Hishtavut: Equanimity

“Once upon a time a lover of secret lore came to an anchorite and asked to be admitted as a pupil. Then he said to him: My son, your purpose is admirable, but do you possess equanimity or not? He replied: Indeed, I feel satisfaction at praise and pain at insult, but I am not revengeful and I bear no grudge. Then the master said to him: My son, go back to your home, for as long as you have no equanimity and can still feel the sting of insult, you have not attained to the state where you can connect your thoughts with God.” [1]

Equanimity is a crucial attribute if we want to make progress in the spiritual life. However, it is a virtue that is not so quickly attained. We are easily affected by the pushes and pulls of daily life. Our desires and emotions tug us in every direction. Our minds spin from the jumble of conflicting messages that we receive from the environment around us. The constantly changing circumstances of our personal lives and the precarious world condition make it ever more difficult for us to find stability, balance and equanimity.

How do we maintain our balance amid this ever-shifting landscape? How do we inculcate our consciousness with the virtue of equanimity?

Psalm 15:8 states: “Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid.” I will place the Lord before me at all times. The Baal Shem explains that we must read the word shiviti as referring to hishtavut – equanimity. The interpretation of this verse then becomes: If we keep God’s presence before us at all times, then we will have equanimity. We will not be unsettled whether we are praised or blamed, whether we are given food fit for a king or just plain bread and water. We will not become excited when people think that we are a great scholar or when they think that we are an ignoramus. We will be at peace both when we succeed and when we fail. [2]

According to the Baal Shem, to place God before us at all times can be fulfilled in several different ways. One way to fulfill this injunction is to ask ourselves before we act: “If God were here before me, what would I do; what issues would concern me?” If we follow this practice, then all the physical matters that we worry about now will no longer seem important. Instead, all our energies will become focused on addressing the big questions of life.

We also place God before us at all times by accepting everything, no matter what happens, as coming from God. If our life is being lead in a direction other than the one that we desire, it is because God wants us to serve Him in different manner. A change in direction is a new door that God is opening up for us to teach us an alternative way of approach.

We place God before us at all times by examining our petty concerns in the light of God’s greatness and Infinite Consciousness. The Baal Shem believes that we should think of ourselves as belonging to the higher realm and not to this physical world. The whole of this world, he declares, is like a mustard seed next to the beauty and grandeur of the higher worlds. When we turn our mind toward heaven, we become Divine ourselves. When we turn our heart toward the things of this world, then we too become gross and physical.

The fourth way that we place God before us at all times is by striving to always experience His Living Presence. We accomplish this by constantly linking our heart and mind to God. If we are bound to God, then all our physical concerns will drop away. If we are living in God’s presence, then all the material objects that people cherish in this world will seem absurd and meaningless.

One day, the Duchess of Alba de Tormes took her new friend, Saint Teresa of Avila, to the room where the treasures of the Dukes of Alba were displayed. “Everything around her shone, glittered, and sparkled; there was nothing but the fiery gleam of jewels with their lustre and brilliance…The Duchess drew her attention to the gold chasing, the magnificent diamonds, the purity of the emeralds.”

But all this had no affect on Saint Teresa. When her host asked for Teresa’s impressions of the treasures, she candidly replied: “I’ve retained no more impression of these jewels and precious stones than if I had never seen them and I couldn’t tell you what they were like.” [3]  The physical brilliance of these material objects was dull and coarse in comparison to the majestic splendor of the Divine presence and the inner realms.

Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society approaches the acquisition of the attribute of equanimity from another direction. He sees two concepts as central to developing equanimity. The first key concept, he says, is to train our mind, because everything is in the mind.

“If you can change the nature of the activity of the mind then you have the key to bring about a corresponding change in the nature of the experience you have…if you bring about a transformation in the inner state of your mind, it means your experience will also be transformed.”

He then goes on to explain this concept further:

“You can make your own happiness and unmake your own misery…If you refuse to allow anything in this world to affect you, then already you have guaranteed what will happen to you and what will not happen to you. It is this decision that can make all the difference between causing you misery or allowing yourself to be able to stand like a rock – no matter what comes…The world cannot shake the person whose background is full of discrimination, enquiry and analysis.” [4]

The Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers powerfully illustrates this truth.

Jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery. After they have sent Joseph off with a caravan of merchants heading for Egypt, the brothers discuss what they should tell their father Jacob. They decide to tell him that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. To make this fiction appear more real, they dip Joseph’s multi-colored garment in goat’s blood and bring it to show their father.

When Jacob hears their story and sees Joseph’s torn and bloody garment, he accepts it as the truth. As a result, he is plunged into a state of profound grief. A light goes out inside Jacob that will not be rekindled for many years.

Meanwhile, Joseph goes through his transformation in Egypt from slave to prisoner to royal counselor – second only to the Pharaoh in wealth and power.  Then a famine arises in land of Canaan and Jacob sends his sons to buy wheat from Egypt where there are provisions in plenty. In Egypt, the brothers are confronted by a high Egyptian official, who accuses them of being spies. Unbeknownst to them, this high official is, in fact, their brother Joseph. In trying to explain their story to the official, it is revealed that one of the brothers, Benjamin, is still at home. As proof of their innocence, Joseph demands to see Benjamin and keeps two of the other brothers as hostages.

