Monday, August 30, 2004

Equanimity and the Badminton Player

Equanimity and the Badminton Player

Buddhists and many practitioners of mystical traditions learn to cultivate what they call "Equanimity". I've also used the word in many of my previous blog entries. What exactly does it mean? defines "equanimity" as "the quality of being calm and even-tempered". It is actually a little bit deeper than that.

I've used the analogy of football to describe safe driving and wisdom. Since this is the month of Olympics, let me choose another popular Malaysian sport to explain equanimity: Badminton.

If you look at a good badminton singles player, his movements are very economical. He anchors himself at the center of his court and waits for his opponent to return his shot. He will take one or two steps forward to retrieve a net shot and come back to the centre; retreat a similar number of steps backwards to handle a baseline shot and then back to the centre; he strives to minimize his movements and everytime goes back to an original central position, ready to handle the next shot that his opponent throws at him. By doing so, he doesn't wear himself out by rushing blindly from one end of the court to another like what beginners would normally do. Those who have played singles would know how tiring that can be. Good footwork is very important in badminton, if you want to last the entire match.

Now, imagine the badminton court as your mind, and you--the "thinking being" behind the mind--as the badminton singles player. Every stimulus that impinges on your senses is like the shot that your opponent throws at you.

A person who does not have equanimity will often be thrown "out of position" by the stimuli he receives from his senses. He will chase furiously after every shot.

A married man sees a pretty woman in the office; he flirts "harmlessly" with her and soon, one thing leads to another, they start having a full-fledged affair. In the end, his wife finds out about it and they are forced to divorce, breaking up a happy family in the process.

Every stimulus that enters the mind can potentially trigger a series of responses that could sometimes lead to unintended consequences--if we do not know how to handle them appropriately.

Everything starts from one stimulus--one shot. In our everyday lives, millions of such stimuli hit us. In order not to be thrown "out of position" by the attack of stimuli from one's senses, one needs to cultivate equanimity. A person with an equanimous mind always know where his "centre position" is. He will handle the "shot" that comes with a measured number of footsteps and movement, making sure that he recovers quickly and positions himself for the next shot.

What this means is that, we are never overwhelmed by our sensory inputs, no matter how seductive or enticing they are. We do not react instinctively but instead consciously choose our responses, always weighing the consequences of our actions calmly, without over-commiting ourselves.

When we happen to feel very sad sometimes, we do not throw ourselves into a fit of depression or wallow in self-pity; we acknowledge the sadness and we take comfort in the fact that everything in nature is impermanent and they will ultimately fade away--even sadness. We eventually recover back to our centre position.

When we are happy, we are not delirious to the point of forgetting that all happiness is also transient and can disappear just as easily, potentially leaving us broken and empty. We expect the delirium to fade away quietly and we acknowledge the experience with a deep sense of gratitude.

With the equanimous frame of mind, the wild fluctuations of our mood are always contained, and as a result, we are always well-positioned to make better decisions in life.

Cultivating equanimity of the mind doesn't mean that we become such dull people that we do not know how to experience life with all its highs and lows to the fullest anymore. Like a good badminton player, we are just learning better footwork, or in this case "mindwork" so that we can play the game better.

A good badminton player enjoys his game a lot more because he is always in control of his game. Similarly, a person who cultivates equanimity will live a fuller life because he is always on top of things, and is thus able to make the most out of the opportunities presented to him. Who knows, he might even become a better badminton player too.

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