How indeed do we maintain equanimity in a turbulent world? This is an awesome question. First, we ask, why make this effort? Perhaps the answer is obvious. What are the alternatives?
Turbulent times can induce agitation, hysteria and fear. Some may even react by escapism, shutting down and apathy. Are these useful to ourselves and others? I don’t think so. Equanimity, on the other hand, allows us to engage with balance, wisdom and clarity. It is especially valuable to help me discern when I am being called to action, when to say “yes,” and when to recognize my limits. Equanimity is a product of the classic Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
The first practice in maintaining equanimity might be turning to a power greater than ourselves, however we understand that. It could be God, Torah, Mystery, the interconnected web of connection, for instance. I surrender my attachment to my separate and limited sense of self that must prove, solve, fix and find favor. I open to something much greater even if I cannot name it. I remember that equanimity is not resignation or apathy, although I may fear that the absence of agitation, frantic activity and ongoing panic indicates indifference. It need not. We can act for the greater good without collapsing into the small self, the ego.
A second great source of equanimity can be our relationships, especially if we are connected to those who are also seeking equanimity. Our relationships remind us, “It is not all up to us.” Right relationships highlight the inspiring uniqueness of each being. We are all called to serve in some way, but we are not all called to the same projects or practices. It is uplifting to recognize, support and honor each other’s unique gifts. I imagine groups where we delight in each other’s strengths. That allows me and you to release our tendencies to compare and judge, or the need to do it all, and the various ingrained messages that work against equanimity. We can choose to spend time with those who value the balance that emerges from self-acceptance and acceptance of the other. This is a precious gift. It is not found everywhere. It can sustain us when we are with more challenging folks.
The third path to equanimity in turbulent times, alongside seeking a Higher Power and authentic community, are practices. I love the term “practice” because it eschews the idea of perfection or final attainment. We are always in process as humans. Life is always changing both inside and outside of us as the earth revolves around the sun. This is the meaning of the name Eheyeh asher Ehyeh that God names Godself: “I will be what I will be.” My nature is the ongoing flow of all that is. Our practices root us in the present moment. This is where we can feel safe and where we can touch the inner goodness, the Divine image that inhabits each of us.
Practices are intentions we make. Invariably, we stray from them. We forget. We get distracted. Then we remember, and we can return. Teshuvah, “return,” is the essence of practice. Teshuvah was created before the world itself was created according to one midrash (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 3). We forget and remember, forget and remember. Equanimity is something we cultivate and something we practice.
What are some of our spiritual practices? The rabbis invited us to recite 100 blessings in a day. Blessing this moment is a definite equanimity practice. You must be right here when you recite a blessing, wherever here is. There are many other practices from Jewish tradition and other traditions, including meditation, prayer, yoga, chi gung, Torah study, eating practices, speaking practices, sharing our resources, showing up for those in need. The list goes on. Every spiritual practice has the possibility of expanding the separate self, connecting us to something greater than the turbulence we experience, acknowledge and wish to heal. Every spiritual practice aims to cultivate equanimity, creating a container of care that can hold us in difficult times and guide our steps. Equanimity involves and evokes many other powerful qualities that support us such as patience, trust, surrender, courage, humility and compassion.
Of course, the greatest Jewish equanimity practice might be the Sabbath. Can we let go for a day from doing, making, getting, fixing? Can we allow the turbulent world just to be? This is a practice of equanimity. Can we do it perfectly? Absolutely not. Being with our limitations without judgment is, of course, an equanimity practice. All the Jewish holy days might be considered times to practice these sacred qualities. During Passover, we become deeply aware of the restrictions in awareness that imprison us. We remember the possibility of liberation, expansion and deliverance. As we observe Shavuot, we celebrate the possibility of great wisdom and guidance emerging from generations who have also lived in difficult, anxiety- inducing times. And during Sukkot, we have the ultimate symbol of fragility and protection as we gather with our ancestors and our beloveds in this strange structure that keeps us safe and is open to the infinite starry night sky. Purim just invites us to laugh at everything — turn it all topsy-turvy. What a great way to loosen up and move toward equanimity. On Hanukkah, we celebrate the unanticipated, the miraculous. We can’t despair when we remember the possibility of miracle. And we remind ourselves to notice the miraculous all around us. One must wonder, is all Jewish life an attempt to cultivate equanimity in the face of a turbulent world?
I would like to share a few excerpts from my most recent book, Let Us All Breathe Together that relate to this topic. I begin with an interpretive translation of Modim from the weekday Amidah.
We bow to this immense interconnected mystery,
The rock of our life, the shield of our safety,
From generation to generation.
We are grateful for this life, which we do not possess.
We are grateful for this awareness, which we do not own.
We are grateful for the daily miracles and wonders that arise and pass. Our eyes behold them!
Evening, morning and afternoon.
Compassionate presence is eternal.
Love is eternal.
Here we rest.
It is good.
For the sake of peace
In the expanse of space,
Primal awareness and unconfined compassion, which is the deep
Of everyone’s mind.
Taking refuge for the sake of goodness and blessing
Grace and loving-kindness.
This is our heritage as human beings. This is the gift of this life.
This is everyone’s blessing.
May we know,
May we sense,
May we take to heart. May we remember. Amen.”
The impetus for the book emerged from the meditation group that Rabbi Malkah Bina Klein, Moon Smith and I lead. This group started six years ago, and like many other groups and services, transitioned from live to Zoom. Every week, we try to find a teaching from the Torah portion that is pertinent to the moment and can lead into meditative silence. After the first year on Zoom, which was the first year of the pandemic, I went through my own teachings and wrote what I like to call an epic poem, “The Torah of the Corona.”
“We return to Genesis, to creation, to re-examine our categories, our judgments, our habits, the sense of comfort we have with what we thought we knew when we read Torah last year.
Now is new.
Now is unique as are we.
A new year is a time to deepen our curiosity.
We are invited to see anew.
That is Bereishit.
How often do we see beginnings?
How often do we honor beginnings?
How often do we notice the first breath that enters us when we
Wake up in the morning?
Or the first thought that comes to mind?
Or the first words we chose to utter to someone in our life?
We return to awaken attention.
We return to the beginning to see how swiftly things change
And to realize how the beginning will soon no longer be the
Verse 2:10 in Bereishit, has become the basis of some of the deepest
Jewish mystical teachings. It might offer another response to
Why begin again.
It is written: “Nahar yotzay mei-Eden lehashkot et hagan,”
A river flows from Eden to water the garden.
Here is what the Zohar says: The River that is flowing forth is called
The world that is coming — coming constantly and never ceasing. This is the delight of the righteous, to attain this world that is coming, constantly watering the garden and never ceasing.”
What does this teach?
The story doesn’t end.
It doesn’t end with COVID -19, the quarantine, the vaccine, this election.
The story continues. Torah continues.
May we all be among the righteous as we begin again to enter
This moment, the amazing life we have been given with its
Great challenges and its unfathomable delights, flowing
Around us and connecting us to all that is, was, and will be.
May we know the great solace and joy, and the amazing
Opportunity to begin again.
And again, we meet our ancestors.
Again, we meet kindness and cruelty.
Again, we meet family and all its foibles.
Again, we meet the desire for continuity.
The longing for immortality.”