Equanimity: less stress, more balance, more energy

Much of this summer I spent in Manhattan. Not only because of client engagements, but also as my nine-year-old was in sleep-away camp for a month, my husband and I had decided to take advantage and explore the city’s more hidden gems.

One of our ventures included an evening at Momofuku Ko (“lucky peach”) in the East Village where, over the course of two-and-a-half hours, we were served, together with 10 other guests, some common foods prepared in front of our eyes in some very uncommon ways by two heavily tattooed chefs. We had no influence over the menu, and I ended up slurping my first raw oyster ever – something I had previously religiously avoided as this grayish looking muscle with its slimy texture had never quite appealed to me…

To my surprise, the moment I decided to relinquish any control over what I ate, I felt liberated. I had a sense of excitement as I was going along with this new experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I savored the slightly salty after taste in my mouth as it carried the taste of adventure and freedom. Why is it – I found myself wondering – that I don’t let go more often? How does my drive to control different aspects of my life actually serve me when it comes to feeling fulfilled, be it at work or in my personal life?

There are many aspects of life we attempt to control that we actually don’t have control over. Have you ever found yourself honking in heavy traffic, even though it would not make the car in front of you move forward one inch? At work, have you caught yourself agonizing over a colleague’s slow pace, even though you have no formal authority over their output? Or have you spent time worrying about what your end of year bonus will look like, given the weak economy?

As we continue to try to control what is around us, be it through our actions or thoughts (and subsequently run into our inability to do so), a deep sense of frustration and stress is often the result. Now, what would happen if we accepted slow traffic or a slow colleague or a weak economic outlook? Just imagine the extra space this frees up, space that is now available to do what is rewarding to us, and that lets us ultimately lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives and careers.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a meditation retreat that I went to this spring at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York. It was led by meditation guru Sharon Salzberg who talked about the qualities of mind and heart that support being in the here and now, and which allow us to be available to what we want and need to attend to, be it at work or at home.

The term she kept repeating was ‘Equanimity’.  In the context of leading a more balanced and less stressful existence, Salzberg described it as a way of taking on a big picture perspective. Equanimity implies that, after we do the best we can, we can (and should!) detach ourselves from the outcome.

Her definition reminded me of the serenity prayer that has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that are known to help people make important changes in their lives:

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.

If we can get a better handle on distinguishing between what we are able to affect and what not, we can get out of the grip of our need to constantly control most of what is around us. The process of equanimity starts with building this awareness into our decision making.

Not surprisingly, as I put all of these thoughts on paper I started reflecting on what equanimity means for me as a coach. It is often tempting to assume full responsibility for the outcome of a coaching engagement. The thinking trap is that my client’s success is “all up to me”, and that I can “never do enough”. It is not unlike Sisyphus, of Greek mythology, who was punished by being compelled to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down and to repeat this for an eternity. The thought alone is exhausting! And yet I have found myself doing just that…

However, as I become aware of this thinking trap and stop being attached to a client’s ability and commitment to make desired change happen, I am able to be fully in the here and now for my client. My energy is freed up to focus on what is in front of me: the questions that my client needs answers to, the insights I can help generate, and the resources I can offer to support my client’s agenda and goals. It is then that I find myself in full flow at work and when I am at my best. It is then that I am able to offer my client the full value and contribution they deserve.

So, as you look at your own work place: what are the ways in which you can step back and take stock of what you can control and what you can’t? In what ways can you know that you have done enough; that you can let go of the idea that it is all up to you?

Granted, it is a tough shift for many A-players. One of my high potential clients with a financial services firm, Damien, just had to learn the hard way that his desire to control everything and to be the sole contributor was zapping his hours and was costing him relations with his peers and team. Ultimately, the stress was taking away his ability to perform and enjoy his role, the very vision he had been trying so hard to avoid.

As we were looking at who on Damien’s team he needed to delegate more to, and as he began embracing the idea that good delegation also implies letting go of some of the control over the outcome, Damien had a moment of insight as he laughed about a quote he had read in an article about Mark Twain: “The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people.”

And so next time you are struggling to control the uncontrollable, or change the unchangeable, remember poor Sisyphus – stop pushing your boulder up the hill and find the serenity to accept the things you cannot change. You’ll do much better for it…