“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Resilience is the process of effectively coping with adversity—it’s about bouncing back from difficulties. The great thing about resilience is that it’s not a personality trait; it involves a way of paying attention, thinking, and behaving that anyone can learn.” Shamash Alidina, Mindfulness for Dummies
The word resilience means the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. It doesn’t mean we never get hit with negative challenges, it means that we recover from them quicker and better.
According to Rick Hansen, “Resilience is more than bouncing back from adversity. People who are resilient keep pursuing their goals in the face of challenges. Consequently, learning how to regulate your brain’s motivational machinery is a key aspect of resilience.” Research at the Center for Healthy Minds has found that mindfulness does increase resilience and the more mindfulness meditation you practice, the more resilient your brain becomes. When you are aware of your thoughts, you are less likely to get on the hamster wheel, letting those thoughts go around and around in your mind.
To be resilient, you have to be aware of what is going on inside of you and outside of you, both the negative and the positive thoughts, feelings, emotions and the stories we tell ourselves. We have to be OK with not being OK.
When we turn toward our negative thoughts, we build up our distress tolerance, the capacity to endure a painful experience without making a bad thing worse, such as “self-medicating” with overeating or alcohol. If you have a low discomfort tolerance like me, you may need to start with something small, like not scratching an itch. In addition to being aware of our negative thoughts, it’s important to be aware of our positive thoughts, that fills our tank so we have the energy to be resilient.
If we are not aware of our emotions, especially the messy, difficult ones, we cannot accept them. So, we either suppress them by pushing away, denying, distracting, or numbing or we let them spill out by striking out, catastrophizing, blaming. When we accept our internal emotions, we can use our emotions to learn what needs to change in our lives. It does not mean that we accept the external conditions. In the face of challenge, we have three options: collapse, cope or transform.
To transform we need to be resilient. Some people are naturally more resilient than others. But resilience is not a personality trait, it is a skill that anyone can learn. Its all about training our brain to pay attention, think and behave in a certain way. By doing so we create the neural circuits that provide us with a higher level of well-being, protecting ourselves from the adverse consequences when stuff happens. We train ourselves to bounce back quicker.
The biggest obstacle to resilience is our heart which is telling us that things have to be a certain way. To be resilient we need to move from the “I’ll be happy when” mind to the “being with what is” mind. The world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We try to pretend otherwise. We move to the “being with what is” mind by enlarging our perspective, looking at the whole picture for both the short run and the long run. We have to trust that we can grow and get through the difficulties, that they won’t last forever. When we do this the hard times become a teacher, guiding us to become more of what we really are.
Here are the attributes I have been working with to build my resilience.
Mindful awareness is a clear-eyed honesty about the situation we’re in. We are aware of our own vulnerability, uncomfortable though it may be. With mindful awareness we expect things to change and adversity to occur, so we are not surprised by it. We soften the constant chatter in our heads so that we can see the beauty in life, even in times of challenge. We realize that panic scrolling for more information from the outside does not silence our mind. It can bring us from a hyper aroused state, to the fight, flight, freeze state. Only when we stop chasing outside information and start embracing what we already know from within, we can move back to the calm, focused, alert state. If we look inside, we can say, “I’m okay now. Everything is fine.”
If you watch a super-slow-motion video of a bouncing ball, you’ll see that when it hits the ground, it goes flat. The flexibility that allows it to be flattened is what gives it the power to spring back to its original shape, throwing itself up into the air by using the very same force that brought it down.
Our flexibility to be willing to accept what is and use it to adapt and grow makes us resilient. This may be our wisdom to see what we can change, and what we can’t change. It is also our willingness to accept help when we need it, instead of letting price get in the way.
Perhaps the most crucial component of resiliency is patience. We need to have the patience to accept whatever happens next, even if it won’t happen on our timeline. It is our capacity to delay gratification, to put off immediate rewards for the sake of a greater reward in the future. It is also our ability to be with discomfort so we can endure painful situations without making them worse by lashing out, overeating, taking drugs or drinking.
Agency is the sense of taking initiative and directing your life rather than being swept along by events. As it is letting go of the victim mentality, it is the opposite of helplessness. Agency involves making decisions and taking action rather than simply hoping things will get better one day. Sometimes we don’t have control of what is happening outside of us. But we can control what is happening inside our minds. We realize that not making a decision is in itself a decision.
Challenging situations wear us down. To energize ourselves, we need to fill out tanks with positives. Allow yourself to have pleasure, even when your inner critic tells you that you don’t deserve it. Self-care is taking in pleasure, but not at the expense of long-term well-being. It is eating one chocolate chip cookie, not the whole batch. Nurturing ourselves is different for everyone. For some it may be spending time in nature, for others painting, playing music, or dancing.
Reflection: Let’s pause for a few moments to think about what you need to be nurtured. Imagine how good it would feel to let yourself have more pleasure.