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Playing the Equanimity Game – Becoming Better

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Last week, while making the case for discomfort training, I pointed out that pain is the price of admission if you want to enjoy the view from the top of a mountain. The very next day, my father and I went out to do just that. Our goal was Red Mountain, a thrusting pyramid of rust-colored rock at Snoqualmie Pass.

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We knew that the hike was hard work: It’s almost 3,000 vert in about three miles, most of which is done in the final mile. We knew discomfort, struggle, and knee pain would be part of the ordeal. But we also encountered an unexpected type of pain: yellowjackets. (Note: This is not what I mean by a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

A colony of yellowjackets had made its home on one section of trail, and they were defending it vigorously. I didn’t notice them on the way up, but my dad, who was a bit behind me, got stung and told me when we stopped to rest. By the time we were descending, I had forgotten all about them, so I was cruising down the trail, happily enjoying my time in the forest, oblivious to the approaching danger.

Then, suddenly, one got me in the leg. I barely had time to swat at it when a second bee got me in the neck. Shocked and upset, I started running down the trail to escape while also awkwardly rubbing my wounds.

I had forgotten how much bee stings hurt: They’re a potent mix of sharp pain from the stinger and a burning sensation caused by the venom. After cursing the bees and running down the trail for a minute, with the pain still very strong, I decided to use this as an opportunity for mental training. I resolved to return to equanimity as quickly as I could and not let this ruin the rest of my hike.

First, using the mental muscle I had built up meditating for the last four years, I turned my attention to my breathing.* This helped. Then, I reminded myself that I had huckleberries in my belly, that I was in a beautiful section of forest, and that I had just climbed a mountain and enjoyed an incredible view.

A few minutes later, I was sitting on a log over a little creek, cooling my feet and waiting for my dad to catch up. The pain of the bee stings had been reduced to a moderate throb with a slight burn. If I focused my attention on them, the pain got worse. But if I focused on the ever-changing pattern of ripples in the creek, the pain all but disappeared. By choosing what to focus on, I was able to return to a peaceful state of mind and even enjoy the present.

In other words, I had succeeded at what Brian Johnson calls “The Equanimity Game.” The game is simple: When something upsetting happens, see how quickly you can return to emotional equanimity. Brian based this on a line from stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”1

Since discomfort, pain, and annoyance are inevitable parts of life, we’d better train ourselves to become skilled at dealing with them. It’s far better to quickly return to contentment than to remain needlessly upset for a long time. So the next time something upsetting happens, challenge yourself to regain your poise as swiftly as you can.

I’d like to say that I always play this game well, but I don’t. In the face of something upsetting, I sometimes lose my composure to an embarrassing degree for far longer than appropriate. But I know that no one is perfect, so I try to give myself permission to be human and move on from this sort of willpower failure in a healthy and productive way. And each time something bad happens, I strive to get a little better at playing the equanimity game.

*In a pure mindfulness practice, one might actually put their attention directly on the pain of the bee sting, observe it with curiosity, and attempt to accept it for what it is. This was not my goal at the moment.

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1 Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Penguin Classics, 2006.

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