Often, we think of resilience as a character trait: “Phumi is a resilient person; Sarah is not.” But that’s not actually quite right. It’s more accurate to think of resilience as a process — one that protects a person’s long-term wellbeing or helps them to bounce back quickly from a crisis.
Typically, when we find ourselves in a challenging situation, there are three ways we might respond. We might act out, which is to blame external circumstances for the problem (perhaps by exploding with anger). We might act in, which is to take all the blame on ourselves (perhaps by imploding with negative emotions). Or we might simply become upset.
Which of these is a resilient process?
It might surprise you to read that only the third response is a resilient process. Simply becoming upset lays the foundation for a change in behaviour and coping with the issue. The other two responses don’t do that because they misidentify the cause of the problem. Neither we ourselves, nor external circumstances, are wholly to blame for any adverse situation. Exploding with anger or imploding with self-blame are both ways of avoiding our uncomfortable feelings by instinctively reaching for an explanation that feels satisfying, no matter how wrong it might be.
So if we want to learn to have resilient responses when we’re faced with adverse situations, we need to learn to simply feel our feelings (of upset, confusion or doubt) without — in the words of the Romantic poet John Keats — “any irritable reaching after fact or reason.”
Don’t misunderstand this as a suggestion that we should be passive. We definitely should act, by responding in a way that promotes our long-term wellbeing or brings a halt to a current crisis. But we can only do that if we have a clear understanding of how we feel in the first place. Otherwise, we’re just flailing in the dark, which often does more harm than good.
So then: how is our ability to experience our own feelings without trying to suppress them or escape them? How easy do you find it to sit still and simply be with the way you feel, right now? Give it a try.
This is where something called mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is a specific kind of attention: relaxed, present-centered, non-judgmental and nonconceptual. “Relaxed” means mindful attention is not uptight or tense, but spacious and at ease. “Present-centered” means mindful attention is not concerned with the past or the future, but only with this moment. “Non-judgmental” means mindful attention is not evaluating experience as being good or bad, worth clinging to or worth pushing away; it is equanimous to this moment’s experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. “Non-conceptual” means that mindful attention does not analyse or discursively explore an experience; it simply attends to the experience as it is. Colloquially, mindfulness is “knowing what is happening while it’s happening.” And deliberate training in this way of attending is known as mindfulness meditation.
The crucial part of mindfulness — and the way it promotes resilience — is the “non-judgmental” part. In mindfulness meditation, we experience negative emotions, troubling thoughts, or painful sensations, and instead of pushing them away we practice allowing them to be there and pass on their own. When we encounter positive emotions, gratifying thoughts or pleasant sensations, instead of clinging to them we practice allowing them to be there and pass on their own. In this way, we conduct a mild form of exposure therapy, gradually training our capacity to hold a range of experience without giving in to our habitual reflex of clinging or rejecting. Then, when we encounter challenging situations, we are better equipped to respond instead of having to react in a non-resilient way.
Scientists and doctors have been really interested in mindfulness for a few decades now. There’s a pretty big research base suggesting it’s very helpful for reducing stress — and a whole range of other benefits. Mindfulness is something we all have (if you’re not aware of what’s happening right now, you’re probably not reading this) and it’s something we can cultivate.
The author of this piece offers mindful resilience workshops for tertiary students, equipping them with tools and practices that create and develop long-term resilience. If that sounds interesting, drop a comment on this post or get in touch with your contact person at Career Wise.
And if you want to give it a try, click this link to download an audio file of a ten-minute guided mindfulness meditation.