Vitez Engineering Blog
Happiness, Equanimity, and the Meaning of it all
What do you need to be happy? Does happiness require a private jet, yacht, ferrari, and a 10 bedroom mansion? I am happy right now without these items, so clearly they aren't prerequisites to happiness. Maybe happiness requires a moderate income, quaint suburban house, and a RAV4. The majority of people don't possess that level of wealth, and certainly many of those people live happy, fulfilling lives. So maybe happiness just requires food on the table, basic healthcare, and clean drinking water. Yet again there are people without these items and yet again they can live happy lives too. Think of a happy memory right now. Really place yourself in that moment and let yourself cultivate that feeling of happiness. Unless you are eating, at the doctors, or drinking you are also happy in this moment without food, healthcare or water. Sell everything you own and repeat the experiment nude while holding your breath. You are now happy without any physical possessions, without food, without water, and without oxygen. Clearly no physical items are a prerequisite to experiencing happiness.

You might think that as you continue to starve, dehydrate, and asphyxiate yourself there is a point where you can no longer be happy. Let's consider the dehydration case. After a few hours without water you may feel thirsty. You can certainly notice the feeling of being thirsty, not react to it, and still cultivate a feeling of happiness. After a few more hours that urge may grow. However, as that urge grows your response doesn't have to. There is nothing stopping you from noticing, not reacting, and cultivating happiness. As days pass your muscles may cramp and you may now experience pain. Again there is nothing stopping you from noticing, not reacting, and cultivating happiness. While it would be undeniably harder to notice, not react, and cultivate happiness as your organs start to shut down, there is again no limitation stopping you from doing so up to the point of death.

Thirstiness and pain are nothing more than sensations that the body experiences, even if the intensity of that experience may differ. The same is true for any experience you have. You may feel the glass on your iPhone, or the weight of your body resting on your chair. You may feel an itch on your nose. You may see a table in front of you. You may hear the rumble of cars in the background. You may smell a rose, or a rotten egg. You may taste an apple while feeling your jaw move as you bite into it. You may think a thought. You may feel happiness or anger and the associated sensations that come with those feelings. Everything you experience is some form of sensation arising in awareness. These sensations don't have any “colour” or meaning behind them. Smelling a rotten egg isn't inherently “bad” just as smelling a rose isn't “good”. Labels of “good” or ”bad” or “unpleasant” or “pleasant” are things we attach to these sensations. The raw sensations themselves are just that: raw sensations.

Equanimity is noticing raw sensations for what they are and not reacting to them. You can notice any sensation without attaching a label to it. I recently went on a 10 day meditation retreat and we did just that. We had 19 sessions that were so called “sittings of strong devotion”. We were told to sit for an hour without moving anything. The first 30 minutes were not so bad. The next 15 minutes were painful. The 15 minutes after that were excruciating. These sessions, if a little extreme, showed that you don't have to scratch that itch on your nose. You don't have to react to pain. You don't need to put a label on a sensation, rather you can notice the soreness of your back or the pressure on your knees as just the raw sensations that are appearing in awareness.

When you notice negative emotions as raw sensations without labels these emotions quickly dissolve by themselves. Two weeks ago I was at a crosswalk and a driver not paying attention had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting me. My initial reaction was to throw my hands up in the “im walking here” pose and yell expletives. But after a swear word or two I noticed the feelings of anger as the raw sensation of tension, heat, and tightness that it is. The driver put his hand up and apologized, and I calmly told him “no worries, have a great day” and carried on with my day. Before I started practicing equanimity, this interaction would have been very different. I would have continued to stew in my own anger and think how reckless a driver can be. My unhappiness and anger would have lingered for many minutes and I would have squandered those precious minutes because of a 5 second mistake someone made. I would have effectively chosen to remain miserable rather than carry out my day.

Equanimity applies both to aversions of “negative” sensations as well as to cravings of desirable sensations. I started this post by asking what you need to be happy. A practitioner of equanimity would notice any cravings for a new house or car as just the raw sensations that they are. There is never anything about the present experience that needs to be changed, because the present experience is nothing but raw sensation. Even happiness itself is not something we need to seek as happiness is simply a sensation arising in awareness.

So if I have convinced you of the importance of equanimity, you may be wondering how to train it. The simple answer is meditation. Sit down and notice any sensation, feeling, or thought that arises without reacting to said sensation. If you get distracted, notice the sensation, feeling, or thought that distracted you and without reaction continue formal practice. As you gain experience practicing equanimity, seek to notice the raw sensations that you feel without reaction outside of formal practice and throughout daily life.

There are a set number of minutes you will be alive. There are a finite number of words you will speak. There will be a last time you chat with every single one of your friends. Notice every sensation and moment as deeply as you can, without aversion or attachment. To remain angry at the driver who nearly ran you over in the crosswalk is to actually squander your life.