RESILIENCE – the capacities to respond flexibly to life events, casual or catastrophic – is essential to our well-being and a hallmark of emotional and mental health.
You may have noticed: we tend to not do so well responding to the hiccups and hurricanes of life when we get rigid, contracted, and stuck in old, automatic reactions.
To foster flexibility and resilience, we learn to open up our perceptions, shift our perspectives, see old problems with new awareness, new eyes.
This month’s newsletter explores various ways we can maintain our brain’s innate capacities for “response flexibility”. I hope you find the reflections and resources useful in keeping your own mind, heart and spirit open – and resilient.
Shifting Perspectives Leads to Resilience
I was deep in a worrisome thought one day and, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, blithely stepped ankle deep into the wet cement of a freshly laid crosswalk.
I was startled, then horrified, then inner reactions just started cascading one after the other, including, “How careless! How could you have been so asleep at the wheel!” I was just about to fall into an all too familiar rabbit hole of berating myself for always being so stupid when another inner voice piped up, “Wait a minute! So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being stupid.”
I stood there in the cement, noticing all these different reactions rushing through me, and realized I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this. I picked up my feet and stepped onto dry land as construction workers headed over to help me. As I picked up my shoes out of the cement, I tried for a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens. I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed in front of these guys, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”
I walked over to a faucet conveniently sticking out of a nearby apartment building to wash off my shoes and feet. As I began to have some hope that I might even save my shoes (I did) I noticed also some pride emerging that I was coping – with the outer event and with my inner reactions to it – as well as I was.
By the time one of the construction workers gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes and feet, it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening this way to me in this moment. But ‘shift happens’, too.” I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective had allowed me to cope resiliently right there, right then. The experience also taught me, right there, right then, that shifting perspectives and responding resiliently is possible, in any moment, any moment at all.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
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No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
– Albert Einstein
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The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the grater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.
– Pema Chodren
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Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches it arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
– Rabindranath Tagore
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
One of my favorite teaching stories of all time is the story of the Chinese Farmer and the Horse, from the Zen tradition.
A Chinese farmer has a horse; his neighbor comes over to visit and exclaims, Oh, how fortunate that you have a horse!” The Chinese farmer non-committally says, “We’ll see.”
The next day the horse runs away. The neighbor comes over to offer his sympathy. “Oh, how unfortunate that you’ve lost your horse.” The Chinese farmer again says non-committally, “We’ll see.”
The next day the horse returns to the farmer, bringing a new mare with him. The neighbor rushes over to congratulate the farmer. “Oh, how fortunate! Now you have two horses!” The Chinese farmer replies as before, “We’ll see.”
The next day the farmer’s son is out riding the mare to break it in; the mare throws him and he breaks his leg. The neighbor comes over as before, “Oh, how unfortunate. Your son has broken his leg!” The Chinese farmer replies, “We’ll see.”
A month later the army comes through the area recruiting soldiers. They can’t accept the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbor again comes over to sympathize, “Oh, how fortunate! Your son doesn’t have to go into the army!” The Chinese farmer again replies, “We’ll see.”
The story continues on. We learn to keep an open mind about any particular event; we don’t always know how fortunate or unfortunate any particular circumstance is, but our openness helps us accept it all resiliently.
Heather Martin, A Buddhist meditation teacher, created another one of my favorite teaching stories about expanding our perspective sharing her experience of eating an apple.
I picked up an apple to eat on my walk after lunch. As I looked at the redness, the roundness, the little stem sticking up, I thought of all the elements that went into this apple – the tree it grew on, the soil it grew in, the sun and the rain that nourished it. As I bit into it, I tasted all those elements in the juice and the pulp. All of that became part of me. As I chewed, then swallowed the apple, I imagined all of those elements traveling through me, down my throat, down my esophagus, through my stomach, through my gut, out through my pee, down the toilet into the sewage system that would purify the water, sending it on to the ocean where it would evaporate and return in the cycle of rain. I felt the apple dissolve in me and me dissolve in all the conditions that had created it. No separation. All one.
And that could be true for anything, anything at all.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE RESPONSE FLEXIBILITY AND RESILIENCE
I’m overflowing this month offering exercises to increase response flexibility and resilience. Use what is most useful now; save the rest for future reference.
1. New Landscapes, New Eyes
“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
All of us have learned to seek new landscapes to clear the cobwebs from our minds and get a new perspective on things. Vacations, retreats, weekend hikes, seeing the sights. New scenes, new scenarios, do activate the neural circuits in our brains. New experiences prime us to open to new learning and new views.
Here’s another angle on seeing new landscapes with new eyes, shifting our perspective and developing flexibility in our views.
Years ago I was hiking in the back-country of Yosemite National Park, seeking new landscapes myself to get a new perspective on some old problems. Seven miles in, I came upon a park ranger with a small group of hikers sprawled out on the ground, each of them completely absorbed in whatever plants, lichens, bugs, they could observe from a height of six inches. The ranger called this an exercise in “belly botany”. Simply focusing attention on one square foot of ground, and noticing everything that was happening in that square foot of ground for five minutes.
