July 26, 2007

Equanimity or Apathy

Do equanimity and compassion collide? Equanimity is “evenness of mind, especially under stress.” As mentioned before, compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress and a desire to alleviate it.” (Both according to Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.) When we truly feel others suffering it can affect us profoundly. The profound emotions which arise feed our desire to help those people. Yet, if our emotions remain balanced and stable, even in the face of the almost unbearable suffering of others, what then fuels our desire to help them?

Yesterday evening we watched Blood Diamond, which graphically depicts the atrocities of the civil war and blood diamond trade in Sierra Leon in 1999. Even as horrible as the depictions of the film were, they cannot compare to actual events. Women and children mutilated, raped, and murdered, boys turned into killers, addicted to drugs, others forced to work as slave laborers in the diamond mines, corporate greed, and exploitive journalism.

Yet, I feel nothing. Or something so close to nothing it might be labeled as such, a small sadness, a passing regret, easily displaced by the next moment in my own life. I have struggled with this question my entire life: is this equanimity or apathy?

A friend asked if I ever watched that television show “Intervention.” I told her no, because I was the kind of person who always felt very much in control of her own actions, thoughts, and feelings. I can’t relate to the out of control lifestyles of the people depicted on shows like that. I can understand it intellectually, medically, psychologically, but I cannot relate to it personally and I cannot empathize on any useful level. As a result, when I watch those shows there comes a point in time where I just want to yell “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?” Yet I know that urge comes from an entirely mistaken view on my own part. That is what’s wrong with me.

The same is true of movies like Blood Diamond. I have lived a good life, a safe life, for which I am thankful. I have no basis for the “sympathetic consciousness” which can give rise to a strong desire to alleviate suffering. My compassion is entirely intellectually based. Being an intellectual person, that is more than enough to drive me to takes some action, but is it enough to truly give as much as I could?

Marilyn’s death gave me a greater sense of compassion than any other event in my life. I am aware of the suffering of terminal illness, the pain of cancer, the mind numbing effects of drugs, the grief of loosing a friend, a mother. I can feel that deeply in my heart the way I have felt little else. And I can feel deeply for those people who experience similar situations in their lives.

Is my equanimity then a product of my experience, an inborn part of my nature, or is it merely apathy in disguise?


TK said...

Well, emphathy is an emotion that is instilled in us by the evolution. Compassion, on the hand, is an action, whether motivated by an emotion, religious edict or morality principle. And I don't think the lack of the emotion should be of much concern to a buddhist, as long as he lives by the right morality, which is said to be the foundation for the liberation from suffering.

Monica said...

Lack of emotion may not be so much an issue. Actions speak louder in this case, I suppose. But I see apathy as a more active thing than a mere lack. I see it as a defence mechanism we use to protect ourselves from suffer.

Chogyam Trungpa would probably label this "coccoon" and site apathy as a barrier to renunciation. If apathy stands in the way of renunciation, then it must be dealt with before one can get very far on the path.

The trick is how to tell the difference?

greenfrog said...


From my perspective (you know, yoga and all) equanimity is not the stability of non-feeling, but rather equipoise in the midst of conflicts and tensions and burdens that would otherwise tilt us out of that balanced state.

At the recent Shambhala retreat, Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern described something akin to this as "dynamic equilibrium." David offered the example of vipassana meditation -- the stillness at the center of watching the mind churn out thoughts as we sit in meditation. Cyndi offered the example of standing in Tree pose (one foot on the ground, the other foot against the standing leg's shin or thigh, hands at heart center) -- though the pose, when done right, looks rock steady from the outside, from the inside, we can feel constant minute adjustments in the ankle and shin and foot to maintain the pose.

Regarding the equanimity of awareness, I'm reminded of Kabat-Zinn's observation that when we are depressed, the part of our mind that observes that mind state is not, itself, depressed. When we feel empathy, the part of our mind that observes the mind state of empathy is not itself empathetic. When we are horrified, the part of our mind that observes the horrified mind state is not, itself, horrified.

Sometimes I'm strong enough to step into situations that might be harmful to the minds and emotions of others precisely because I can maintain my equanimity in such situations. Yet there are many situations where others are able to enter with equanimity and engage mindfully to alleviate suffering where I'm still too incompetent even to venture.

Not sure this really goes to the heart of your post, but it's what comes to mind.


Monica said...

Thank you, Sean, I always find your insights helpful. I am interested in your introductin of the "watcher" concept into the discussion. I hadn't thought that way before. I am sorry we didn't get more time to chat when you were here, but I do hope you enjoyed your program and had a good time.


greenfrog said...

I loved my four days there. I haven't written about them, yet, as I'm still digesting the experience. I'll try to put something together this weekend and post it.

It was fun seeing you, too, and looking at Shambhala Mtn Ctr from what I imagined your architecture-trained perspective might be, rather than simply my own, untrained one.


Stephen Parks Bell said...

Here is how I cultivate more compassion: I do the metta bahavana medition, which is part of the bhrama viharas (sublime abodes): metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upeksha (equanimity).

I alternate mindfulness of breathing and metta bahavana. When my practice gets stronger and life settles down, I do the whole bhrama viharas.

My first retreat at Aryaloka in New Hampshire was on that. That retreat changed my life.

I think tapping into our emotions and emotional and intellectual integration is one of the fruits of practice. Finding out how the mind work is the wonderful gift of meditation, IMHO.

Monica said...

Stephen, what you call the bhrama viharas, we call the Four Immesurables. I have yet to do contemplative pactice on the Four Immesurables, but I hope to find training in that before I leave.

Sean, I look forward to your post.

jeff said...

I know this is an older post, but I wanted to comment anyway and say thank you. I googled "Equanimity vs. Apathy" and ended up here...and this is a very good start for me to explore some of the same question.