Passionate Equanimity – this term, found in my creed, I owe to Ken Wilber, or rather his wife Treya. In his book, Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber, he details his relationship and journey with his wife, Treya, who discovers she has cancer 10 days after they are married. Five years later, she dies of the cancer. The book reflects on this time with his and her thoughts.
Treya writes in her journal: “What if you had passion without all that stuff, passion without attachment, passion clean and pure? What would that be like, what would that mean? I thought of those moments in meditation when I’ve felt my heart open, a painfully wonderful sensation, a passionate feeling but without clinging to any content or person or thing. And the two words suddenly coupled in my mind and made a whole. Passionate equanimity, passionate equanimity – to be fully passionate about all aspects of life, about one’s relationship with spirit, to care to the depths of one’s being but with no trace of clinging or holding, that’s what the phrase has come to mean to me. It feels full, rounded, complete, and challenging.”
Treya Killam Wilber starts with passion and ends with equanimity. I think many of us do that; we start with passion in our blood, ready to take on the world, to change it, to succeed, to be a champion. Without a doubt, when I was younger I was 99% passion and very little equanimity. Then, as I aged and matured, I started to get some perspective, yeah, some of that equanimity. It took me years and years, and I’m still working on it…on gaining more equanimity. I think we’re all like that: we start with passion first, then maybe we gain the perspective. In the Air Force, we would say “that guy is all thrust, and no vector.” I think most of us have a lot less vector than we think…especially when we are young.
Before I get too far, I think it is best to describe equanimity further. It is the ability to distance yourself from a situation. It is to be “dispassionate,” unemotional, and rational about a particular situation. I think I will use an analogy here. Think of a bad situation in your life as like a drop of deadly cyanide. A drop of cyanide is enough to kill a person quickly and cleanly. However, if I took that drop and placed it in the ocean, it would disperse quite quickly. Would it kill any fish, or swimmers? Very unlikely…even more so as time goes by and the drop becomes mixed in with the sea. So, if the situation is that drop of cyanide, then the ocean is equanimity. Equanimity helps us dilute that poison in our life and gain some tranquility about a situation. In a sense, it is the opposite of passion! That’s what makes “passionate equanimity” such an intriguing concept.
Unlike Treya Killam Wilber and myself, who started with passion then found equanimity, Stoicism starts with equanimity (well, the Stoics might call it tranquility). With our logic and our values, and with acceptance that so much is out of our control, we can gain perspective, which in turn gives us equanimity. Further, the Stoic accepts that tragedy will befall us, because it is our fate. If we can dispassionately accept the impermanence of the world around us, then we can have some perspective. Once I have a large measure of equanimity, I have a better understanding of my situation juxtaposed with my own values, then I can better cultivate a passion for what I set out to do.
I think it works better to start with equanimity, and only then be passionate about our calling. I think that this works better because when we rationally observe our lot in life or our current situation, we can make a better choice about what to be passionate about. I am a living example of this: I was passionate about my job as an AF pilot and officer, but I think I would have been happier if I had examined what my job was really about: killing for a government, rather than defending “freedom.” In a sense, I think I lacked the big picture of what my values should be because I did not reflect enough before I acted. I committed to something without fully understanding it, and thus I was dissatisfied with what I was doing. Possibly, I just didn’t have enough information. In any case, gaining equanimity helped me vector my passions in a different direction.
I suppose it is inevitable that we lack equanimity in our youth, and in fact, some never get it. As you read, I hope this helps you gain some equanimity. Again, I throw a little seed your way….I hope it helps you.