Pushback on My Definition of Resilience
Abi Blakeslee is an experienced trauma therapist, currently training therapists in Hungary (online through traumahealing.org) in tools to help Ukranian refugees cope with the trauma of the invasion and bombardment of their country.
Abi and I were teaching at the recent Psychotherapy Networker Symposium on the same day, so I didn’t get to attend her workshop on Bringing the Body into Therapy, practices thoroughly anchored in Somatic Experiencing trauma therapy.
We met that evening at a presenter’s gathering, and Abi pushed back on one of my (and the field’s) definitions of resilience – skillfully coping with any adversity/stress/trauma and returning to a baseline physiological state of calm, ease, safety and trust. What the trauma field calls the Window of Tolerance – not too revved up, not too shut down, the Goldilocks state of being able to manage the reactivity of one’s nervous system and engage and cope through the functioning of the higher brain.
Abi suggested that resilience is not really about recovering that state of calm, certainly not about being able to stay there. She teaches that resilience is about riding the waves of up-down, stress-calm, not okay-okay, moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day. That resilience is the process of coping, of managing, of regulating, not an end state we can arrive at and remain in.
I find a lot of merit in what Abi is suggesting, especially when people have to cope with stressors that don’t have easy resolution or a definitive end date in sight, like the last two years of pandemic, or the current war in Ukraine.
And I will be incorporating that way of cultivating resilience, riding the sine wave, in my trainings remaining in 2022: SISP-Atlanta, PCPSI-Ireland, NScience-London, Kripalu, Cape Cod.
What Abi suggests resonates with what I’ve just started reading in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster – that even in the most horrific of disasters (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) people find meaning and purpose in helping each other in community, and joy in human connection.
Exercise: Breathing Creates Resonant Connection
Here’s an exercise I learned from Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, developed during the AIDs epidemic when there wasn’t always resolution or recovery to be found in that disaster. It’s a very simple exercise to use the breath and touch to create the resonant connection between you and another person that can also relax your reactivity and help you return to your window of tolerance. This exercise is done with a partner. After 2-3 minutes you can switch roles.
1. Have your partner lie down comfortably on the floor and close their eyes. You sit comfortably on the floor near them. Come into a sense of presence, of being with this person, here, and now. Place one hand on their hand or forearm, the other hand on the crown of their head. Your partner breathes slowly, deeply. Begin to synchronize your breathing with their breathing. Simply breathe together for 2-3 minutes, noticing the life force of the breath entering and leaving their body, entering and leaving your body. You are strengthening the capacities of your resonance circuit to regulate you, and dropping into a mutual baseline equilibrium, an equanimity for two.
2. A variation of this exercise is to contemplate the reality that the molecules of air entering and leaving your lungs are the same molecules of air entering and leaving your partner’s lungs, and indeed, are the same molecules of air entering and leaving the lungs of anyone you are in the same room with, the same car or bus or plane with, the same office or store or theater or world with. To open up to this kind of intimacy with beings all over the planet can radically expand our minds and open our hearts, creating a larger perspective, the bigger picture, that is also supportive to seeing clearly and relaxing your body into the window of tolerance.