Routes to Resilience 

Butterfly, Nam Tha River, Northern Laos

    Life presents us all with misfortunes to which not even the most privileged among us is immune. The real measure of our mettle is how well we use those that befall us to grow larger in heart and mind, to breathe through the cracks in our broken hearts and open still wider. Resilience is not simply the ability to bounce back to where we were before but to transform misfortune into an opportunity and a gift.

     These notes are offered not as prescriptions but as observations based on a lifetime of studying emotional and psychological resilience in individuals who in the face of loss find a new appreciation for life and a freedom from fear they believe they would never have known without enduring adversity. These individuals have not simply survived but thrived, not by rigidly resisting change but by adapting to it with humility and grace and finding new strength in turning toward the light.

Tree sculpture, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Seek the hidden gift in every misfortune, the gain in every loss. It’s not that the tragedy is itself a gift but that there is no misfortune from which you can’t extract a blessing, no loss from which you can’t derive a gain. The key is to begin the essential grieving process with confidence that at the far end there will be release – not only relief from sorrow but a deeper appreciation for life itself. This reward is not automatic. It only opens to us when we welcome it without expectations or preconditions. Just as the cycle of the seasons is a promise of renewal, assuring us that “this too shall pass,” so we can take comfort from our capacity to resprout from our roots and grow both deeper and higher in the process. While  misfortune is not a prerequisite to wisdom, in one form or another, whatever our station in life, it is inescapable. We can’t change the hand we’re dealt but by our attitudes and actions we can learn to play it well.

When your heart breaks, open it wide so the grief may pass through and the healing begin. When hurt, our reflexive response is to pull back and retreat into ourselves. It’s an understandable reaction, similar to that of other animals and even many plants. We don’t want to be hurt that way again. The more we hurt, the more determined we are to prevent a re-injury. We harden around our wound, armoring ourselves with permanent defense mechanisms that can be triggered years later even when we’re no longer truly threatened. Indeed, these defenses become so ingrained in us that they often sabotage our efforts to connect with others whom we can truly trust. The counterintuitive truth, however, is that only by resisting the impulse to withdraw and close down and opening instead can we heal and grow past the pain. By opening, we create a clear channel for our grief or disappointment to pass through us and out the other side, leaving us lighter in its wake, more receptive to new experience. The more we open at the moment when we would reflexively close, the easier it becomes and the less accumulated pain, frustration and anger we carry with us. Paradoxically, by opening we make ourselves less vulnerable to future emotional injury, just as flexibility and nimbleness enable the body to better accommodate shocks to the system. Armoring ourselves doesn’t expel our bad feelings but causes them to fester like wounds that need fresh air to heal and in its absence turn to depression and anger. The only way past pain is through, and the more widely we open our hearts the sooner we pass through it.

Butterfly, Nam Tha River, Northern Laos

Let go of the past to make room for the present. Release yourself from regret. No matter what has happened to you, the best way forward is to relinquish what came before to make space for what is and is to come. “Forgiveness,” said Gandhi, “is giving up all hope of a better past.” And recognizing the impossibility of revising the past begins with forgiveness of ourselves – for making mistakes (who doesn’t?), for missing opportunities, for sometimes sabotaging our own best interests. We can’t forgive others for their perceived misdeeds if we haven’t first accepted ourselves as we are and taken responsibility for our own choices. Regardless of the circumstances, blaming others for our plight only disables our ability to change the situation. Like guilt and blame, regret is an altogether useless and paralyzing emotion, a mental and emotional dead end. Learning to live now, enriched by experience but not encumbered by self-lacerating regret, we are finally free to welcome the future with all its uncertainties and opportunities with open arms, mind and heart.

Pelican Man on Trinidad Bay, California

Laugh often and deeply. Cultivate a hearty sense of humor, especially when it hurts too much to cry. Practice laughing out loud (LOL, in the parlance of text messages). The very physical act of laughter is relaxing. When things are especially grim, irony, satire and black humor have rescued many a soul – and society -- from despair. They are a testament to our collective resilience.

Learn to fall -- and fail -- well. Failure is rich with learnings. Only through failing do we learn what not to do. He who hasn’t failed hasn’t tried hard enough to succeed nor tasted the true rewards of well-earned success. Pioneering innovators often recall that they failed so often along the way that it was only through a happy accident that they ultimately succeeded. At the same time, it’s crucial to visualize and affirm one’s ultimate success even as one endures a succession of failures. Rightly interpreted, failures from which we learn become the compost from which success grows.

