Resilience – the capacity to recover from trauma and respond flexibly to misfortune and change – is greatly enhanced when we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of people close to us, or even in the sympathetic understanding of people in the same boat as us.
The nationwide use of support groups as adjunctive medical treatment for life threatening illnesses was launched when researchers at Stanford University found that, for women patients in the terminal stages of breast cancer, participating in a weekly support group extended their lives 12-18 months and significantly improved the quality of their lives during that time.
In 2005 neuroscientists discovered that women holding their husband’s hands during a pain study not only did not experience the pain levels that women holding no one’s hand or a stranger’s hand experienced; they experienced a positive sense of pleasure rather than pain because of the secure attachment with their husbands during the procedure.
In our own lives, we rely on compassionate connection from partners, friends, family, and on the teaching examples of others, to help pull us through our own suffering and overwhelm to find our capacities for resilient coping again. In my experience, this recovery of resilience happens in three stages.
Refuge simply means a safe, supportive place to hang out when we are fragile or discombobulated. A safe place to cry until we’re done crying, or rant until we’re done ranting. We may seek refuge among good friends who know us well, as the song below suggests. People we trust won’t judge or disdain us when we become emotionally unglued or our thinking becomes unhinged. People who can simply sit and be with us until we re-group and are ready to face the world again.
We live out our lives, they say, all alone,
From the day we arrive til it’s time to go home.
Well, it’s only just lately I’ve come to accept
The grace I’ve been given in the company I’ve kept.
As my body grows wider, my hair it grows thin.
The seasons pass quicker, my head starts to spin.
Well, I’ve learned to take refuge in the sight of a friend.
The moment we meet up, my heart says amen.
So listen up friends, I’ll tell you what’s true.
Of all things in life, the best one to do
Is to always be happy, and never to fear.
But if you can’t do that, make sure good friends are near.
– Kevin Carr
* * * * *
Sometimes we find refuge among people who don’t know us at all, but who can comfort and shelter us in we’re-all-in-the-same-boat human sympathy.
Years ago my dad had a stroke big enough to land him in the hospital or a few days, and a skilled nursing facility after that. While there, my dad became suicidal. The staff called me at 5:30am to come pick him up. In his confused mental state, even at the age of 80, he had managed to climb out onto a second story deck overlooking the courtyard and was threatening to jump.
When I arrived at the nursing facility, I managed to get my dad into my car to take him home. But I was completely bewildered about what to do in the next few days, weeks, months. Before I could get in the car myself, I burst into tears. I collapsed right there on the curb of the parking lot, and just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. All the grief and fear and confusion and anguish just welling up and spilling over. The nurse who had discharged my dad saw me out the window; she came out of the building and gently took my hand as she sat with me on the curb. For the next 30 minutes, she never said a word. She just held my hand with one hand; her other hand gently stroking my back. She stayed present with me as I cried out wave after wave of grief, fear, confusion, anguish.
Eventually the waves of tears subsided. I looked up into her eyes and saw simply someone seeing me, seeing my pain, someone caring for me, caring for my pain, caring for all the pain of all the family members who had ever gone through what I was going through, all the pain of the human condition. No matter what the next moment brought, in that moment I knew my struggle was completely seen, understood, accepted. The nurse’s unspoken empathy allowed me to normalize my experience and re-group.
* * * * *
Finding refuge can work in virtual as well in person. We can learn to use our imaginations to remember safe places or safe people to take refuge in whenever we need to re-center ourselves in a stressing moment. No matter what crises I have to field during the day – possibly suicidal patients or spouses outraged at learning of an affair, simply thinking about my partner being happy to see me at the end of the day – thinking about my cats being happy to see me at the end of the day! – makes everything manageable.
[We learn how to use guided visualization to create inner resources of compassionate connection in Exercises and Practices.]
Finding refuge in compassionate connection with others calms down our nervous systems, “re-settles the molecules” as my friend Phyllis would say. And stabilizes us for stage 2 in deepening resilience.
By reminders of how to be resilient, I don’t mean reassurances that conditions “out there” will get better soon – the job will come through or the chemo will knock back the cancer or someone else will come along soon to make you happy – because those external conditions may not manifest the way we want or when we want.
Rather, friends remind us of, and share their faith in, our own innate goodness, our own innate courage and resilience. They remind us that we are “naturally creative, resourceful and whole” when we have lost any sense of that ever being true or that it could ever be true again.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
– William Stafford, The Way It Is
Friends help us remember and believe again in the worth of our own thread and our capacities, sometimes growing in new ways through the current crisis, to hang on to it.
[We learn how to brainstorm ways we have resiliently held on to the thread in the past to support us now in Exercises and Practices.]
One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons is an inspiring moment when Calvin trips and falls down the stairs, lands in a heap at the bottom, dazed and confused Then he stands himself up again, throws his arms up in the air as though welcoming applause and says, “Ta da!”
Any time we turn a mis-step into a mastery, we are deepening our resilience. Any time we can see the AFGO – Another Fricking Growth Opportunity – in what appears to be a disastrous turn of events, we are deepening our resilience. Any time we can shift our perception of a potential catastrophe to a larger, wise understanding of the big picture, as we learned in the March 2008 e-newsletter, we are deepening our resilience.
The Chinese written character for crisis is two characters together: danger and opportunity. Any time we can see the opportunity in a sudden loss or potential crisis, seeing the potential danger clearly, too, of course, as Adele did in Stories to Learn From, we are deepening our resilience.
Buddhist meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein teaches this re-frame, “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.”
It is often our friends, partners, mentors, who remind us to look for the life lessons in every moment of our life’s journey, deepening our capacities to cope with the next overwhelming event, and the next and the next.
This month I want to use a familiar teaching story to further deepen our understanding of re-framing as a tool to deepen our resilience.
A young mother in a small village was completely bereft at the sudden death of her 8 year old son. She desperately ran through the village looking for anyone who could bring him back to life. A neighbor directed her to a monk living on the outskirts of the village who reassured her that, indeed, he could bring her son back to life if she brought him a mustard seed from any house in the village that had never known death.
Excitedly, the woman ran from door to door with her request for a mustard seed. But at each house she heard, “No, sorry, our uncle died last week.” Or “No, sorry, my wife died last year.” Finally the woman came to realize that her household was no different than any other household in the village. Every person in the village had suffered the loss of someone near and dear to them. Pain and suffering are universal to being human.
When we can re-frame our pain as the pain of being human, feel the pain fully but not take it personally, then we come into the larger perspective, the larger awareness, that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of human existence. We realize we are not the only ones who have to cope with what we never asked for and never wanted. As real and overwhelming as our pain might be, we can move beyond “Why me?” to “What now?” We face the unknown, as everyone must, from our own inner wisdom of acceptance and compassion. Indeed, our own suffering becomes the gateway to humbly become a compassionate refuge for others.
Opportunities to learn more