Psychological Equanimity

After looking into what equanimity is in philosophy, I decided that a better way to reach equanimity is through Psychology. To that end, I have been researching on Equanimity in Psychology field for the last 2 months. It is apparently a niche subject - its not something you can just read on Wikipedia or the millions of websites out there. You have to actually look at the edges of human knowledge - which is research papers.

I have learned an important thing - people who should have been researching on equanimity have been researching on mindfulness instead. So much that even people doing the research got a bit tired of it. This was one of the titles of an actual research paper...

Moving Beyond Mindfulness: Defining Equanimity as an Outcome Measure in Meditation and Contemplative Research

Translation: "Enough researching on mindfulness! Do equanimity now"

There is woefully little research on equanimity. There is not even one standard definition of equanimity in psychological literature. I have combined the definitions from a few papers to make this...

Equanimity: calm and balanced state of mind or a neutral attitude towards all experiences or things regardless of their origin - be it pleasant or unpleasant.

I blame mindfulness for this lack of research. That is taking up all the researchers.

I'm not saying mindfulness is bad - all the research I read was unanimous in calling it the best thing to happen to psychology since Frued's weird childhood. Since I don't have enough research on equanimity, I'll have to do the next best thing. I'll have to prop up equanimity on this large body of research - because equanimity is one of the two important effects of mindfulness meditation.

To understand that, you must first understand how mindfulness works. To do that, you must know what mindfulness is. There is a definition I ran into in one of the research papers...

Mindfulness: "Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally"

It will be easier to understand it if we break it down to three steps(these are called the mental actions of meditation)...

1. Attention or concentration on something specific.

You can focus on your breathing. Or on the food you are currently eating. Or exam you are writing at the moment.

2. Observing your mental experience

When you focus on the activity, you should observe your mental state. You can use these lenses...

  • Thoughts you are having(eg. "I'm so going to fail this exam").
  • Emotions you are feeling at the moment(which I'm assuming is complete and utter dread as you are writing an exam).
  • Perceptions from your senses(I feel very cold - might be the AC in the exam hall or the fear)
  • Beliefs(I should have have studied yesterday instead of playing PUBG all night long)

This should be done without judgment. You can observe your fear - but you shouldn't label it good or bad.

3. Letting Go

Active letting-go of expectations, judgments, thoughts, opinions, ideas. In our example of the exam, you might have an expectation of passing that exam. You let that expectation go. You might have judged this exam as the hardest exam you have ever sat for. You dissolve that judgment.

Another place where this action will become necessary is with distractions. When meditating you will get distracted - with other unrelated thoughts. Or other external stimuli. You will have to use the same process to let go of these unrelated things and come back to original object.

When these distractions happen, there is a tendency to judge yourself. Again, same process. Let go of that judgment. Distractions do happen.

The Practice of Meditation

To get its benefits, you'll have to meditate many, many times. You get better each time. This is how...

  1. To focus attention on something, selective attention is required. The neural networks required for this will be strengthened by practice.
  2. To observe your emotions, thoughts, etc., you have to look at it from an external view point - this is called meta-cognitive awareness or de-centering. This also gets better with practice.
  3. By adopting an attitude of acceptance and non-attachment to experiences on a regular basis, you gain the ability to alter the quality of any experience to be more neutral.

The improvement of the trained abilities, the deliberate use of meditative mental actions in daily life, and the other aspects that come with meditation practice trigger mechanisms that bring forth two effects of meditation:

  • Equanimity
  • Insight

You already know what equanimity is. At the end of that article, I said that psychology is a better tool to reach equanimity. This is the tool I promised - Mindfulness meditation.

I've talked a lot about Equanimity - what about the other effect? Insight is defined as the changes in beliefs that are accompanied by a feeling of deep understanding and by changes in perception, judgment and/or behavior. There are 2 types of insight...

  1. You know exactly what the insight was. This can be the realization of necessities and needs, or changing perspectives or recognizing that own opinions, beliefs and ideas were wrong.
  2. You can't articulate what the insight was exactly - it is experience based and intuitive. The insight was changes in the perception of the self and world.

Epilogue

The purpose of this article is to give a scientific method to reach a state of equanimity - and that is mindfulness meditation. But I can't conclude this article without a disclaimer. I didn't reach equanimity through mindfulness meditation - I reached it through flow state. It's a state of mind that can be described as intense focus. These are the characteristics of such a state...

  • intense task concentration
  • a loss of self-awareness
  • an altered sense of time
  • merging of activity and awareness

It generally happens when you are engrossed in an optimally challenging activity. When you do something that you enjoy - and is a bit challenging. You have no idea where the time went - you have nothing else on your mind but the activity you are involved in. That's flow state. For me the activity was programming. I've spent years of my life in front of a system, coding. And, for a good percentage of that, I was in flow state - or near it.

That said, Equanimity through flow state is not something I could find any psychology research papers on - its just a theory I have. So, for a psychologically valid process, I'd still recommend getting to equanimity using mindfulness meditation.

References

The various research papers I went thru to create this content, in case anyone wants to nerd out...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *