Stay calm in any situation by learning the life-altering secrets of equilibrium.
One afternoon when I was barely 6, I was watching my favorite television show, Rootie Kazootie. As the credits rolled at the end of the half hour, an adult voice came on and said that we had just seen the end of poor Rootie; the show had been canceled. Devastated, I locked myself in the closet where I had spent many happy hours with my glow-in-the-dark Rootie Kazootie button. I cried and carried on until my mother finally coaxed me out. "Honey," she said, wiping the tears from my face, "you've lost your equilibrium."
Because English was not my mother's native language, she learned to speak it with a studied precision, as many foreigners do. To her, equilibrium meant exactly what the dictionary said it meant: a state of balance or equality between opposing forces. What she had witnessed was her daughter hijacked from her normal domain of good cheer and delivered to a cave of bats and dark crevices.
This trafficking back and forth has stayed with me through adulthood, so much so that the word equilibrium has taken on a physical presence in my imagination. I see it as a seesaw, weighted on one side by e-q-u-i-l and the other by b-r-i-u-m, both teetering on the pivot of the slender I in the middle. It's up and down and up again, depending on which side of the I my fortunes unfold.
These days I'm not as easily flummoxed, but every now and again, a technological screwup such as deleting a file by mistake on my computer can rock my equilibrium. A few weeks ago, I was preparing tomato sauce as a treat for my husband. I spent two hours chopping, sautéing, and simmering. Then I poured the ingredients into a blender. I blended. As I went to pour the concoction into the frying pan—you guessed it—the bottom of the blender fell out. It was as if the person on the e-q-u-i-l side of the seesaw had jumped off and catapulted the poor sucker on the b-r-i-u-m side into a gloppy sea of tomatoes and onions.
My equilibrium wasn't just lost; it was hopelessly drowning. As I went berserk, my dog hid under the desk in the living room. Then my husband came into the kitchen to see what the ruckus was all about. A large man, he got down on his hands and knees and, with a soupspoon, started scooping up salvaged bits from the floor and plopping them back into a bowl. Suddenly, what had seemed so overwhelming became hysterically funny. I got down on the floor with him, and the two of us scraped up the remains between tears of laughter. My equilibrium had resurfaced.
Ever since the Rootie Kazootie incident, I've wondered what it is that gets lost when you lose your equilibrium. Is equilibrium like a feathered hat or a woolen glove, something you can misplace in the blink of an eye? Where does it go, and how can you get it back?
Herbert Benson, MD, is the Bill Gates of the equilibrium world: His is the first name mentioned when the subject comes up. The founding president of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, he wrote a book in 1975 called The Relaxation Response, which has sold more than four million copies. He explains loss of equilibrium like this: "When things are bothersome or unstable, that creates the stress state." He defines stress as any situation that requires you to adjust. To adjust is to change, and change is always difficult. In response to stress, our blood pressure rises, our hearts pound. Often we feel hostile, angry, and that's just the beginning. According to Benson, even though there is no drug that can immediately get us back on even keel, we do possess the opposite response, the relaxation response, which corrects the harmful effects of stress.
Imagining a Where's Waldo? solution, I called Benson to ask how a person can locate this response. "Prayers, words, mantras, songs, crocheting, swimming, exercise—anything that involves repetition," he says. "When other thoughts come to mind while you're doing the repetitions, ignore them. Break the train of everyday thought."
It reminds me of the way cranky children are given a time-out and removed from the context of what is causing their irascibility. "The break allows the body to rebound and return to its innate sense of quiet," says Benson. Just as it is the body's inclination to heal itself when it is hurt, so does the body naturally want to return to a quiet state, even when we burden it with worry and agitation. "If you're religious, you can say that sense is God-given. If you're not, you can say it's derived from evolution. In a way, it doesn't matter. The capability is within us." (The techniques are also on his website: massgeneral.org/bhi).
