"I’m not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship"
— Louisa May Alcott
Life is filled with all kinds of moments- both good and bad. Few of us will get through an entire lifetime completely free of challenges and stressors. Infact, pain and suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition, of being alive. Failure is an inevitable part of our life, what really matters is how you deal with it.
Some people face their failures and setbacks and bounce back by responding effectively and decisively while others never seem to get their act together. What differentiates these two groups of people? In a word, RESILIENCE.
In my previous post (fifth in a series of eight posts), I had written about the need to look for and find the joyful moments in our lives in order to have meaningful happiness. In this post, I am writing about those other kinds of negative moments that are woven into the very fabric of our lives- stressful, frustrating, dreary, tiring, dull and even traumatic and devastating ones.
We can learn how to remain grounded in the face of adversity and not get uprooted. We can also learn to take risks and endure failure (it is not a matter of if but when) and have the courage to learn, grow and adapt. Using the tools of self compassion, empathy, self awareness, confidence, calm and courage we can train ourselves to deal with the adversities when they come and adapt to the circumstances. In other words, we can learn to become resilient.
"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again"
Many of us ask ourselves these questions when faced with adversity in our daily lives
Will I ever recover from this?
How long will it take me?
How can I help myself cope with this better?
Research now shows that our brain can be consciously rewired so that we become more resilient to future events. We know that due to neuroplasticity, we can train our brains for the better just like we would do with a muscle. Infact, due to evolution, your brain already has all the capacities that you need to develop and strengthen your resilience.
"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
So the question then is not whether you can cope with the adversities that come your way, but rather how do you tap into the resources that will help you to cope with them effectively. Developing resilience is a personal journey that takes practise like any other skill. It is important to develop thoughts, behaviours and actions that allow you to bounce back and also to understand what works for you. Research also shows that the two most effective practices that help us choose new experiences and rewire and reshape our brains are mindfulness and self compassion.
We all know that despite our best intentions things go wrong, some times very wrong. But how do we typically react at that time? More often than not we criticise and shame ourselves for not knowing better, for not doing better.
We ask questions like
"What's wrong with me?"
"I should have known better!"
We blame ourselves and others and try and fix things rather than giving ourselves a break. Instead of tuning into our emotions and how we are feeling at the time, we do anything and everything to avoid feeling pain. And when we do that, we often get hijacked by the way our feelings filter our perceptions and our emotions guide (or rather misguide) our responses to our experiences. All this usually happens at a level that is below our radar of consciousness and undermines our confidence and our ability to bounce back from life's challenges.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, helps us create a moment to moment awareness that helps us become free to choose how we respond to painful situations in a kind, curious and non judgemental manner.
As we practice doing mindfulness, we find that it leads to self awareness and brings clarity in seeing how we react to a situation, respond in a more effective manner and face the prospect of change in a much more open manner. It helps us to engage with our feelings and get curious about what emotions we are experiencing and how they are connected to our thoughts and behaviours.
It is important to acknowledge those moments in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, make us feel ashamed and isolate us. Mindfulness helps us to become aware that we are feeling something in those moments and enables us to investigate the stories that we often tell ourselves. We can also see what is true or not true about what we are noticing and what is working and not working in what we are observing.
(Take out a bit of time to do the following activity and note down your responses to the prompts given below)
Think back to a time in your life when you were in a difficult situation recently and try and remember as to what you were feeling at that time -
I felt _______________________ (disappointed, frustrated, sad, regretful, heartbroken, confused, scared, worried) right now
I was __________________ (in a lot of pain, ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed)
I am not sure what I was feeling, I simply wanted to feel better
You have just taken the first step towards acknowledging your feelings that come with accepting failure as an inherent part of our life. Practising mindfulness is an important skill that you can develop to take this level of awareness further.
Many of us have a notion that being resilient means being tough and that it hardens our weaknesses and helps us become less vulnerable to hardships in life. It could not be further from the truth!
Resilience in fact requires flexibility, mental suppleness and being open and vulnerable so that we can access the broken and dark places deep inside us. It requires that we really see ourselves- our hurt and pain, thoughts and feelings, our beauty and longings, wounds, mistakes and regrets and make space for them so that we can hold them all with compassion, curiosity and love.
We also need to realise that we deserve to feel better. Seeing ourselves this way also helps us to become more tender with ourselves and as we do so, we often see a path to becoming more tender with others, too.
Self compassion is a wholesome combination of acceptance and connection- both to ourselves and others. Using mindfulness along with self compassion helps us to reshape our brains and guide it in a positive direction.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
-Naomi Shihab Niya
(You can also read my earlier post on a related topic of self acceptance at "How self acceptance can compensate for being ‘NEVER ENOUGH” )
Take out a few minutes to do the following exercise and then write down your responses
First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation?
Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends. Notice any warmth, concern, and goodwill arising in your own heart for your friend. Allow yourself to feel the empathy, compassion and love that arises naturally in you.
Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. Was there any difference between the two responses?
Now return to the feelings of warmth, concern, and goodwill that you felt for your friend earlier. Without changing anything, simply redirect this flow of empathy, compassion, and love towards yourself. Allow yourself to receive your own empathy, compassion and love for your own pain, for your struggle or whatever you have done or failed to do.
How did this exercise make you feel? Did you notice anything different about how you respond to your own pain versus that of a friend? What would you do differently with this awareness the next time you are hurting?
There are too many people in this world who are struggling today- they act out instead of feeling hurt, they inflict pain instead of acknowledging it and choose to live a mediocre life to miminise the risk of being disappointed. In other words, they end up living a life that is filled with unfulfilled dreams, fear and regrets.
It doesn't have to be this way though! You can make different choices with different outcomes.
Can you think of ways to....
be present in your life?
show up just as you are when you need to without trying to control the outcome?
enjoy the journey- to find ways to pause and savour all that comes your way?
show yourself the same compassion that you would show another who is hurting and understand that you deserve the same kindness and understanding?
incorporate tools of mindful self compassion in your life to be able to bounce back from life's challenges?
The sufi poet Rumi captured the essence of what I have said in this post so beautifully in his poem "The Guest House"
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.