Seneca, born Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was a promi­nent Stoic in the Roman Imperial Period (27 BC to AD 476). He is one of the most influ­en­tial fig­ures in this philo­soph­i­cal move­ment that empha­sizes the pow­er of trans­for­ma­tion through knowledge. 

In AD 54, when Nero became Roman Emperor, Seneca became his close advi­sor. Less than a decade lat­er, Seneca would be impli­cat­ed in a failed assas­si­na­tion attempt against Nero (though there is much evi­dence to sug­gest Seneca was inno­cent of the charges). As ben­e­fits a senior Roman fig­ure, Seneca was then “invit­ed” to engage in the Ancient Roman sui­cide pro­to­col, which includ­ed both ingest­ing poi­son and bleed­ing out. 

By all accounts, Seneca attend­ed to his death in the same way he attend­ed to his life: with tran­quil­i­ty and equa­nim­i­ty. “To bear tri­als with a calm mind robs mis­for­tune of its strength and bur­den,” he wrote short­ly before his suicide. 

He calm­ly stepped into a tub of warm water (to increase blood flow). A slave hand­ed him a vial of foul-smelling poi­son, which he swal­lowed with­out gri­mac­ing. Then he accept­ed the sharp blade hand­ed to him by a cen­tu­ri­on and serene­ly slashed the veins of his arms, wrists, and ankles. Even in the face of death, Seneca prac­ticed his sim­ple and calm phi­los­o­phy of sto­icism. After all, the word sto­ic means one who endures patient­ly

Can you imag­ine going so calm­ly toward obliv­ion? It’s mind-bog­gling. Today I lost my mind because my dog wouldn’t stop barking. 

Equanimity. I’m search­ing for it all the time. 

The word equa­nim­i­ty comes from the Latin aequa­nim­i­tas, from aequ­us, mean­ing equal or even, and ani­musm, mean­ing mind and spir­it. Perhaps think of equa­nim­i­ty as yoga for your brain. 

Equilibrium of mind feels steady while the world spins in chaos. With equa­nim­i­ty, sit­u­a­tions have only char­ac­ter­is­tics, not demands. 

In its most basic form, equa­nim­i­ty can be prac­ticed in any sit­u­a­tion when we are mind­ful of a thought with­out being attract­ed to or repulsed by it. We notice its pres­ence with­out an inten­tion­al atti­tude of either lov­ing or hat­ing it, we observe it with­out run­ning towards or away from it. We aren’t car­ried away by neg­a­tive emo­tions, and we aren’t car­ried away by pos­i­tive ones. There’s no judg­ment, and we know that every­thing is tem­po­rary, both the good and the bad. It is about meet­ing life, no mat­ter what aris­es, with a tran­quil, open, and respon­sive heart. 

Easier said than done, am I right? I remem­ber scream­ing at my dog just to shut up already and feel­ing sheep­ish. Guess that’s why we call it a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice.

Seneca taught that study­ing phi­los­o­phy isn’t done sep­a­rate­ly from the rest of life but in accor­dance with it. It’s eas­i­er to find even­ness of mind on my med­i­ta­tion cush­ion than it is when my dog is bark­ing his head off. 

Seneca reminds me of the 1963 burn­ing monk. At a busy inter­sec­tion in Saigon, monk Thich Quang Duc burned him­self to death, in a protest against the cor­rupt Vietnamese gov­ern­ment. Photographer Malcolm Browne was award­ed the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and the World Press Photo of the Year for cap­tur­ing the moment. Duc is shown, in the pho­to­graph­ic series, calm­ly sit­ting down in the street. Two oth­er monks approach and douse him with gaso­line and then set him afire. Hundreds of onlook­ers look on, mes­mer­ized, as Duc sits with com­plete calm, nev­er flinch­ing, moan­ing, or crying.

Quang Duc’s last words before his self-immo­la­tion were doc­u­ment­ed in a let­ter he wrote hours before the protest:

“Before clos­ing my eyes and mov­ing towards the vision of the Buddha, I respect­ful­ly plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of com­pas­sion towards the peo­ple of the nation and imple­ment reli­gious equal­i­ty to main­tain the strength of the home­land eternally.”

Maybe I’m like a pho­tog­ra­phy neg­a­tive in that I’m not ful­ly devel­oped yet. While I’m skep­ti­cal that I shall ever achieve that lev­el of self­less equa­nim­i­ty, I will at least com­mit to sit­ting down every morn­ing and trying.

Maybe I’ll try not to yell at my dog today. I guess we all got­ta start somewhere.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.