Equanimity vs. righteousness

yoga blog

Two years ago, on a heavy-rain night, water started to drop from the ceiling in our bedroom. The next day, we signalled it to our landlords, who sent someone to fix it. Apparently, there was a leak in the building’s roof and the attic floor, located just above our apartment. A few weeks later, on another rainy day, water started to drop again. We signalled it to the owners again, who sent the same carpenter again, who again tried to fix the roof’s leak. Some weeks later, the same happened for the third time… And, later,  a fourth time… Until two years passed.

Finally, they “really” fixed it, and it stopped raining in the bedroom. Yet a weird yellow mark appeared on the kitchen’s ceiling, and a similar stain began to surface on one of the bedroom walls. After asking for help again, we officially got the confirmation of the presence of mold in our home. Yuk.  It then became clearly exposed after the handy man pulled off the tapestry to look and measure humidity. A few weeks passed and, as we did not hear back from our landlords, we contacted them again. They finally sent someone who talked about the need for a bigger repair that involved taking part of the wall and ceilings down. Clearly, the idea of living there while the proper work was being done, with open walls and ceilings did not feel good. It could take a while, so they said.

Apparently, there is no law in Denmark requiring landlords to offer their tenants temporary housing in such a mold-problematic situation, to relocate them, or to compensate them financially to either leave or as an offset of paying for an apartment they cannot live in. After a few months of discussing and arguing back and forth with the owners, we decide to leave. “Lucky” for us, they are willing to let us leave without the usual 3-month notice. Good, as we have already paid 5 months of rent for an apartment we did not stay in. Oh, and they also decided to retain some of our deposit to redo the apartment upon our departure.

Surprising, you might think. I do not tend to expose a personal experience and infuse it with strong feelings, and neither do I usually use my writings to raise a case against someone or something. None of these, despite their drawing from a true story, reflects any of my intentions. Perhaps, you also think that my story sounds unfair and wonder whether I have talked to a lawyer, reached out to a relevant interest organization for renters, or gone to the media. Of course, like you I am a human with daily responsibilities, a limited budget, and the desire to have a (waterproof) roof over my head. My point here is not to start a discussion about the issue (although such discussion might be needed!) but to illustrate what I understand with the concept of “equanimity” with a personal example that is still vivid and somehow emotionally charged.  

When we experience a situation as unfair, most of us I guess will wish for a repair or justice of some sort. Promoting a world of fairness and justice is an essential part of evolving as a more equitable and enjoyable society. However, thousands of years ago, in their paying attention to what disturbs a clear mind conducive of a meditative state, unity consciousness, and liberation, the wise yogis became aware of several “obstructions” (commonly translated as “contaminants,” see Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.33) that appeared in everyday life. One they pointed was the righteousness which can take the forms, among others, of entitlement, strong opinions and beliefs, anger, and the need to argue or fight against something or someone we do not agree with.

You might already think of the many degrees that righteousness might decline into, of which some really seem justified. We humans are wired to think and try to make sense of our world, and building opinions, “yes and no’s” and “right and wrong’s” is a necessary part of our initial (i.e. mental, societal, educational) search for meaning. At the same time, we can clearly recognize how any conflict, from a mundane dispute to a global war, arises from conviction that one side is more “right” than the other—i.e. opposition. Holding onto such a conviction or opinion not only animates strong feelings like anger, which keeps feeding the opposition, but also reinforces the unconscious belief of separation—which according to the sages is what impedes our liberation from suffering and the realization of our true, already whole nature.  

Note that the peace-making aspect of yoga (when you think of Ghandi or Amma, or the general effect of the practice on your mind) has more to do with inducing a state of peace through the practice itself rather than convincing another about peace. In this subtle difference is likely to lie the spirit of yoga: realization of our true nature comes from within as the practice makes its effect, and not through the mental understanding of or attempt to adhere to any particular concept. As the Buddha put it: “Don’t take my word for a given, try it for yourself.

Going back to what the yogis view as a pollutant of a transparent or discerning mind might teach us something about how to step out of the drama of separation and righteousness: cultivating equanimity. I like to define equanimity as “loving neutrality;” a kind of intentional distancing more rooted in an interest in present-moment attention and less in a reactive, cold distancing from the experience. Equanimity, upekshnaham in Sanskrit, is what can help you at the supermarket when you get irritated by that kid running around, triggered by your sister or close friend, or heated up by a politician describing a world that seems at the antipodes of your view.

Upekshnaham, indeed, literally means “seeing in the right context.” Contextualizing does not mean to excuse a behavior that we view as unacceptable. Rather, it is an invitation to create a larger space around both our own triggers (for example, by asking ourselves:  “Why is this particular situation so triggering for me?”,  “Which of my most important values are being jeopardized here?” or “What emotional wound is activated?”) and the other part’s triggers (by reflecting upon: “What socioeconomical, political, emotional background or baggage are they carrying which could explain their –to me—out-of-integrity behavior?”).  

Reflecting at a more meta-level on the origin of a situation that we feel righteous about represents one way to cultivate equanimity and, thereby, attain more freedom in a conflict. At a neurological and psychological level, yoga and meditation activate the part of the mind that diminishes the fight-or-flight response and more automatically regulates stress and impulsive responses to external stimuli. In the longer run, the practice will make us less reactive and better able to handle conflicts and triggering situations with more poise and without needing to pull ourselves away of, in other words, without closing our heart.

Going back to my apartment situation, after oscillating between many emotional ups and downs and feeling everything from undignified, fearful, shameful, like a victim to (righteously) angry, revengeful, and ready to fight, I and my beloved decided to let it go. There was a point where the amount of energy required to claim or complain tipped over the expected benefits (in any forms) that we might have got in the end. We decided to maintain our own integrity and see in it an opportunity to open a new, exciting chapter in our lives.

I must admit that my righteousness is not completely clear in my heart, and yet I have been able to see—or at least imagine I could see—the context in which the owning company lives and operates, that is a market-driven and capitalist view which thirst-for-more origins date from way beyond they opened their business. This is another mere example of the world that we modern humans are inheritors of and, with more or less strong will, find ourselves a part of.

Now, social justice and activism of any sort can be needed to produce actual changes. Perhaps it is completely appropriate to bring any story to the public eye so a radical change can start to happen. The wisdom I personally draw from these ancient teachings on righteousness and equanimity has little to do with questioning activism per se. Rather, it is an invitation to create a more conscious, reflective response to any unjust stimuli, however personal it might be. If it originates from a place of inner wisdom, an action to change a situation might carry more significant effects in the longer run that promotes unity and more wisdom in others rather than opposition and guilt.

Equanimity indeed was offered by the sages as an antidote to righteous anger and as a way to live a more joyful life to create, from the inside-out, a more joyful world.

Up to us to start where we can. Where can you start, today?

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