A phrase that gets used a lot nowadays is: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Well, maybe that’s true, but strength, on its own, is not really all that useful. What is useful is resilience.
In scientific terms resilience is the ability of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed, and then to recover that energy on release. The picture above is a freeze-frame of a golf ball being hit and you can see how such a hard, seeming immutable, object is deformed and flattened before it rebounds off the clubface, shooting with tremendous energy towards, we hope, its target. The energy that is released is not a product of the ball’s strength but its elasticity.
Looking at this from the other end of the telescope and using a different example, the buildings that survive earthquakes are the ones that can absorb energy using elasticity. They are not strong in the sense that they are rigid, those are the ones that fall to pieces. They are designed to have joints that are flexible and so the building can sway so the energy can be distributed through the structure.
I remember walking In Wandlebury Wood, just outside Cambridge, once during a gale- the forest floor was moving under our feet. All the tree roots were heaving and subsiding so it looked like waves on the ocean, the trees were absorbing the dynamic force of the wind through the trunks and into the ground so they didn’t break or fall over. Another example of resilience.
But living our lives resiliently is not about flexibility or “bouncing back” like a golf ball. It is about changing our perceptions and our responses to life’s difficulties, those hard surprises, the “unknowns” (see previous blog on Contingency) that can literally change everything in a heartbeat, or maybe over such a long period that we hardly notice them. Perhaps we’ve lost our job, or someone close to us falls ill, or dies, or we realise that we are getting old. Immediately we experience reactivity: anger, anxiety, terror, panic, self-doubt, self-pity perhaps.
This reactivity is natural. It reflects our fear-based survival framework based on our evolutionary hard wiring: the fight, flight or freeze response of our ‘reptile’ mind. We look at the external facts and events and process them through our minds with thoughts which arise automatically. Even before this, in the very first instant, our feelings, our body sensations, kick in without us ‘thinking’ at all. Our fear and anxiety create for us what we think is reality, but it is just one version of reality.
Mindfulness is a tool that allows us to look at things differently. If we can bring awareness to bear on our present experience, in our thoughts and bodies, without judgment, we can regain some control, or rather some equanimity.
It is an ongoing process of course. Re-training our minds is not easy, and it takes time to develop these new skills. And as many of us have started the process late in life there is not a moment to lose. So, as I was once told on retreat, we must practice like our hair is on fire! Mindfulness exercises not only begin the process but are what we must return to again and again. Particularly the breathing exercises, in which we can rest, in wakefulness, and begin to reframe those fear-based feelings and reactions, the reactive thoughts, recognising them for what they are, without being controlled by them. This develops resilience.
It is important to recognise that resilience is not acceptance, at least not in the sense of resignation, of abandoning ourselves to a difficult situation in a passive way. It’s not about giving up or giving in. It is about having the ability to stop fighting reality and work with it instead. ‘Working around the edges of the problem’ as Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), says.
Years ago, on our Cambridge mindfulness course, we worked on a ‘big toe exercise’, learning not to be reactive to the pain of, say, stubbing your toe, in a judgmental way. The shock of the initial pain (and I should add we only worked with this theoretically!) is known as the ‘first dart’ and can produce the second and subsequential darts of “I’ve probably broken it”, “why is this always happening to me”, “I’m such an idiot” and so on, which are just as painful. I got a bit frustrated with this though. “But what if something really dreadful happens? Much worse than stubbing your toe?” I asked, something so terrible I didn’t even dare name it. “Work with it in exactly the same way…” our teacher told us “..what else are you going to do?”
Living resiliently isn’t just for the hard times, or the ‘interesting’ times. (“May you live in interesting times” is purportedly a Chinese curse used ironically but it is in fact an English proverb- we are wiser than we think!) And although we live in interesting times right now, with its many challenges, it was ever thus. People get sick and die and lose their jobs now as they ever did. Cultivating resilience can allow us to live without fear in the face of these challenges, it gives us a foundation, a deep well we can draw on for the rest of our lives. What else are we going to do?