Dancing sculpture, Treasure Island, San Francisco Bay

Practice the Golden Reversal:  Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you. Be kind to yourself and as well as others. Befriending yourself, you will be a better friend to others. “Be kind to everyone,” wrote Philo of Alexandria, “for each of us is carrying a great burden.” Being kind to yourself is not the same as being self-indulgent. In fact, it sometimes means being firm with your excuses and indulgences. There’s nothing kind about stuffing yourself with candy that will rot your teeth and broaden your girth. A real friend, to oneself or others, helps us face uncomfortable truths. Forgiving ourselves our mistakes is the first step in self-acceptance, and it’s through accepting ourselves as we are that we learn to accept others without trying to change them. If we’re harsh on ourselves, we’re likely to be harsh in our judgments of others. We can’t be kind to others if we’re not first truly kind to ourselves.

Tai chi practitioners, Miraflores district, Lima, Peru

Cultivate gratefulness (great fullness). There is no more rewarding feeling than being grateful for your life. It’s a sense of completion and contentment that far surpasses the fleeting nature of happiness and is itself one of the profoundest forms of it. But it takes practice and requires changing deeply ingrained habits of mind that are both personal and cultural. Every ad we see or hear incites cravings – “more, better, faster!” – that leave us feeling who we are and what lies within our reach is simply not enough. Gratefulness is not some rarefied emotion that only those with wealth and leisure can afford to feel. Ironically, having a surplus of either can be a severe impediment to appreciating the life you’ve been given. Some of the most grateful individuals are those who have gone without, struggled to make ends meet, and live with a quickened sense of appreciation for a life they can never take for granted. Cultivating gratefulness requires plowing new neural pathways and re-patterning our responses to events. It necessitates changing how we interpret who we are, how we live, and what is happening to us. We can’t change some facts of life, but we can always change how we respond to them. Gratefulness doesn’t mean denying reality but seeing it clearly, then transforming it through the reflective lens of an open-hearted embrace.

Napping couple, Washington Square Park, San Francisco

Accept what is rather than yearning for what’s not. For many of us, what is isn’t nearly good enough, but we don’t get to a better place without first accepting what is. We can think of any number of ways things could be better, but none of them will come to pass if we fail to acknowledge and accept our condition as we find it (and have created it), since our current circumstances are the foundation on which to build something different. Dreams can only be built on the solid ground of the present moment. The past is unrecoverable, the future unrealized. Now is all we have to work with. Yet once acknowledged, it is enough. It is our ground of being and our acceptance of it gives us the strength to transcend its limitations.

Reframe every problem as a challenge, then an opportunity. Problems paralyze. Defining situations as problems freezes us in dread and trepidation. Doubts circle us like vultures awaiting their quarry. Challenges, on the other hand, ignite our confidence, spurring motivation and decisive action. When we redefine a problem as a challenge, this one simple act shifts our attention from our self-perceived weaknesses to our innate strengths. All our energies are summoned to rise to the occasion. This is as true of whole communities and societies as it is of individuals. Until challenged, we may fall into apathy and anomie. But when our very survival is thrown into doubt, we find unity and resolve we hadn’t known possible. And once mobilized, we’re better able to see the opportunity inherent in this challenge, and ultimately the gift.

 Take nothing or no one for granted. Consider everything and everyone a gift and a blessing. Drop your expectations so you can better notice and appreciate what freely comes your way. They steal the pleasure we derive from receiving a gift unbidden. When we expect someone to do something for us, we deprive the giver of the pleasure of giving and ourselves of the gift of gratitude. We’re entitled to full measures of fairness and respect but everything else is gravy. Giving and saying thanks for what comes our way doubles the impact of the gift, affirming the value of giving to the giver and of receiving to ourselves.

Marital bliss, Union Square, San Francisco

Live each day as if it were both your last and your first. If you live largely in the present, unburdened by the past, you don’t need patience to wait for the future because you witness it unfolding in ever surprising ways with each passing moment. Living as if it were your final day on earth, you would surely pay attention to every passing instant and make certain to waste none of it. Likewise, if it were the first day of your life, everything you see, feel and do would be astonishing in its freshness and originality. Waking in the morning, you would be unburdened by lingering dreams or regrets, experiencing your thoughts, feelings and sensations with a mind and body wide open with curiosity and wonder. Okay, let’s be real: most of us are so trapped in routine that the notion of being able to see it all afresh is almost laughable. If I don’t have the freedom to change my outer circumstances, do I still possess the freedom to alter my inner awareness? That’s the challenge and opportunity presented by each passing moment.

