Can you care about something too much?

Recently I did a Do Nothing Project broadcast on the subject of equanimity, the skill of accepting our experience in the moment, without resistance or interference.

I did OK for the intro and the guided meditation, but then things went off the rails.

First, our four-month old son Eden started crying in the next room. I could feel Sarah’s annoyance – I have a loud voice, and she’d asked me to keep my talk at a reasonable level during the broadcast. Except I guess I don’t really know how to do that, so Eden was wailing, and I could see Sarah anxiously checking the video monitor, and it also happened to be sweltering in the room so sweat was pouring down my face, and then – right on time – comes The Question. 

More than any other practice-related question, this is the one I dread. It gets asked at every retreat and class, and on this day two different people emailed it in. Here’s how one fellow put it: 

“If equanimity involves learning to accept what is, then is equanimity training yourself not to care?”

It’s a deep question, one that gets to the heart of meditation and practice. It is also, for me, a triggering question. And so, already rattled by the crying and the heat, I gave a rambling answer – with lots of panicked hand-waving – and then abruptly ended the broadcast. Afterwards, I thought: ‘Did that really just happen?’ Did I just completely lose my equanimity talking about equanimity?’ 

Yes I did.

We all have things we believe in, deeply held opinions that shape who we are and what we do. For myself, learning about equanimity was a revelation. All my life I’d been an intense and fixated person, agonized about this, feverish about that. I held no opinions lightly; either I cared about something passionately, or it was dead to me. Equanimity showed me how to hold my cares – and myself – more peacefully.  

But then, as I got into practice, my old habit of fixation found a new subject: meditation itself. This happens to a lot of practitioners. “I want to get relaxed NOW!” We bring our habits of pushing and control to an undertaking that, at its heart, is about trusting and letting go of the need to control. 

In my own case, other, darker tendrils of conditioning began to creep in. The most toxic was an old family belief that equates any attempt to help myself as the height of selfishness. If this inner critic had a voice, it would be Kaa, the hypnotist serpent from The Jungle Book: ‘Of coursssee you sssell meditation Jeffrey, that’ss because you don’t care about people. Children are ssstarving in Africa, and all you do is sssit on your asssss.’

This message is so ingrained in my nervous system, that even now, when I speak about the importance of acceptance, I get a shadowy defensive feeling around my eyes, like I should be a little ashamed of myself. And so, predictably, I overcompensate. My arguments become shrill, my actions exaggerated; I end up distorting the truth I want so badly to communicate. 

But equanimity has nothing whatsoever to do with our passions and our opinions about the world, because it’s not actually happening in the world. Equanimity happens in our subjective experience. Equanimity is a bubble of space that lives inside us, that lets us relate to sensations and convictions lightly in the moment, so that, in the next moment, we can act more sanely and effectively. 

Equanimity is hearing the baby cry, or feeling our defensiveness (our anger, our hurt) in reaction to something, and instead of acting from inside these intensities, we expand out, and act from our poise. And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail. We fail because every one of us has something that hooks us, some beautiful neurotic passion that overwhelms our composure. 

I think this is exactly as it should be: welcome to the human condition. And, we should try to have equanimity anyway.

Why? Because equanimity is the opposite of not caring. We need it, to ensure the things we care about have the best chance of being expressed and honoured and protected. But of course, if I’m going to successfully reach you with this message, then it’s me who needs equanimity. Right now I care about it just a little too much.

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