Keep on Keeping on
I suppose resilience has always been a relevant and important topic, but it seems especially so in our current social, environmental, and political climate. As we work for personal and societal change, we are bound to encounter set-backs and hardships, so our ability to bounce back and continue on is essential.
Much research has been done observing the common characteristics of resilient people. (Brene Brown and Charlotte Kasl). My mother is the master of resilience and she always says “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Resilient people are resourceful and have good problem solving skills. When things go wrong they might have a moment of upset, but rather than getting mired in a story around their predicament, they pretty quickly turn their attention to steps they can take to remedy the situation. They have mental and emotional tools to help them cope, and are not afraid to seek practical and spiritual help from a community of support they can rely on. Their ego and sense of self does not hinge on success or failure. They know that set-backs are all a part of life because they have a broad perspective that sees themselves as part of something greater.
This last quality, being spiritually connected, is essential. Resilient people may have a variety of religions and backgrounds, but they all share a deeply held belief that gives them a sense of perspective. Brene Brown defines spirituality as ”recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.” When we come up against pain, fear, hopelessness or vulnerability, it is the belief that we are all in this together that sees us through.
Much can also be learned from observing the practices of resilient people. They cultivate hope. Hope is not an emotion, i.e. a warm feeling of optimism and possibility, although those feelings may be a bi-product of hope. According to C.R. Snyder, a researcher from the University of Kansas, hope is not an emotion. It’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. It involves setting goals, making a plan with the ability to pivot if necessary and believing in oneself.
Critical awareness is another resiliency practice. As we fight the good fight, personally and culturally, we will encounter messages from media, society, family and friends. It is important to question these messages before believing in their veracity. Is what I’m seeing real? Is what someone is telling me true for me? Do these images/messages convey real life or fantasy? Do these images/messages reflect healthy, wholehearted living, or do they turn my life, my body, my family and my relationships into objects and commodities? Who benefits by my seeing these images or believing these truths? (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown) We are in charge of what beliefs we choose to adopt, and these will inform our ability to navigate difficult times.
The only way out is through. We must be willing to feel the feelings and lean into the discomfort to move through a painful experience or situation. Everyone has one or more favorite methods for numbing pain. It may be alcohol, food, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change or the Internet. (Brene Brown, Rising Strong) When we numb our painful emotions, we automatically numb our positive emotions too. Nothing ever goes away until it is fully felt and experienced, so numbing only delays the inevitable. Everything is fleeting, and just like positive experiences and emotions, the negative ones won’t last forever. My mother always says “This too, shall pass.” While you’re in the thick of it, you can seek out practices, like yoga and meditation, that supply you with tools to witness your emotions and thoughts rather than identify with them.
Wouldn’t it be handy to have a checklist of things to do when the going gets tough?
Accept the reality of suffering. The Buddha said “I have taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and the cessation of suffering.” The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is filled with suffering. The Sanskrit word for suffering is “dukkha,” which translates to anxiety, stress, suffering or dissatisfaction. It is often described as the mental and physical suffering that occurs in life. “Dukkha” is different from pain. Pain is an inevitable part of life, but suffering is optional. It is part of our human path to experience illness, aging, and loss. Suffering comes from the attempt to control what is fundamentally impermanent and unable to be controlled. (The Book of Joy by the 14th Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams) Eighth century Buddhist master Shantideva wrote “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”
Broaden our perspective. “See our lives set against a backdrop of all creation...remembering that our thoughts, bodies, minds, objects and air around us are all made of one energy. This helps us remember when we are studiosly working to finish a project, arguing with our mate, or upset because we gained 10 pounds, the earth continues to spin around the sun, gravity is keeping our feet on the ground, animals are hunting for food, the rivers are running, and people all over the world are having their own struggles, sometimes similar to ours, and often much more challenging… and it’s all part of one energy. We are all bound together by a field of consciousness that permeates everything.” (Charlotte Kasl, If the Buddha Got Stuck). When we look at the same event from a wider perspective, moving beyond our personal experience and connecting with all others who are suffering as well, we realize we are not alone, and our pain will lessen. We can also seek alternative perspectives. The Dalai Lama discusses his exile from Tibet. He was a refugee for 5 decades after running for his life. He could look at it like a tragedy, but rather he embraced being a refugee, saying it gave him more opportunity to learn and experience life because he was very sheltered in Tibet. Rather than hardening with resentment, looking at the same event from another angle gave him new opportunities for growth. (The Book of Joy, 14th Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams)
Look to the Helpers. One of the great gurus of our time, Mr. Rogers said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Desmond Tutu, who has struggled with ill-health his entire life, stresses the importance of not denying your pain. Even in the midst of experiencing and acknowledging your pain, you can recognize the gentleness of the nurse who is looking after you. You can see the skill of the surgeon who is going to be performing the operation on you. Sometimes, however, the pain might be too great to access this or other tools in the moment. It is important not to layer guilt or shame on top of our already existing situation. Be kind to yourself and give yourself time.
