Before I focused on mindfulness I used to practice a number of meditation practices which emphasised concentration. They used to teach things like ‘throw thoughts away’ or ‘just let go of emotions’ and the principle that if you developed enough focus then you could overcome all fears, worries and concerns. Well this was all good and well when you were meditating or practicing on a good day, but I found this did not help me in daily life when I was facing strong emotions or overwhelming thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath, positive emotions or how much I ‘let go’ of these negative emotions they would just get stronger and I would be falling back on basic strategies like avoidance, rumination or shutting down in overwhelm. What mindfulness brought, as a missing piece to my practice, was the principle of non-judgemental awareness, acceptance or equanimity toward these thoughts and emotions. It was okay to have these negative feelings and thoughts; I didn’t have to fight them, just hold them with an accepting awareness. I have found this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of mindfulness.
Firstly, it’s important to emphasise that with acceptance this doesn’t mean that we accept objective phenomena that we clearly need to change. We should not become ‘door mats’ or accept wrong treatment in the name of mindfulness. Here acceptance means that, when we can’t change objective conditions, that we don’t fight against our internal reactions in the body-mind to the present moment. We avoid the push and pull and internal struggle with our reactions and we do this through awareness.
Acceptance/equanimity develops through and over time. This is a really important point, through time spent on the cushion, doing moving mindfulness and daily life practice equanimity will develop naturally with time. It develops when we allow thoughts and emotions to come and go without trying to block, change or get rid of them and instead hold them with awareness. It’s also related to your concentration/stability of mind skills in mindfulness, the deeper you develop the relaxed and effortless concentration of mindfulness the more acceptance you will develop.
Here are some other ways you can increase and develop acceptance skills:
1. Full body relaxation – as best as you can, try to relax your whole body, you can quickly scan from head to toes and relax any areas of tension particularly the muscles around the eyes, the jaw, the shoulders, the breath, legs and arms. If you find any areas of tension you can’t relax then simply observe them.
2. Gentle light awareness – if we can also use a relaxed focus this will help to develop equanimity, this means using just the amount of effort to stay with the meditation but not struggling or effort-ing beyond this. It’s like you lightly ‘rest’ your awareness on the object of meditation and if you drift away then just notice and gently return. You have close to an effortless focus. Try noticing that you are seeing or hearing, that amount of effort to simply notice is all that is needed.
3. Kind gentle speech and loving self-talk – it can be helpful to activate the language part of our brain, you can gently and in a kind tone (silently or out loud depending on where you are) label the emotion ‘feeling, thinking’, or you can talk to yourself with kind loving words like ‘may I be happy, may I be free from suffering’.
4. Notice the aversion or resistance – if you can’t observe something because it is too hard then notice the resistance and gently return your attention to your meditation. This resistance shows up as tension in the body, subtle or strong emotional sensations like fear or anger, heaviness or tension in the head and negative thoughts in the mind. If this is difficult, use an anchor like the breath at the abdomen or the sense of the physical body as a whole and allow your mind to be aware of the anchor and any challenging emotions. If the resistance is really intense then it might be a good choice to practice moving meditation or switch to an action you value that is meaningful (there are times when its more skillful to read a compelling novel!).
5. Time, time, time – just to emphasise again that generally equanimity develops in direct correlation of the time spent practicing, therefore notice it develop over time as the weeks and months go on.
Probably the best meditative practice to develop equanimity is open awareness, sometimes called choiceless awareness or open monitoring. In studies on advanced Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditators, they were able to regulate their response to pain stimulus the greatest using this technique, and this was directly through equanimity to pain (they use a hot water wrist patch to invoke pain in the neuroscience lab!).
Here is a guided open awareness practice, but remember all mindfulness practices will develop this skill: Open Awareness