. Have you also been complaining about the weather? Either it is too warm or the rain comes down too heavily. After all, isn't there always something "too"? Too busy at work, too many tourists at the same place, too many cars on the motorway, too much sun, too much noise, etc.
There is always something that does not go after plan, and then we easily feel overwhelmed or stressed out. We have expectations and hopes about how things are supposed to be. Our state of mind is continuously projecting into the future: "When I am on vacation ...", "When I get this job...", "When the kids are older...", then I will be able to relax/be happy. We are living for a future life, always hoping that the conditions will be right. Because the present life or situation is not exactly how we would like it to be.
The only moment that counts is now
"As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life." Wise words by US mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield. You probably have heard this, especially if you have been following the path of mindfulness already either by reading about it or practicing it. This is probably no news for you. So why is it so difficult to live in the here and now, to live the only moment that we have under control?
The human mind is eager to either hold on to the pleasant or get rid of the unpleasant. This cookie is yummy, so we want another one. It is too hot, so we want it to rain and cool down a little. We constantly look out for improvements of the current situation.
There is nothing wrong about it. It only becomes a problem when we start creating a story around it and can't let go of the thoughts and emotions regarding the current condition. And as our brain likes to think and analyse, we quickly lose ourselves in these stories. This can lead to endless cycles of rumination and worry and ultimately even to depression or burnout.
There is a practice which can ease our distressed mind and deal with reality in a different way: it is called equanimity. An equanimous mind is balanced and peaceful inside, while also being right in the middle of the experience. It is feeling sad without feeling overwhelmed. It is being happy without wanting to hold on to the pleasant experience. It is being at peace with everything, just as it is. "Being at peace" does not mean that we have to like everything, or that we resign. It means accepting reality as it is, as something we cannot change, because it has already happened: I am sweating. After having accepted the reality of an unusually hot day, I can try to get a refreshment. After having accepted the reality of not being part of this important project I was working towards, I can acknowledge my disappointment and then move on.
As one quote of unknown origin says wonderfully: "Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart."
The practice of accepting things just as they are can be tremendously liberating. It frees us from the endless struggle against reality. But it is also difficult and needs a lot of practice. It is a life-long journey. There will never be a place of complete peace, as our human brain will regularly get triggered by challenging situations. However, we can train our mind to step out of the reactivity of "not wanting things to be as they are" in many small ways.
How can we cultivate equanimity?
We can start with the weather and accept it just as it is. After all, what else can we do? As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says: "For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining, is to let it rain." We can be at peace with the traffic situation and notice our tendency to feel angry or stressed.
We can practice accepting our bodily condition of this particular day and not start comparing it to other people or to earlier times. Whatever reasons the stiffness or the headache have, we can practice being at peace with it – and then give our body what it needs right now.
Another field of practice is being with other people: We can neither control nor change what other people do or say. There will be countless situations where we will disagree, feel hurt, or challenged. Equanimity teaches us to "accept the things that we can neither control nor change", no matter how much we would like to change them. Accepting reality is always the first step – the second step is the conscious choice of how to relate to what is here right now (=reality). Therefore, equanimity and acceptance are not passive, but a very active way of living life fully.
A wonderful meditation practice for equanimity is the mountain meditation: Feeling strong and stable on the inside, just as a mountain that is not shaken by weather, climbers, snow storms or animals. Feel free to try it out by following this link.