Jacob is loath to let Benjamin, the only remaining son from his beloved wife Rachel, go down with the brothers to Egypt, as he fears to lose him as he lost Joseph. In the end, Jacob relents and with great trepidation allows Benjamin to go with the other brothers to Egypt.

The brothers return to Egypt, and after the story has taken a number of further twists and turns, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. The Torah tells us that when Benjamin returns safely, and Jacob hears that Joseph is alive and that he is governor over the land of Egypt, “the spirit of Jacob their father revived” (Genesis 45:28). Yet, the truth is that Joseph had been alive all along, only Jacob did not know it. And the life of Benjamin was never under any real threat at all. Throughout the whole of the story of Joseph, the Torah seems to be trying to teach us that both our joy and our sorrow are determined by what we experience in the mind.

The story of Joseph leads us to Swami Chidananda’s second key concept in attaining equanimity. The second vital concept, he says, is to go beyond the feeling of “mineness.”

What makes us become attached, asks Swami Chidananda? The feeling of “mineness” is his answer – this particular state of mental attachment. Only when we have this sense of personal connectedness does something affect us, otherwise we are unmoved. He gives three examples to prove his point:

The first example is a story in the media about a baby with a heart defect that is flown to a special hospital for an operation. Everyone who hears about the story becomes involved with it. Subsequently, when the operation fails and the baby dies people all over the country become sad and heartbroken. In reality, there are millions of children that die everyday but their deaths do not affect us. It is only because the news story has generated a sense of personal involvement that we have come to care about this baby.

Swami Chidananda then gives his second example. There are millions of people all over the world who have cancer. Yet this truth does not move us until someone we know, a close friend or family member, gets the disease. Then suddenly the tragedy becomes real for us; suddenly it profoundly affects our lives.

The third example that Swami Chidananda gives is that of someone who is standing waiting for a bus when a fire engine passes by. Normally, we watch the fire engine go by with no more than a fleeting thought. It does not worry us or disturb us. However, if we are told that the fire engine is headed to our own neighbourhood, then we will fall into a panic about whether our house is on fire, and go rushing back home.

These three examples demonstrate that it is the feeling of mineness that destabilizes us. It is this mental attachment which shakes up our state of inner harmony and peace. Therefore, Swami Chidananda insists, if we want to attain equanimity in our life, we must go beyond this feeling of mineness. [5]

One way for us is to go beyond this feeling of possessiveness is to expand our heart to encompass all human beings. In this state of consciousness, we will feel love and compassion for all life, but we will be attached to no one. No one will be “ours”, and everyone will be ours.

We can also go beyond this sense of possessiveness while still holding on to a unique feeling of love for our family and friends. We accomplish this spiritual balancing act by remaining ever aware of the truth that nothing really belongs to us, everything belongs to God. The Midrash tells a story about the Talmudic sage Rebbe Meir and his wife Bruriah, which poignantly portrays this approach.

Rebbe Meir had two brilliant sons whom he dearly loved. One Sabbath afternoon while he was teaching in the synagogue, his sons suddenly passed away. His wife Bruriah, who was a very wise and saintly woman, spent the rest of the Sabbath trying to figure out how she could break this terrible news to her husband.

After the Sabbath was over, Rebbe Meir returned home from synagogue. He asked her where their sons had gone. Bruriah responded by asking him a question in turn:

“Before the Sabbath, a man left some valuables in my trust,” she told him. “He asked me to guard them until he returned. He has now come back and asked for his belongings. Should I return them?”

“My dear wife,” Rebbe Meir replied at once, “when one guards a deposit, is he not obliged to return it to its rightful owner!”

Bruriah then silently led her husband upstairs to their sons’ bedroom. Bringing him near the bed, she lifted the sheet to reveal their two sons lying motionless on the bed without any sign of life.

“My sons! My sons! My teachers! My teachers!” cried out Rebbe Meir. “You were my sons in the eyes of the world, but in my eyes you were also my teachers, enlightening me with your words of Torah!”

Bruriah then gently reminded her husband:

“My teacher, did you not say that we are obliged to return valuables whenever the rightful owner claims them? ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord (Job, 1:25).’” [6]

This is a different type of going beyond the feeling of mineness. Here, we continue to feel the joy and the sorrow of our lives, but at the same time, we maintain a profound faith in God and His infinite goodness. And we stand solid like a rock – steady in both heart and mind.

How do we attain equanimity?

Swami Chidananda has explained to us the dynamics of the process and the Baal Shem has shown us the methodology to follow.

Equanimity is attained by training our minds and by going beyond the consciousness of mineness. We achieve these goals by keeping God’s presence ever before us. We remember which issues are important in this life, and which are merely petty concerns. We keep in mind that nothing is ours, that everything belongs to the Lord. We strengthen our hearts and minds with the power of God’s living presence. We continually remind ourselves of what is real and what is not.

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Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Gershon Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, pg. 97 
  2.  Tsavat Revash, p. 1-2 
  3.  Marcelle Auclair, Saint Teresa of Avila, p. 191 
  4.  Swami Chidananda, Instrument Of Thy Peace, p. 281 
  5.  Chidananda, p. 282-3 
  6.  Midrash Mishlai 31; Yalkut Shimoni, same