I was a bit astonished when I tried it myself. Life, death, stillness, aggression, beauty, so much to be present to on this micro scale. I was even more astonished when I again looked up at the 8,000 foot peaks all around us. My view exploded exponentially – every square foot of this hundred square miles was so full of everything I had been present to in my one small belly botany patch.
The micro scale completely shifts our view of our place in the larger scheme of things. We learn to zoom in; we learn to zoom out. Take five minutes to try belly botany yourself, on a beach, in a meadow, in a forest, in your own back yard. See if you don’t immediately gain a new perspective on the place of your life in the small and the vast. And learn, too, in that moment, that you can access this shift any time you need to.
2. ANTs to PATs
I saw “The Sound of Music” five times as a teenager. The folk wisdom of the song “My Favorite Things” sunk in long before I had ever heard of positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, or affirmations.
“When the dog bites when the bee stings; when I’m feeling sad; I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”
We’ve all learned to think of something positive to distract ourselves when we’re feeling bad. Sitting in the dentist’s chair, we remember our son’s scoring the wining goal in soccer last week. Anxious about stepping out on a stage to deliver a public talk, we distract ourselves by remembering our last vacation or planning the next one.
Modern neuroscience – and new research data is being published almost daily – validates the power of positive thoughts, or even different thoughts, to interrupts the automaticity of negative thoughts. Re-directing our attention to something positive allows our brains to activate different circuits and shift our view. The practice of re-focusing our attention, and eventually re-framing our experience, over and over, strengthen the brain’s capacity for response flexibility and thus our resilience.
When I teach clients how to break the automaticity of their negative thoughts in my Growing UP and Waking UP workshops, I use an exercise I call ANTs to PATs, replacing Automatic Negative Thoughts with Positive Automatic Thoughts.
Identify one habitual negative thought you would like to replace. You’re sick of it like I was when I stepped ankle deep in wet cement and almost fell down the rabbit hole of calling myself stupid.
Then brainstorm several different alternative thoughts to counter your negative thought. The alternative may be a directly opposite thought, i.e., “I’m lazy” becomes “I’m good at what I do when I’m interested.” The alternative may lead you to a different realm of thought entirely: “I’m lazy” becomes “I’m so looking forward to Greg and Diane coming over Saturday; I wonder what I’ll cook?” The alternative maybe simply be to think of someone who loves you and take refuge in feeling that love in the moment.
When you notice the habitual negative thought arising, practice using your alternative thought immediately. The point of ANTs to PATs is not to never react again thinking “I’m lazy.” It’s to interrupt the cascade of self-deprecation that immediately and reflexively follows that thought. We send the brain in another direction. We give our mind a few moments to re-calibrate itself and open up the field of thinking-feeling again. Cultivating an immediate positive response to a negative thought creates the space to shift our perspective, supporting more flexibility and resilience. And, every time we do it, we are learning that we can.
3. The Body Leads
“If you don’t go in, you can’t find out.” – Stine
Shifting our feelings and thoughts is not the only way we can shift our perspective. Our bodies can lead us into gut level shifts through a simple experiential exercise.
Choose an afflictive state that you want to work on – any afflictive state you want to process and shift. It could be a distressing emotion like fear, anger, sadness; it could be a distressing mental state like confusion or agitation. One that feels real to you, and that you would like to shift. Come into awareness of body sensations, images, feelings, thoughts.
Now, allow your body to come into a body posture that embodies this state. Let your body lead you, and come into a posture that embodies this state. Don’t do a lot of thinking or figuring out here. Just let your body express what you are feeling, or the state of thinking you are working on. Come into this posture, and stay in this posture for 30 seconds.
Now, without thinking, without going to your head at all, allow your body to move into a posture that is the opposite of this state. Let your body lead you, and move into an opposite posture. Remain comfortably in this posture for 30 seconds.
Now, without thinking, just resume the first posture, and hold it again for 15 seconds. Now, resume the second posture and hold it again for 15 seconds.
Now, let your body come to some posture in the middle of those two. The middle posture may incorporate elements of the first two; it may feel entirely new.
Now take a moment to reflect on your experience. What did you experience? What shifted? What state are you in now?
The first time I did this exercise in a workshop with Natalie Rogers, I began by exploring an embodied sense of depression. Much to my surprise, I learned that an opposite state to depression wasn’t necessarily happiness or joy. For me, it was reverence. That experience helped me be more flexible and resilient with down moods and, from that moment on, to know that I could.
4. Wise Guide
Sometimes we can draw on the power of our own unconscious to gain a new perspective. This guided visualization will help you use your own intuitive wisdom to get a new angle on an old problem.
Imagine you are standing in front of a person you are having difficulty dealing with. Maybe you feel intimidated by them, or enraged by them, or disgusted by them. Whatever you have tried hasn’t worked, and you’re feeling confused and hopeless.
Now imagine that someone you truly respect and trust as a wise, skillful and resilient person comes to stand between you and your difficult person. This person could be a good friend or important role model. They could be your own inner Wise Guide. They could be a figure from history or literature; they could be a wise spiritual figure.
