In the late autumn of 2001 as I watched my former wife, Wanda, die of cancer, I felt so heartbroken that I was going to lose her and so helpless to bring her back from the grave toward which she was slowly slipping, that I was becoming undone. And by undone I mean that I felt my life falling apart—my idea of who I thought I was, of life going on and on without any serious trouble afflicting me or those I loved, or of what I thought I could cope with when it came to someone near and dear to me dying.
There’s an old Buddhist story that depicts utter helplessness as an armless woman watching her child get swept downstream. As Wanda was dying, there were many times when I felt like that woman. Turns out, though, that I coped a lot better than I thought I would or could. I am not boasting; I am actually quite surprised.
I think we are all stronger than we think we are. We are more capable of dealing with afflictions and difficulties than we might imagine, even if we often don’t find this inner strength until we are tested.
Yet there are things we can do and learn before we meet serious troubles head-on, and I believe I had been slowly and silently learning these things in the years before Wanda died so that, when she did die, I was as prepared as I could have been for such a shattering event.
I didn’t have a name for this inner strength until about a year ago when I started to read some magazine articles and books about one word: resilience. And the more I read about it from such researchers and authors as Rick Hanson, Daniel Siegel, and Linda Graham, the more I thought about my experience and how it came to me, from the inside. I became more and more curious about resilience. I wanted to find out what it was and to retrace my steps to find out how I had learned it.
Resilience is the capacity to cope with and rebound from adversity. It is a skill that can be mastered no matter how old you are, no matter what your circumstances. Like any skill, it takes knowledge and practice. And the more you know and practice, the more resilient you become.
Painful experiences, as with pleasurable experiences, come and go. But if you are resilient you can maintain a level head and a sense of equanimity every day of your life. The Buddha is believed to have said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Resilience is about getting up that eighth time—time after time.
Ancient Buddhist teachings about mindfulness meditation have a lot to say about resilience. I learned that they are backed up by the emerging science of neuroplasticity, which is confirming the lifelong capacity of the brain to create new neural pathways to change old habits and conditioned reflexes. We can actually rewire our brains, so to speak, so we can better respond to both the everyday and the bigger challenges in our lives.
I learned too that the map to a resilient life is prefigured with us. We just need to figure it out. And figuring it out is an inside job because on the map to a resilient life, research shows, all roads lead to the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain just above the eyes. It is in the prefrontal cortex where the higher human qualities are developed and processed—empathy, self-awareness, intuition, morality. The prefrontal cortex manages information coming from other parts of the brain, including the lower brain and its automatic survival “fight or flight” response systems.
I also found that resilience is important not just to deal with major challenges in our lives—divorce, the death of a family member or friend, losing our job, being the victim of a crime or abuse—but also everyday life itself. This past summer Zen Buddhist and psychiatrist Mark Epstein wrote an article in TheNew York Times titled “The Trauma of Being Alive,”based on his new book The Trauma of Everyday Life. He observed: “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence.”
Life is difficult, that much we know. We can speculate on whether it is more difficult now than in years past or whether our life is more difficult than someone else’s. But if we are to manage our own life difficulties today, I’ve found that there is perhaps no more important human endeavor than to develop resilience.
My online course on resilience for SpiritualityandPractice.com will walk through the steps on the path to resilience. “Mastering the Art of Resilience with James Kullander” will be delivered by email and will have an online Practice Circle for discussion. It starts November 4 and runs through November 29.
This e-course offers a rich combination of the timeless wisdom of spiritual and philosophical sages down through the ages, contemplative practices, and the insights of contemporary experts in analytical and positive psychology. I speak from my own experience and also offer anecdotes from others describing times in which they discovered within themselves untapped sources of resilience. I’ll be giving you some simple practical tools for developing resilience in a wide variety of situations. My intention is to show you how our suffering can give us meaning and lead us toward transformation. I invite you to join me.
Sign up for “Mastering the Art of Resilience with James Kullander” here.