Resources for Recovering Resilience: Rewiring Difficult Experiences in Relationships

The exercise below was included in the dharma talk I gave last Thursday to the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley, CA, (Dharma Seed to listen/download to free podcast) and will part of the Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Resilience and Well-Being daylong workshop I will be teaching at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on Saturday, November 16, 2013.

The exercise is one of the most powerful tools available to rewire the sense of hurt/angst/shame that can occur when an interaction between us and another goes awry.  May it be helpful to you and yours.

Rewiring Difficult Experiences in Relationships

Love guards the heart from the abyss.
– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

There’s a teaching story in the Buddhist tradition that can guide us in repairing and rewiring any troubling experiences in relationship in the present or traumatizing memories that still hijacks us from the past.  If you take a teaspoon of salt, dissolve it in a glass of water, and then take a sip of the water, the water tastes disgusting – it’s too salty to drink.  But if you take a teaspoon of salt, dissolve it in a large freshwater lake, then dip the glass into the lake and sip that water, the salt has dissolved in the larger lake; there’s no taste of it at all.

We can dissolve teaspoons of relational upset or trauma in the vast lake of mindful empathy, positive emotions, and our own deep goodness, too, through re-conditioning.  Old memories of difficult experiences seem to “dissolve.”  They no longer have the power or charge they once had to weaken our internal secure base or de-rail our resilience.

Because re-conditioning is a powerful tool for altering the brain’s circuitry, and because we want to make sure we’re re-wiring old memories and not reinforcing them, I’m going to describe the ground rules before you begin the exercise.

  1. Anchor your awareness firmly in the present moment. You are safe here, now, and will still be safe even when you retrieve a memory of what happened back there, back then.
  2. Focus your awareness on positive resources first – positive self-regard, self-acceptance, trusting your innate goodness, evoking the wisdom of your Wiser Self.
  3. Start small!  A teaspoon of trouble, not a ton.  One small specific relational moment when resilience went awry.
    • You were chosen last for the neighborhood softball team; the sting of “not good enough” lingers to this day;
    • You mis-read someone’s worries about not being able to pay their rent this month; you were a little flip in your quick slap on the back and “keep your chin up”; they’ve ignored you now for two weeks steady;
    • Your sister-in-law just can’t seem to hear that you won’t be coming to her house for Thanksgiving and will instead celebrate with friends as you have done for the last three years; you resent her obliviousness to your own wishes.

With practice, over time, re-conditioning can indeed dissolve a ton of salt, but please let your brain feel successful with the smaller memories first.

Exercise: Wished For Outcome

This exercise creates the resource of a better outcome to recondition a troubling or traumatizing memory.

  1. Find a time and place to sit quietly without interruption.  Focus your attention on your breathe, breathing calmly and deeply into your heart center.  Call to mind a particular moment of ease and well-being, a particular sense of your own goodness, or a moment when you felt safe, loved, connected, cherished.  Or think of a moment when you were with someone who loves and believes in you.  Remember one of these moments in as much detail as you can, in as many levels of your body-brain as you can – a visual image, the feelings in your body that the memory evokes, any thoughts you have about yourself now as you remember the sweetness of that moment.  Let yourself savor this moment in a mindful and compassionate “holding” of the memory.
  2. When you feel bathed in the good feeling, and still anchored in the awareness of safety in the present moment, call to mind a moment of experience when things went awry between you and another person.  It may be slight or terrible, but if it’s terrible, break the experience to little chunks.  As you re-imagine that moment, remain in your observer role rather than reliving the experience.  Evoke this memory to light up all the neural networks – visual images, body sensations, emotions, thoughts or beliefs at the time.  Recall memories of what you said and did, what someone else said or did; who else was there; how old you were and how old the other person was; what you were wearing and what that person was wearing,  Maybe you wish you could have said or done something differently at the time.  Maybe you wish someone else had done something differently at the time, even if that could never have happened in real life.
  3. Then begin to visualize a wished for outcome, even if this never could have happened in real life: what you would have said or done differently; what the other person could have done differently. What someone else not even in the original scenario could have said or done. If you simply wish none of this had happened at all, you can imagine what would have happened instead.  Let the new story unfold as you would have wished, in as much detail as you can.  You are creating a scenario that completely disconfirms or contradicts what happened before.
  4. Hold the two scenarios in your awareness at the same time, or switch back and forth between them, always refreshing and strengthening the newer, more positive scenario. After a few moments, “let go” of the old memory and just rest your attention in the new scenario.  Let your mind play out this new scenario, and then notice how you feel.  Notice any emotions or thoughts or beliefs about yourself that come up now, and if they are more positive, resilient, let them soak in.  Then bring your awareness back to the present moment.

Using this technique does not change what happened, but it does change our relationship to what happened. It doesn’t re-write history but it does re-wire the brain. The kind of careful re-conditioning can re-wire a shame-based sense of self, dissolve self-doubt and smallifying,  help the inner critic retire.  Altering your brain circuitry through re-conditioning creates a stronger neural platform of resilience in the internal secure base and allows a new relational intelligence to emerge that allows you to deal with even intrusive, withdrawn, hostile people, in any situation, resiliently.