Many years ago, there was a farmer who had a horse that was very valuable to him. One day, the horse ran away, and the townspeople commented, “Oh no! How terrible for you!” The farmer responded, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The following day, his horse returned with six stallions alongside it. The townspeople said, “How wonderful! You have six new horses!” The farmer responded, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
A few days later, the farmer’s son was trying to break in one of the stallions when he was bucked off, breaking his leg. The townspeople said, “Oh how awful! Your poor son!” The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
A week later, the army came through town, drafting all the young men to fight in war. Except—the farmer’s son was injured, and so couldn’t go. The townspeople cried out, “You’re so lucky! Your son is saved!” The farmer responded, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The problem of reactivity
We can all see in the above parable that it would have been a mistake for the farmer to overreact to his circumstances—either good or bad—because in the end he did not know how things would turn out. The problem is, though, that most of us are more like the townspeople than the farmer.
So many of us live in a constant state of reactivity and uneasiness, trying to control things that are far outside our control.
One patient I worked with, a young woman in her 30s, always seemed anxious and unsettled. When her life was going well (with work, her relationships, her financial life, etc.) she was happy. When bad things happened, though, she blamed herself and obsessed over how she could make things better, refusing to relax until she felt she had solved all of her problems. And even those moments when things were going well, she was stressed about making sure everything stayed that way.
If you’ve ever felt similarly, you can rest assured that you have a lot of company. So many of us grasp onto pleasure and resist pain, even when ebbs and flows of joy and sorrow are an unavoidable part of the human experience.
We live in a constant state of unease and anxiety, feeling like there is always more to do and more to worry about. We stress about our to-do lists, even though no matter how many items pop up, more will take their place. We feel like we can’t relax and be happy until we have achieved certain goals, but when we get what we want, we just want something else.
The solution to reactivity: Equanimity
But—what if there could be an alternative? What if we didn’t have to wait until the chaos settled to find peace and calm? What if we could find peace and calm right now, even amidst all the chaos of life?
Eastern philosophy offers such an alternative in the practice of equanimity. Equanimity is one of four core practices to help find balance and happiness in difficult circumstances (the others are Lovingkindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy).
How to cultivate equanimity
Like any practice, your ability to develop feelings of equanimity in the face of chaos and stress depends on how much you do it. You need to exercise equanimity like a muscle.
Traditionally, one practices equanimity by repeating certain phrases during meditation practice. It absolutely can be helpful to have a regular meditation practice (even if only five minutes a day) to develop equanimity, but it is not necessary. Daily life can be an opportunity to practice. Try repeating these phrases to yourself during difficulties that come up in everyday life:
1. When you feel a general sense of uneasiness about yourself and your life, repeat:
May I accept things just as they are.
May I accept myself just as I am.
So many people feel that they need to make certain changes before they can feel “good enough,” but we are all good enough just as we are, at this moment.
Accepting yourself and your life circumstances doesn’t mean you won’t work to change or improve things, but it means you don’t need to wait to start treating yourself kindly.
2. When someone you care about is suffering and there’s nothing you can do to change their circumstances, repeat:
I care about your pain.
Through this caring may your pain be eased.
A while back, when I was in the middle of a silent meditation retreat, I saw an older woman fall and break both of her ankles. I immediately broke silence and rushed over to help her (a trait likely ingrained as a doctor). She was in tremendous pain, and became crushed as she realized she wouldn’t be able to continue the retreat.
At first I felt terrible, and guilty that I couldn’t do more to help her, but then I realized I could feel compassion for her without believing it was my responsibility to control the outcome of her injury.
The above phrase helps you cultivate compassion for other’s suffering, without feeling like it’s your responsibility to solve the world’s problems.
3. When someone you care about is engaging in self-destructive behaviors and you can’t stop it, repeat:
I wish nothing but the best for you, but
Your happiness depends on your actions, and not my wishes for you.
We all have had friends, parents or children we have watched go down a bad path. Maybe they’ve abused drugs or alcohol, or alienated people around them through erratic behavior, or acted irresponsibly or hurtfully.
Unfortunately, we do not have the power to control the path of another person, no matter how much we care about them. This phrase helps you cultivate healthy detachment in your relationships, where you can care for another person without getting caught up in trying to prevent them from making mistakes.
4. When bad things happen, repeat:
Whether I understand it or not, things are unfolding according to a natural order.
Remember the above story of the farmer? When his circumstances changed (for better or worse), he did not buy into the townspeople’s beliefs that his fortune was so great or so terrible. He understood that the story hadn’t yet unfolded.
Have you wasted mental energy on a worry that never came to fruition? I sure. know I have. But I try to practice being like the farmer instead of the townspeople.
This phrase helps you remember that your story is always still unfolding.
5. When you have a few moments to meditate, take a comfortable seat, close your eyes, and repeat:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I calm my mind.
May I be balanced.
May I be at peace.
When you feel more settled during your meditation, you can repeat:
May I learn to see the arising and passing if all things with equanimity and balance.
Equanimity is being able to hold all elements of your experience with wholeness, coherence, and harmony. It is a practice of finding freedom, no matter what life brings you.
Photo by Jordi Sanchez Teruel
Larry Hochman says
Great read! A very circumspect and balanced approached to the trials and tribulations of life. However, your ukelele song is a chaotic mess of dysfunction! Actually, I loved that too. 😉
Haha, touché! I hadn’t had much practice with equanimity when I was a medical student. I probably could have used it back then!
Sean Cox says
Elana, I love your parable, and will add it to my own bag of tricks, if you don’t mind 😉 And no, we just don’t do very well when we’re in that anxious, reptilian, fight-flight-freeze mode, do we? B-r-e-a-t-h-e . . . slow down . . . think . . . respond . . .
Thank you Sean! Feel free to steal and share – I took it from Jack Kornfield.
Sara T. says
Your post was so relevant to everyday life stressors and I really need to cultivate some of these phrases. In particular, my mother lives across the country and recently had a fall sustaining a hip and wrist fracture. There is really only so much I can do to help her suffering, but I really do care deeply about what she is going through. As a result I often feel guilty and helpless. I have to practice equanimity. I love this term by the way, and always love learning something new.
Thank you for sharing such an inspiring post.
Thank you Sara, so glad the post got to you at the right time! Also, I love your website—it’s great to connect with another liked-minded MD!
If you would like to grow your experience just keep visiting
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Laurie Fessler says
I think that the new catch phrase is “mindfulness” and it does carry meaning for all of the above. Unfortunately when I am in that frenzied state of turmoil it is often the time that I can’t step back because it’s like I’m in the middle of a tornado. I’m working on it, truly.
Psychiatric Department of Jason University, Dr.. Fessler, Head of the Department
(JUST KIDDING, BUT THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LOOK AT MY BLOG THIS WAY, LOL)
Jo Entwistle says
Thanks for this post. Just what I needed to read today. Read the farmer story a while bs k (when undergoing cancer treatment in fact-3yearsago )but lost it and gals you quoted it. Strange to me hiw. After life threatening cancer, I’m now back to ‘sweating the small stuff’again. Mindfulness meditation is helping a bit but I’m definately going to read your blog often (having recently found it I now check regularly) as it offers me important reminders and supports my own attempts to accept things just as they are. Keep up the good work!
Kuen Wei says
This is a really good article! I was glued to it right from the start until the end! I find it really insightful. Thank you!
I heard this today on the Optimal Living Daily podcast. These mantras are exactly what I need right now. I’m going to print them off and hang it where I decide to meditate. Thank you.