One simple way to consider the difference between wisdom and equanimity is to look at how each of these qualities function in our minds and lives. One important function of wisdom, for example, is to discern which actions of body, speech, or mind are likely to result in benefit – or in harm. Discerning wisdom offers a powerful compass. It provides an alternative to unconsciously basing actions on what is most pleasant or expedient in the moment. Instead, when we act out of wisdom, our minds and hearts become freer in the moment, and freer to cultivate beneficial conditions for the future.
In this example, equanimity can function to support our human capacity to act wisely. Equanimity offers us the possibility to be un-swayed by our innate human preferences for pleasant over unpleasant experiences. Equanimity reduces – and in combination with wisdom sometimes even eliminates – craving’s impact on our minds and hearts.
In Buddhist meditation practice, state of deep equanimity is sometimes referred to as “the crown jewel” of mental factors/mind states. Perhaps this is because, at its deepest levels, equanimity is an expression of non-clinging, freedom from entanglement with the experiences of our senses and minds.
In meditation, wisdom is often experienced as receptive and settled back. Wisdom sees the matrix, the ecology, of conditions that have contributed to how things have come to be as they are. It can also be experienced as discernment, drawing fine distinctions between ideas and experiences, for the purpose of cultivating the wholesome (kusala) in our hearts, minds and lives.
In Theravada Buddhism, wisdom is often defined as clear seeing, direct insight into, three characteristics of our subjective experience: it’s inconstancy and change (anicca), dropping away of imputing a sense of self or control on to fluctuating conditions (anatta), and the dissatisfaction or suffering (dukkha) that results from clinging to subjective experience. While wisdom is often receptive and settled back, it also supports prompt and efficacious action.
Equanimity supports and is supported by wisdom in this process. It can be experienced as a sense of spaciousness, perspective, steadiness, ballast in relationship to these three characteristics of subjective experience. Equanimity can serve as a buffer that softens and simplifies potential impact of any vicissitudes of life.
Mature wisdom and equanimity don’t promote indifference, uncaring, or passivity. Instead, we may act, even vigorously, with a healthy nonattachment to outcomes. It becomes easier to plant beneficial seeds in our minds and lives and communities, because our hearts can be nourished by taking joy in wise and skillful action itself.