equanimity and adrenaline

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

rapellingA few years ago, I took up rappelling, the art of descending sheer cliffs by rope and harness, so that we could explore the red-rock canyons of Southern Utah. After I had begun to learn the basics, Steve, our guide, said to me, “You’re one of those people who wants to speed up when your adrenaline starts to flow.”

Adrenaline flow is inevitable when you’re standing on a rock ledge looking down a hundred-foot drop that you’re about to take on your skinny rope. So Steve advised me, “You need to deliberately slow down, make sure everything is right before you go over the edge, and then enjoy the scenery on the way down.” It was good advice, and a good picture of equanimity—menuchat hanefesh, calmness of soul—which we are to maintain even when our adrenaline arises at the edge of one of life’s many and unavoidable cliffs.

Of course, the question is, how to remain calm? My guide’s simple advice applies to a lot of life situations. Just slow down. Recognize that your adrenaline is going to rise, and don’t let it take over the controls. Breathe deep and remain calmly in charge, even when your pulse starts escalating and your chest tightens up.

The late Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and family therapist, spoke about the need for “self-differentiation” amid the demands and tensions of family or congregational life. This looks to me a lot like equanimity. Self-differentiation isn’t selfish or narcissistic, but is “the capacity and willingness of the leader [or anyone else] to take nonreactive, clearly conceived, and clearly defined positions.” Like my coach’s advice, this sounds simple enough, but requires real discipline when we’re being pressured to react, when we hear the spoken or implicit, “don’t just stand there; do something!” before we’ve taken the time to survey the terrain and make sure our ropes are all knotted correctly.

On one particularly long and spectacular descent, Steve stuck his head over the edge when I’d only gone about 20 feet and said, “Wait a second, I want to get a picture!” and then fiddled with his camera for a few very long seconds before letting me continue. I knew what he was doing, forcing me to slow down and enjoy the ride. I don’t know how his snapshot came out, but I still have in my mind a picture of equanimity, of resisting the inevitable adrenaline flow to maintain perspective and calmness of soul—menuchat hanefesh—which enabled me to enjoy the journey from cliff’s edge all the way to the canyon floor. 

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