Rice farmer, Tarapoto, Peruvian Amazon

Ground yourself in reality, dark as it may sometimes be, but always grow towards the light. When we’re living in difficult circumstances, our impulse is to try to escape, in our imaginations if not in actuality. These survival strategies have their role to play, but they should not blind us to acknowledging reality. Harsh as that may be, it is an essential grounding for any effective action to change our circumstances. Indeed, it’s by combining a clear-sighted appraisal of reality with an inventive imagination that we’re most likely to discover the best way to transform our situation. Wherever plants are placed, they will always bend toward the light. Even if that requires them to bend and grow leafless for a time, they will sprout leaves at the end of the stem to capture the life-giving sun. In humans, this instinct is often complicated by memory and injury that perversely prompt us to wilt and die or grow into deeper darkness. We turn away from those who are best equipped to help us and toward those who will hurt us. One of the virtues of realistic appraisal is that it enables us to detect danger and shield ourselves from it while ceaselessly seeking sources of true nourishment and nurturance.

Learning to fly

Dare to care. Broaden your circle of concern and compassion. We may think that with all the problems on our plate we have no time in our days or room in our heart to focus on the problems of others. Or we may believe that our circle of concern and responsibility begins and ends with our immediate circle of friends and family. There’s something to be said for focusing on what and whom you can directly affect. That alone can threaten to overwhelm us, especially if we already feel overburdened within ourselves. And certainly the world is full of woe, or so the disaster-driven media would have us believe. The daily deluge of grim tidings seems to be specially designed to make us turn away in despair and disgust. We are rightly repelled by the inequities and iniquities of politics and psychic survival requires that we shield ourselves from its toxicity. But there’s an entire – and much larger – panorama of positive human behavior, some of it downright heroic, that is seldom noted or documented in our media and that is altogether worthy of our attention. And insofar as we take in the tragic side of human existence, if we glean it from direct experience or trustworthy sources, it actually enlarges our capacity for compassion. Sometimes, even when we can do nothing to change a situation far distant from our own, witnessing the pain of others far less fortunate than ourselves puts our own struggles in perspective and relieves us of our preoccupation with our own troubles. In a paradoxical sense, caring about what’s happening to others beyond our small circle of family and friends gives us the breathing space our hearts need to more effectively care for our own.

Treat uncertainty as opportunity. Welcome surprise. Life’s sole certainty is change. This can become a source of great anxiety if we demand predictability but a source of interest and excitement if we choose to flow with rather than fight change. Certainly anxiety does nothing to forestall change. It only encumbers our ability to adapt to it. The difference between a good and a bad surprise is largely how we decide to respond to it. Bad things happen – auto accidents, divorces, unemployment, death, suicide and more. Nothing can prevent the pain of such loss, but the sooner we let it pass through our hearts the sooner we are free to receive new, more positive surprises. Opportunity is just a more positive way of perceiving uncertainty. By opening to its possibilities, we liberate our energies to make the best use of it. We learn to become nimble, flexible and adaptable in the manner of a surfer riding the rapidly shifting curl of a wave. Shifting our emotional energy towards the future from dreading to welcoming transforms what we see ahead of us and how we instinctively respond to it.

Village girls, Amazon River village, Peru

Cultivate curiosity and wonder. As kids, we’re naturally endowed with a naïve curiosity about nearly everything. It’s our first encounter with the world and all is strange and wondrous. Our senses are wide open to experience and we are thrilled by what we see, hear and feel. This innocent delight usually fades surprisingly soon, however, often as early as five or six years of age. Early-onset jadedness is the casualty of (among other things) pressures to pretend we know more than we do in order to stay cool with our friends and classmates. It’s a terrible shame, one of life’s great and avoidable losses, since feigned sophistication deprives us of the myriad emotional and sensory delights of wide-eyed wonder. Curiosity is a gift given at birth, usually discarded in early childhood, and not regained again without deliberate cultivation. Witnessing the world again with wonder requires a willingness to break free of society’s suppression of childlike expressions of pure exuberance. Regaining curiosity requires the courage to defy outward social pressures and inward fears. But the rewards far outweigh the risks.