Work on Ourselves. Often when we are faced with a difficult situation, we struggle and scramble to change the situation so we can be comfortable again. This strategy is rarely effective because so much in the external world is beyond our control. What is within our control is our own self. The sage Shantideva illustrated this concept with an analogy. He said that if you walk on the earth and it’s hurting your feet, you might want to cover all the earth with hides of leather so that you’d never have to suffer from the pain on the ground. But where could such an amount of leather be found? Rather, you could simply wrap a bit of leather around your own feet, and then it’s as if the whole world is covered with leather and you’re always protected. It is good to work to improve society and your situation whenever possible, but do not neglect the inner work which can only make your outer work more effective.
Create recovery periods. Science has shown that resilience is not about how you endure, but rather about how you recharge --about having adequate periods for recovery. I read an article on resilience in the Harvard Business Review, which talked about overworking and how it ultimately did not lead to greater productivity. Setting aside time for meditation and yoga are just the kind of recovery periods we need. Because just stopping work or ceasing a particular depleting behavior does not constitute recovery if we are still obsessing or worrying about it. The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again. This conclusion is based on biology. Homeostasis is a fundamental biological concept describing the ability of the brain to continuously restore and sustain well-being. Neuroscientist Brent Furl from Texas A&M University coined the term “homeostatic value” to describe the value that certain actions have for creating equilibrium, and thus wellbeing, in the body. When the body is out of alignment from overworking, we waste a vast amount of mental and physical resources trying to return to balance before we can move forward. (Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure, Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor, Michelle Gielan, June 24, 2016)
Persevere. My mother also always says “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.” Look to the simple, small things that can be done on a daily basis. Rather than dwelling on the difficulty of your situation, do something to brighten up your day. My mom might cut some fresh flowers and arrange them on her table, or you could take a walk in nature. Then, once you’re centered, look for small steps you can take towards resolution. If your default reaction to adversity is to freeze, you can rewire your brain to take action with practice over time. Dr. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU and Dr. Jack Forman at Columbia researched the ability to take action and its effect on the brain and our emotional states. They observed the crowd’s reaction to a pipe bomb explosion at the 1996 summer olympics. Everyone froze until one person started running and then everyone started running! He wondered what happened in the brain the moment between freezing and taking action. The fear circuit in the amygdala of the brain commands people to freeze in the face of danger or trauma. But if we stay in this state, we fall into passive helplessness, which can lead to dependency or depression. The signal that commands freeze can be rerouted to a part of the amygdala that commands action! This happens when you repeatedly take deliberate small actions in the face of trauma and fear. Then, over time, you will respond to difficulties with active problem solving, which helps you move on and let go of trauma so you can get on with your life.
As you begin to cultivate the behaviors and characteristics of resilience in your life, don’t lose heart if you occasionally backtrack from the changes you are making. Most people fall down and get up many times before a new behavior is incorporated into their way of living. Each time you fall down, get up, and live to tell the tale, not only will you be stronger and wiser, but you will see yourself for the survivor that you are.
** (For further reading, check out these insightful works, which formed the basis of this article - Rising Strong and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl, The Book of Joy by the 14th Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure, Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor, Michelle Gielan, June 24, 2016)