My friend, Chelsea has been doing a really cool “Word a Day” series on her blog. Using one word as a catalyst she has been able to write some truly insightful blogs. This morning during practice it was hot again. It’s been a while since I’ve practiced in that kind of heat and I started to feel antsy and panicked. I instinctively wanted to run out of the room, but I decided to stay put, slow my pace and keep working. After a few moments, my breath started to take on a more even quality and the word “Equanimity” kept coming to me, like an impromptu mantra. So, inspired by Chelsea, I decided to investigate.
Equanimity is a state of mind, essentially, which is undisturbed by the external events we experience. I practice every day because, over time, it has brought my mind closer to a state of equanimity. I have such a long way to go. I am still prone to self loathing, crying fits, grown-up temper tantrums and a whole litany of behaviors that are symptoms of a mind that is still reactionary.
Balance, on the other hand, is something I can work towards. Balance as in a state in which all elements are equal. It can be an even distribution of weight or effort, like in an inversion, or it can be a an even distribution of struggle and acceptance. Learning how to find this state of balance within myself, I think, is the first stop on my road to Equanimity.
Today is September 11th. This has always been a strange day for me. 12 years ago I was living at the corner of Hudson and Canal Streets in Manhattan. My bedroom was a closet sized space just big enough for my futon and my dresser, and it was separated from my roommates closet-sized space by an illegally constructed wall. My favorite feature of the “room” was that it looked out into the entrance of The Holland Tunnel, which meant that I could never open my window for fear of being overcome by exhaust fumes, but it was a pretty cool set up to my 21 year old eyes. 12 years ago today I watched as a plane slammed into the World Trade Center. Because I was running late for my singing lesson in Mid-town, which I almost always was back then, I didn’t stop to ponder “the accident” for long. Instead, I rushed to Spring Street to catch the C train, which never came. Later, after we were evacuated from the station, I came back above ground to find that not one, but both towers were in flames. You know what happened next.
For the next few weeks I volunteered over night with the Red Cross at St. John’s University, across the street from Ground Zero, feeding rescue workers and manning the boot wash station, spraying the toxic grey dust from their work boots so they could go inside and take rest. Like everyone around me I think I was just desperate to do something, and it never felt like enough. I have some pretty distinct memories of that time. Most of them are sensory. I remember the air. How it smelled and how it tasted. Thick with dust and fumes that settled on the tongue and the teeth. As one of my roommates said, “You could practically chew it.” I remember walking up to the pile for the first time. It was dark and silent and there in front of me stood this enormous pile of twisted metal and rubble. It was back lit by flood lights and there were tiny figures moving around on top of it. I remember the first time I saw the skeleton of The Winter Garden, all of its windows blown out. It had been such a beautiful place, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how ghostly it looked. Mostly what I remember are the faces of the people I met. The men and women in the National Guard, the firefighter, construction workers and the people who, like me, were volunteering to provide meals, naps and any bit of comfort that we could. I didn’t really understand it then, but now I can see that we all were desperately trying to bring balance to the world around us. Maybe within us as well.
When terrible things happen, when I lose someone or something I love or am witness to suffering that I cannot change, it feels like the world is out of balance. I often feel afraid or helpless. When I feel that way, I try remind myself of Sutra 33 in Book 2 of The Yoga Sutras, which says, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.” If I cannot cause the fluctuations of my mind to cease, (and it seems that thus far I can’t) then at least I can try to redirect my thoughts, which are the building material for my actions.
After the attacks, there was a sense of darkness, despair and pain that was palpable everywhere in New York. Everyone, with no exceptions, felt helpless. In the face of that, as if by instinct alone, people started to to look for a ways to bring themselves and the city back into balance. On the train everyone, and I mean literally every single person, would rise and offer their seat to anyone who got on the train wearing or carrying a hard hat. People volunteered in so many capacities. They worked for the Red Cross. They donated supplies. They brought cards and food to the fire stations around the city. They stood on the side of The West Side Highway to cheer for the trucks bringing rescue and recovery workers to and from Ground Zero. And they prayed openly. I have never seen so many people praying on street corners, alone and in groups, in my life before or since.
This year, I am reminded that everything eventually passes. That pain and joy, discomfort and ease, and loss as well as gain, are all temporary. Just as I am trying to cultivate equanimity in my breath as I move through my practice, I am trying to cultivate it in my mind. It will be a long time coming, I think. But the first step, which is where I am consciously working these days, is finding a balance between effort and ease. Not only in my asana practice, but in every single aspect of my life. As the Prayer for Serenity says: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” May we all be granted that serenity.