The Equanimity Phase

Encountering The Groundless Flow of Life

By: Vince Horn

In many ways resilience is an updated translation for the Buddhist idea of equanimity. Equanimity has to do with being even and steady regardless of what’s happening. Resilience has to do with our ability to work with difficulty and return to a more grounded and centered state of being. Resilience doesn’t require that we transcend difficulty, rather that we learn to work more skillfully with it.

In order to enter into the phase of practice called resilience we have to exit the disillusionment phase. It’s worth remembering that in order to gain deeper resiliency we actually have to be knocked off of our center in ways that we don’t yet know how to deal with. It’s only by being challenged, overwhelmed, and “in over our heads” that we have the opportunity to develop resiliency. When everything is easy, we don’t really grow, we just coast along.

If you recall, at the heart of the disillusionment phase is the dissolving of some part of our core identity structure. When this structure dissolves it can bring up profound existential terror, grief, and hopelessness. As we learn to trust and accept the actual reality of our sensory experience, just as it’s presenting itself, we develop resiliency.

The reason for this is because we’re able to rest in the flow of experience, even when it’s unpleasant and disturbing. It even becomes possible, first in short bursts, then later in a more prolonged way, to rest in the experience of disturbance and dissatisfaction, which are themselves temporary. We stop believing the catastrophizing stories of mind, settle into the unpleasant experiences of the body, and learn to ride the waves of uncertainty and groundlessness. It’s strange to think about becoming grounded in groundlessness. Yet that’s exactly what happens in the resilience phase.

Journaling practice: How have you become more resilient by encountering great difficulty?

When, in your life, have you encountered a very difficult situation and come out of the other side more resilient? What was the difficulty? What was the turning point in the situation? How did you become more resilient?

The Story of the Skydiver

There’s a lovely story, told by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, that illustrates this process. It also serves as a good example of how the phases of mindfulness unfold. So, imagine that you feel that there’s something missing in your life, and you want to figure out how to address that gaping void. As you go through the process of figuring out what is missing and how you’re going to go about addressing it, you decide that what you really need to do is go skydiving for the 1st time. You have a feeling that you need to leap into the unknown, to challenge yourself to do something you’ve never done before, and face your own mortality (the seeking phase).

You put in the effort to learn to skydive, and then you go up for your first jump. As the plane climbs you get ready to jump out of the plane and it’s both scary and exhilarating. You stick with the process anyway, knowing it’s too important to turn back, and then you reach the jump point. You hurl yourself out of the plane feeling your body accelerating through the air. There’s an incredible exhilaration and ecstasy that envelops you, as you let go into the experience of free falling. Everything feels totally right in this moment. “This is exactly why I decided to go on this journey,” you think. “This is it!” (the breakthrough phase)

As you fall closer and closer to the ground you prepare to pull the ripcord on your parachute. But to your horror the ripcord is stuck, it won’t release the parachute! You do everything you can, and everything you’ve been taught, to try and fix the situation. Nothing is working and you start to feel a tremendous dread and despair overtake you. You’ve gone from total elation to totally despair in almost no time. The realization comes crashing in that you didn’t really think that you were going to die, even though you knew it was inevitable from an intellectual point of view. (the disillusionment phase)

Just when you think that it couldn’t get any worse, something miraculous happens. Some part of you starts to accept the reality of the situation. There’s nothing you can do to change it as it’s already too late to pull the ripcord anyway. In what feels like your final moments of life you begin to accept what’s happening and enter into a deep state of calm acceptance. You open into a mysterious knowing that everything is fundamentally ok, and that this life is imminently trustworthy (the equanimity phase).

As this new understanding takes you over, and as you accept the imminence of your own death, something even more miraculous happens. You suddenly recognize that there is no ground! The ground that you thought you’d be colliding into is actually without substance. You are hurtling through open/empty space, not as something or someone solid, but as the movement of life itself. There’s a recognition that this groundless state, where there is no possibility of controlling or manipulating life, has always been the case. You’ve lived in a groundless state the entire time, doing everything you can to avoid it (including, paradoxically, going skydiving). You thought that you could transcend groundlessness by facing it and overcoming it, but instead you’ve become one with it. (the completion phase)