Amazon outback, Peru

Live life adventurously. Take well-calculated risks. Life is inherently risky. No matter how we choose to live, we die; life couldn’t get much more risky than that. We may button ourselves down or seal ourselves in to avoid the unpredictable, but it will find its way inside our shell, and it will be all the more disturbing if we’ve done all we can to keep it out. On the other hand, taking careless risks like a teen careening down the highway deluded by a false sense of invincibility is an invitation to disaster. But there’s a broad path between these extremes, a playground where we’re free to experiment without doing any great harm. Here we can meet and move through our fears of falling and failing in the safety of small stakes, breathing in the exhilaration of freedom to and freedom from. We can grow our confidence in ourselves and a world that for all its hazards is a place ripe for exploration and discovery.

Bougainvillea, Telegraph Hill, San Francisco

Pursue meaning and purpose, however you choose to define them. We humans are a meaning-seeking species. For our psychic survival, we need purpose as surely as we need food. Those without a clear sense of why they are alive or who deny any larger purpose to their existence often feel that life is a cruel joke, a life sentence ending in a death sentence. Lacking the capacity to believe in any larger structure of meaning even of their own making, they are cast into a hell realm of anomie and alienation. Family, work, religion, service, avocations, and other pre-existing institutions or belief structures help the majority of people find meaning and purpose in their lives and along with them a community of like-minded believers. But even for those who don’t inherit a faith or practice, seeking meaning and purpose can become a lifelong quest. And depending on one’s attitude, this quest can be either fruitless and despairing or profoundly fulfilling.

Give before getting. You may believe you need more than you have to give, but giving our time and attention to others is often the most direct route to feeling better about ourselves. Taking our minds off ourselves and placing our focus on another’s story gives us a much-needed breather. The brooding anxieties that addle our brain as we attempt to puzzle through our predicament through sheer force of will are given a rest as we apply a more dispassionate reasoning – or simply a helping hand – to another equally deserving individual. Scientific research confirms abundant anecdotal evidence that giving quality time and attention to others is one of the most effective ways of relieving anxiety and breaking out of our often obsessive focus on ourselves.

Change your story about yourself. See yourself not as a victim but as the prime mover in your own life, director of your own movie, master of your destiny. What we tell ourselves about ourselves – who we are and expect to become, how we interpret events and our ability to influence them – does much to determine what we do and what actually happens to us. Resilience researchers call this our “explanatory style,” and say we can change our story by conscious re-patterning from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism.”

Savor and cherish. To savor requires slowing down and paying attention in ways one seldom does after the first taste of an experience. It means hitting the refresh button moment after moment, to see the world anew. In a global culture driven by velocity for its own sake, we frantically search for new experience that in actuality we can only find when we cease moving and come to rest in place. To cherish is to love twice, in both the presence of whom or what we love and in their absence – not just in memory but in heartfelt appreciation for their being in our life.

Embrace life and love but don’t hold on to anything or anyone. “Kiss the joy as it flies,” wrote the poet William Blake. As with a skittish butterfly, the act of grasping at it either crushes or startles it into fleeing. Open your hand and be still and it will land and leave in its own time. Attempting to hold onto the people or feelings you love most drives them away. Only when they know they’re free do they freely come toward you and linger there.

Sculpture, Albany Bulb, Albany, California

Honor the gift of necessity. Learn to enjoy what you must do, like earn a living, cook your meals, clean your home and wash your laundry. This work and these chores give structure to your life and give you a reason to get up in the morning. Those few who by virtue of personal wealth or position are free of such necessities often find it hard to figure out what to do with their time and feel estranged from the great majority who must do it all themselves. They may also struggle with never knowing what they’re capable of since they’ve never been tested by necessity. Give equal attention to those things you must do as to those you’d like to do. The more attentive you are to them the more you’ll get from them in insight and satisfaction.

Cultivate appreciation for the present rather than hope for the future. Hope is a thin reed on which to base your well-being. Better to establish a firm footing in the present and stand with confidence on that foundation than to wish for something better in an imaginary future. The future has no reality until it becomes the present. “Now” in all its gritty, inescapable actuality is the only material we have to work with, and all we need to fashion a life if we fully apply the tools of our intelligence, ingenuity, and attention. Confidence is born of practicing with those tools, making every kind of mistake along the way to learning how to use them well.

Dancing couple, Costa Brava, Spain

Keep growing your heart and mind all the way to your dying day. New brain research finds that at any age, an active, open, questing mind is capable of growing new neural pathways, breaking free of obsolete habits of mind and charting new directions. Likewise, a heart open wide enough to release suffering and embrace joy grows ever younger with age. The only path to eternal youth is to grow an ever more open mind and heart.