Imagine you can overhear this wise person as they engage in a dialogue with your difficult person. Listen to what they say; watch what they do. Imagine this wise person is able to come to some resolution, set a boundary, negotiate a compromise with your difficult person that is appropriate and satisfactory. You are relieved.
Then imagine this wise person turns to speak with you. Listen to the words or phrases of wisdom and encouragement they offer to you. Let the wisdom and encouragement they say to you sink in.
With this wise person now standing by your side, imagine yourself dealing with your difficult person in a new way. Imagine what you are saying to them. Imagine them responding as you need them to. Imagine yourself coming to an appropriate and satisfactory resolution with them.
Imagine the difficult person leaving the scene. You thank your wise person for their guidance and help. You know that you can call on them again any time you need to.
As you return your awareness to the present moment, let the wisdom and encouragement of this visualization sink in. Know that you can use this tool to create a new perspective again, anytime you need to.
5. True Friend
Someone who reads this newsletter sent me this quote:
“True friends are the ones who know the song of your heart and hum it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” – Galloway Quena, thanks to Shoshana Alexander
Having a friend reflect our essence back to us helps us shift our perspective of ourselves when we have forgotten who we truly are, when we have forgotten that we are naturally creative, resourceful and whole.
Set aside a time with a friend when you can take turns spending a minute each, sharing what you appreciate most about each other. Do three rounds of taking turns; you’ll discover more qualities to mention as you reflect off each other. Recovering a larger view of ourselves in this way strengthen our resilience going forward. And, once again, we learn that we can.
I came home from a hike with a friend one morning to discover my car had a flat tire. I had just enough time to get to work that morning without a flat tire. Fortunately, my friend knew exactly what tire shop to take my car to in her town. Fortunately, the tire shop was able to take my car in right away and replace the tire in twenty minutes. Fortunately I was able to reach my client by cell phone, tell her where the keys to my office were hidden so she could let herself in and wait comfortably. Fortunately, I noticed, through all of this, I remained completely calm and equanimous. Like the Chinese farmer, nothing ruffled. A tangible marker that, in this moment at least, a larger awareness, cultivated through years of mindfulness practice, held steady. I was aware of everything that was happening; I was coping resiliently. No further reactivity was being triggered at all.
Mindfulness practice cultivates, to use the words of psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, “the love and awareness that holds the fullness of being.” Far more catastrophic events occur to cope with than a flat tire. Cancer, loss of a job, loss of a marriage, death of a child. We practice mindfulness to cultivate the spacious awareness and compassion that ultimately can hold anything, anything at all.
My friend Cariadne brought this teaching home from her Zen sitting group. “When we are in a contracted mind, it’s like looking at the sky through a pipe.”
We practice mindfulness to put down the pipe, to set aside our reactivity, our views, opinions, expectations, perspectives, and look at the sky whole.”
The following meditation will help cultivate the steady, spacious awareness of “Big Sky Mind”.
Sit in a comfortable posture, relaxed yet alert.
Allow your eyes to gently close.
Focus your awareness on your breathing; become aware of your breath flowing naturally, gently, in and out.
Rest your awareness in this gentle focus on the breath.
(If your mind wanders, as it will, notice that, no shame or blame, and bring your awareness back to your breath.)
As you focus your awareness on your breath, become aware of the awareness itself. The process of awareness-ing. You are aware of your breath. You are aware that you are aware. You are aware that awareness-ing is happening.
Steady this awareness of awareness-ing. Re-focus your awareness on it again and again. Sounds, body sensations, waves of feelings, cascades of thoughts, will arise. Notice them. Let them go. Bring your awareness back to your breath. Anchor in awareness of the breath and open to awareness of the awareness-ing again.
May your awareness become steady.
May your awareness become spacious.
May your awareness become unruffleable.
From this larger awareness, we experience a perspective that can hold and accept anything, anything at all. And we learn that we can.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
This month’s suggested reading:
Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller. Bantam Books, 2000
This gem of a book is especially relevant for people in the helping professions. Wayne Muller, therapist, minister, social activist, makes the case well for the deep need to refresh our spirits with time outs and new landscapes. It’s full of helpful tools and exercises drawn from every spiritual tradition on how to take mini-Sabbaths of 15 minutes here, a half a day there, to avoid burnout, re-anchor our well-being, and see things from a new perspective. Again, we learn how to, and we learn that we can.
The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark, Williams, Teasdale, Segal. Guilford Press, 2007
Shifting negative thoughts has been empirically validated as an effective treatment for depression for quite some time now. The Mindful Way Through Depression uses the mindfulness-based practices developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help patients become aware of the negative thought patterns that keep them locked in depression without judging themselves for having those thoughts. Useful exercises are included throughout.
This month’s suggested website:
Mindfulness practice cultivate a steady, spacious awareness that allows us to see our automatic, habitual patterns of response quite clearly, without judgment, and in that seeing clearly, to make new, more wholesome choices.
Spirit Rock is one of the oldest and most respected Buddhist meditation centers in the United States. I have found the teachers at Spirit Rock to be especially skillful and psychologically savvy. The website includes a calendar of meditation classes, daylongs and residential retreats.