Resilience: Tending Your Inner Disturbances

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

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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.

“All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”— Helen Keller

We often think the quickest way to overcome our suffering is to fix our external circumstances. I spent a lot of my life trying to eliminate my internal disturbances by building a brick wall to keep me safe. No one could get in to hurt me. But no one could get in to be my friend either. It didn’t fix the internal disturbance of not feeling good enough for other people to want to be my friend. I also tried being a do-it-all to make people like me. That left me so busy doing that I did not have time to nurture relationships. And I felt I could never do enough, while at the same time feeling resentful for not being appreciated for all I did. Changing the external circumstances did not change my internal disturbances.

Because I had 50 plus years of baggage, there was a lot of mental chatter in the way of my being present. I was worrying about what people thought of me, making me very self-conscious. All the chatter in my mind stole my ability to simply experience what was going on, being there for people, and nurturing friendships. It didn’t matter what company I worked for, what group of people I was with. No matter where I was my internal disturbance was there with me.

I was constantly creating disturbance instead of experiencing my life. I thought I had to go out and control what was going on externally because my internal disturbances were bothering me so much that I couldn’t just stand there.  I had to take on new projects, change jobs, learn something, clean my house so that I felt better. But, fixing my external environment by changing jobs, for example, made no difference in the long run.

I was blaming the external trigger of my internal disturbances instead of looking deeply at the root of it. I tried to fix external triggers to eliminate my internal disturbances. The problem is no matter how hard I tried I could not control external circumstances. Triggers popped up when I least expected them, activating my internal disturbances.

By focusing on fixing the external environment instead of taking care of my internal issues, I was not very resilient. What I learned from Michael Singers is that since the external environment was not the issue, fixing it would not eliminate my internal disturbances.

To be resilient, you must be aware of what is going on inside of you and outside of you, both the negative and the positive thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stories we tell ourselves.  Internal disturbances are emotions that are messy and difficult. If we are not aware of the emotion, 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. We try to change our external circumstances to make the internal disturbance go away. When we accept our negative emotions, we can look deeply at the roots to learn what needs to change in our lives. It does not mean that we accept all external conditions. We change what we can and learn to be OK with not being OK.

We learn that it is not the external situation that causes our issues. Even when we change the external environment, we still have issues. We realize that this is a problem we are creating for ourselves.

Why do we create these inner disturbances? Usually, it is because we are afraid. Afraid people will not like us. Afraid we are not good enough. Afraid we look bad. Afraid something bad will happen.

The alternative to letting yourself create all this disturbance—is you just take a position of, “I’m in here, the world is out there doing its thing and I’m creating all this disturbance about it. I’m remembering the past and freaking out. I’m thinking about the future and freaking out. I’m feeling stupid standing here, relaxing.” Whatever it is I’m doing that inside myself.” Michael Singer

Mindfulness helps us to slow down so that we don’t blindly react to this fear. If we don’t pause, we often panic and act unskillfully. We feel tension and contract so we can’t see the big picture, we only see the negative story we are telling ourselves. We tell ourselves that we can’t handle this. We try to push the unpleasant away. Yet we still feel the disturbances that we have created inside of ourselves. We don’t have to create that disturbance.

I’m just experiencing what’s happening on the Planet Earth. The past is over. The future hasn’t happened.”  Michael Singer

The past has already happened. Ruminating about it for the 100th time, won’t change it. The past no longer exists, so if you are letting it bother you, you are creating the disturbance. And the more you ruminate, the stronger the neural pathways of that disturbance will be. The same goes for anxiety about the future. The future does not exist yet. If you are letting your stories about what might happen in the future make you anxious, you are creating the internal disturbance. Not the future.

This is where mindfulness comes in. 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.  We expect things to change and adversity to occur. With mindful awareness we soften the constant chatter in our heads so that we can see the beauty in life, even in times of difficulty.   We know 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. I can live with this.” We can let the disturbances pass through us like the wind.

To practice this, catch yourself at regular times of the day and check in. Look and see what is going in inside of you. According to Michael Singer, you will see that you are creating tension and anxiety. You will not like doing this as it is uncomfortable. Remember it is not the situation that is making you uncomfortable, it is the movie you are playing in your mind. What have you added to the reality of the external environment that makes you feel sad, anxious, mad or frustrated?

You’re going to see that you’re creating a storm in there when nothing’s happening outside.” Michael Singer

When we look at the roots of 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. Being aware of our positive thoughts gives us the energy to be resilient.

Happiness and gratitude give us that reserve capacity, the charge to our battery. They give us the resources to zoom out, take a healthy perspective, see the challenge, stay flexible, and be resilient.” Elissa Epel

Some people are naturally more resilient than others.  But resilience is not a personality trait, it is a skill that anyone can learn.  It’s all about training our brain to pay attention, think and behave in a certain way. By doing so we create 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 first thing is to calm yourself down. You can do this by focusing on one thing. This allows us to drop into the relaxation response or the rest and digest mode. When you’re in survival mode, that’s fear-driven and the linear brain dominates. But when you focus on one thing, whether it’s yoga, tai-chi, meditation, or anything, you allow your right brain, which is your nonlinear brain, to see the whole picture and allow your intuition to weigh in. So you have to learn how to be still and be in the eye of the hurricane.” George Mumford

The biggest obstacle to resilience is our heart which tells 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. Instead, we can enlarge our perspective by looking at the whole picture for both the short run and the long run. This helps us move to the “being with what is” mind. We must 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.

“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