After I get off the phone with Benson, I spend a couple of irritating hours trying to fix my failing printer. Any other day, I'd figure a way around the problem. But today I am on a deadline, and I can feel my heart pound and my guy on the seesaw getting ready to bolt. Taking Benson's advice, I desert the printer and go to the pool at my gym. As I swim my laps, the thoughts of printers and deadlines get lost in the ripples of water. When I return home, I take out the instruction manual and nail down the problem, grateful to Benson that I hadn't acted on my earlier impulse to bang on the printer with my fists. I sit down, no noise in my head, finish the assignment, and print out a copy before e-mailing it off.
A few days later, a friend recommends that I speak to James Baraz, who is one of the founders of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. I figure that Baraz, who has been teaching meditation for 25 years and does a lot of counseling with teenagers and families, ought to know something about equilibrium. In Buddhism, he explains, equilibrium is one of what they call the four divine abodes, the best places for your heart and mind to find a resting place (the others are loving-kindness, compassion, and joy in the happiness of others). He tells me that upekkha, the Pali word for "equanimity," or keeping a well-balanced mind, is at the heart of his teaching and his practice.
I tell Baraz about my image of the seesaw: how it dips to one side or the other in response to life's little surprises and, much to my own frustration, occasionally bounces out of control. Baraz gets the image immediately but says that the goal isn't to keep the seesaw level at all times. "It's not about getting to one place where things are just fine and there are no mess-ups," he says. "Life is more dynamic than always having calm and peace." He says that if we expand our definition of equilibrium, then dropping pots and collapsing in a heap of laughter on the floor—that is, the tiny daily adjustments and the bigger swings—become part of the whole experience of equilibrium. "There can be something healthy about going crazy," he says. You can scream and freak out, or you can laugh at the absurdity. Realizing you have that choice can be enough to effect a shift. "In an instant, the situation can change," he says. "You're in on the joke, not the butt of it."
I live in a city where people screaming and freaking out are regular public occurrences. But I think of the last time I was stuck on the subway on a hot afternoon in July. We were coming up to the Museum of Natural History when the train shrieked to a halt. The car, filled with tourists and day campers, went dark and the air-conditioning shut down. I could see people start to fidget and wipe their brows in a nervous, exasperated way. I braced for another collective meltdown, but all of a sudden one of the counselors started to sing "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" The kids joined in. The tenseness drained from people's faces, and what only moments ago had felt like banging on the gates of hell had now turned into a sweet recital of children's voices. Just like that, as Baraz had said, we weren't the butt of a joke played by the gods of municipal transit. We were in on it.
Phillip Moffitt writes a provocative column for Yoga Journal and is the coauthor of The Power to Heal. He is also the founder and president of the Life Balance Institute in Tiburon, California, where he counsels people who have reached a high level of success yet are still searching for a deeper meaning in life. When I track him down, he elaborates on Baraz's point. "Equilibrium is being in disequilibrium but trusting yourself to come back to balance," he says. "If someone says something to you that makes you angry and insecure, you're in disequilibrium. Your cheeks flush, your stomach clenches. As soon as you let those feelings take over and you react from the hurt or anger those words have caused you, things can rapidly escalate." Anyone who's ever fought with a sibling knows how an instant response (or instant overresponse) can happen. "If you're comfortable thinking, 'I'm really upset,' then you're okay," says Moffitt. The trick is to try to react in ways that dampen—rather than exacerbate—the extreme movements of the seesaw. Or, as Moffitt says, "Equilibrium is thinking, 'I'm in this state now; I must act as best I can.'"
Just a few days ago, I was back in the kitchen. This time it was pesto. I pressed the button on the Cuisinart to blend the ingredients, but nothing happened. It was dead. There I was with a bowl full of basil, pignoli nuts, and garlic, and three people expecting dinner in about 30 minutes. At another time I might have lost my you-know-what. But I didn't. I told myself it was okay to feel a small clutch of panic in my throat, and then I started to sing along with the CD that was playing. I watched the moment pass and could feel my equilibrium glow inside me as bright and shiny as a Rootie Kazootie button. Pizza would have to do.