Nourishing Equanimity

How to Strengthen the Presence of Inner Calm and Well-Being in Your Life

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The results of a highly unscientific survey I recently conducted indicate that 99.9% of people I know are feeling grumpy, stressed, overworked and exhausted. So, I can confidently assert that most of us are also probably feeling frazzled, lonely, fatigued and dare I say…burnt out?

Is it possible to be burnt out by the word “burnout?”

If you’ve read The New York Times bestseller “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, you probably know his incisive claim, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Unwittingly, we — as a global community — seem to have fallen to the level of our systems, especially in these last few years. So, it might feel like no matter how hard you work, how much energy you dedicate, how intense your worries and how pure your intentions, you find yourself unable to rise to the level of your goals. Stress cycles feel endless: Work. Family. Pandemic. Finances. Politics. Work.

When I presented my workshop “Achieving Equanimity: From Ummm to Ommm” at Bid & Proposal Con in October, I shared this truism with attendees: I teach what I need.

For the record, I also write what I need. And what I need, over and over again, multiple times a day, every day of the year is equanimity. Equanimity is not something you earn at the end of passionate goal setting, and it isn’t achieved by disconnecting from the world and living in an ashram. You don’t “get to a place” of equanimity or “find it” after languid days of self-care. And none of us can attain a state of equanimity that is constant or permanent. Unfortunately, it isn’t an “are we there yet” destination in Florida. In other words, we must always be in practice.

I’ve come to realize I will always need equanimity in the same way I need carbs, coffee and — occasionally — a scorching hot bubble bath. These requirements are never “one and done” events.

Equanimity is considered one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice, and for good reason. Derived from two Pali words meaning “to look over and see with patience” and “to stand in the middle of all this,” equanimity is the foundation for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. It is the strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality and integrity. It is the ability to be a paper boat staying afloat in the midst of a raging ocean, bobbing up and down with the waves, unfazed by getting wet.

During the BPC workshop, I shared several auspicious practices that we can do every day to help us achieve equanimity as often as needed throughout a day. These practices include setting intentions, visualizing, writing, playing, moving and grounding exercises, and, of course, meditating.

I also introduced the RAIN method of managing what I call “emotionally slippery” situations. This practice, developed by Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher, has radically changed my ability to nourish equanimity and has made me more aware of my own and others’ behaviors and patterns. RAIN has also helped me work through complicated relationships and situations with colleagues and loved ones. Each letter in the acronym RAIN is part of a four-step practice, and when we build upon each step, we naturally create a state of calm centeredness and integrity:

  1. Recognize your feelings. Get down to the core of a feeling and name it.
  2. Allow yourself to feel the emotion. Hold it. Embrace it. Welcome it in.
  3. Investigate what happens to your body when you feel the emotion. Investigate the story you’re telling yourself about your feelings.
  4. Nurture your emotional reactions. Be nonjudgmental. Find compassion for yourself for feeling what you feel — there is no right or wrong. The feelings will pass.

Feelings, like waves, do pass. The sea calms. And understanding the transformative nature of impermanence — the dynamic and ever-shifting landscape of both suffering and joy — is vital to moving through triggers and pain points and frictions. Pain, Pema Chödrön teaches, is the doorway to becoming peaceful.

We humans — and I would argue especially us proposal people — however, are particularly fond of getting attached to emotional upheaval (just the word deadline sparks a sort of thrill in me). And so, we frequently find ourselves in a constant state of chaos.

When you are feeling especially weary and emotionally slippery, there are a few more “extra credit” philosophies beyond bubble baths that you can practice to nourish equanimity. I’ll share two of those here:

  • Channel your inner Bruce Lee. Lee, renowned for his legendary ability to anticipate an attack and his disciplined and graceful flexibility no matter the circumstances, famously told disciples to “be water, my friend.” He explained, “Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. Now water can flow, or it can crash! Be water, my friend.”
  • Find a wall by Candy Chang and invest an hour exploring what your fellow humans are thinking and feeling. Chang, a New Orleans artist, created the original “Before I Die, I Want to __________” wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood in the Big Easy after a loved one died unexpectedly. Since then, over 500 “Before I Die” walls have been created in over 60 countries and stenciled in over 30 languages. I was overcome with tenderness, reverence and calm when I had the opportunity to read one of Chang’s walls. Each wall is a unique reflection of community and is filled with honest messages of longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude and wonder. And contemplating your own response — considering what you want to do and who you want to be while you’re still among the living — is an extraordinary and profound way to nourish feelings of equanimity. Death is, after all, the greatest equalizer.

Perhaps Jayme Sokolow said it best in his blog post for proposal professionals: “I would encourage [us] to look at [our] work in profane terms … when you die, no one is going to care that you earned a big salary or had an impressive title or helped your company win a $1 billion Federal contract.” To get to the heart of equanimity, we need to understand that to let go is to embrace what is true. Everything is temporary and, in the immortal words of Ted Lasso, “Every choice is a chance.”

Dr. Lori Coffae, director of proposal writing at SHI International, is on a lifelong quest for equanimity. Previously, Coffae was a college professor, dedicating 25 years to teaching rhetoric and professional communication. She’s now creating strategic communication for complex audiences and facilitating workshops to help colleagues become more confident (and effective) writers.

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