At first glance, Mark’s life looks like a train wreck. His wife of 20 years died suddenly of complications from a chronic disease. Two of his three sons were recently diagnosed with learning disabilities, and the company he worked for, for the past three decades, laid him off (six years away from retirement) when it merged with another company. In a previous chapter in his life, Mark would have returned to a pattern of self-medication and addiction, but that was then. Now, he practices a lifestyle of resiliency skills; an alchemy he pieced together from counseling sessions, reading best selling self-help books, a regular meditation practice, cardiovascular exercise, attending a few personal growth workshops and the loyal attendance of his support group meetings. “To me, resiliency isn’t just bouncing back up from a fall (or series of falls, in my case). Resiliency is a new attitude and outlook on life. I used to feel sorry for myself when stressed reared its ugly head. It was easy to justify the addictive behavior of self-medication. But now I take the high road. I look to see what the lesson is to be learned. There is always a lesson. Every bad situation has a positive light. I am getting good at not seeing myself as a victim anymore, like I used to. Despite my challenges, I can honestly say I am a happy person now. To quote Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem Invictus, “I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul.”
Once a Victim, Twice a Volunteer
Contrary to the message of Invictous, victim consciousness (a perpetual ego-based negative attitude) is a common mindset across the country today. Moreover, it reaches toxic proportions when people become chronically stressed. For example, take the common practice of BMW (bitch, moan and whine), one all too prevalent in typical conversations from the water cooler chitchat to blog rants. Eavesdrop on any conversation today (including your own) and within the first five minutes, you are likely to hear people complaining (grieving) about something. While grieving is healthy, prolonged grieving is not, giving credence to the expression, “once a victim, and twice a volunteer.” A perpetual ego-based negative attitude sabotages the power of resiliency.
Change + Negative Perceptions = Stress
Why is there so much stress in the world today? Perhaps the best explanation is rapid change. At no time in the recorded history of humanity has there been so much change: the economy, global warming, technology, political frustration and social unrest, to name a few. By and large, people don’t like change, particularly the change they cannot control. While change has always been part of the human landscape, the amount and rate of change on today’s horizon is unprecedented and this has people on edge. Add to this any personal changes and the emotional scales become tipped in negativity. As the expression goes, “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” Remember, any stress that lasts longer than 20 minutes at some level is a control drama, directed and produced by the ego. All stress begs for resolution. Resiliency is the pathway toward resolution.
Stress goes by many different definitions (e.g., “wear and tear on the body”, “an inability to cope”, “the loss of emotional control”, or “an absence of inner peace”), but the one definition that most experts agree upon is this: Stress is a perceived threat (real or imagined) to our mind, body, spirit or emotions. The key word is “perceived,” because what one person might interpret as enjoyable, another person perceives as life-threatening. Mark Twain said it best this way, “I’m an old man now, and I have known a great many problems, most of which never happened.”
Experts suggest that the types of stress we encounter today are far different from our ancestors generations ago. By and large, their stressors were based on surviving physical threats (e.g., saber-toothed tigers, etc.). Our stressors today come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps some would say many appear to be that of financial survival. More specifically, our stressors today are ego-based. Despite the generational differences, the emotional responses to stress are the same: frustration, anger, anxiety, panic, etc.
From Stress to Spiritual Awakenings
Under the first signs of stress, in the role of bodyguard, the ego trips the “fight or flight” switch. This act of physical survival is essential for physical threats. However, most stressors are NOT of a physical nature. When the perceptions of stress become chronic, ego-based perceptions of self-preservation are paramount. As such the role of the ego shifts from bodyguard to CEO, a position it is neither suited or qualified for. Under this scenario of survival, a pattern of thoughts and emotions are turned inward. The result is selfish, if not arrogant, behavior.
At some point, in a moment of clarity, when the ego’s veils of illusion are lifted—even briefly, one begins to realize that we are a part of and connected to something much bigger than ourselves. Described as a Higher Power in Step #2 of AA, this acknowledgement turns one’s center of attention from oneself (ego) toward a higher power (whatever one conceives this to be). Spiritual awakenings come in many forms: profound appreciation of nature, bizarre coincidences, unexplainable phenomena, and answered prayers to name a few. Spiritual awakens occur when the power of the ego no longer eclipses the light of the soul.
Spiritual awakenings are often described as brief moments of an amazing realization of our divine connection to the cosmos. Often referred to as an “epiphany,” where a metaphorical light shines in the darkness of selfishness to reveal our true nature, our place in the universe. While the actual experience may be short lived, neither the experience nor the memory of it cannot be denied. This divine relationship underscores the realization that we must accept responsibility for our positive contribution to the whole, from our highest human potential. Neither apathy nor laziness serves the common good.
Currently, the practice of mindfulness is all the rage across North America, and for good reason. The practice of mindfulness (and most types of meditation) helps domesticate the ego; the continual stream of fear-based thoughts that sabotage our human potential and keep us mired in self-centered behaviors, many of which are linked to addiction. A regular practice of mindfulness establishes a strong foundation for spiritual awakenings occur to repeat themselves. Meditation is now recognized as an essential factor for resiliency. Current research reveals that taking time to recharge your personal energy is as important to maintaining one’s health and quality of life as eating and sleeping.
Positive Psychology 101
A few months after 13 people were killed in a senseless act of violence, I walked the halls of Columbine High School and noticed a poster with the phrase, “Attitude is the paint brush we color the world.” I was at Columbine High School to give a stress management workshop to the school’s district staff. Attitude plays a big role in coping with stress, as well as will power. After my presentation, one of the attendees thanked me for reminding her to reread one of her favorite books, Man Search For Meaning, by Victor Frankl. A survivor of the notorious Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Frankl taught the world a lesson. He stated, “Despite all the hardships life hands us, we have the ability to choose our own thoughts. Victim or victor, the choice is yours.”
Known as “the father of modern psychology”, Freud steered the direction of stress management toward relieving anxiety (fear). While this was a good start, it sent many people in a negative direction (down the path of pessimism). Thanks to the inspiration of people like Abraham Maslow and Martin Seligman, over the past 20 years psychology has made a shift in its direction, one toward the positive: “Positive Psychology.” The premise of positive psychology invites people to shift their mindset out of victim consciousness, toward appreciation and gratitude (be thankful for what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t have). The focus of positive psychology is to move from a motivation of fear (anxiety) toward a motivation of love (compassion). It is not a denial of one’s reality; rather it is a quest for emotional and spiritual balance (unaided by drugs, alcohol, or other addictive means for short term relief via long term destructive habits).
Mindfulness is a practice of living in the present moment (not the past which precipitates feelings of guilt or the future which triggers anxiety). Mindfulness is more than just observing your thoughts. It is a mental practice in which you learn to detach from the emotions and thoughts that trigger feelings of insecurity, anger, panic, impatience, and frustrations (experiences interpreted as stress). This is a skill. The more you practice the better you become at achieving a sense of inner peace.
The Three Bones of Resiliency
Resiliency means many things to many people and a quick Google search will reveal there is no shortage of opinions about what this term means. Experts in the field of positive psychology will cite that resiliency is a term that means to “bounce back” from adversity (STRESS!), to stay “buoyant” in the rough seas of life. Experts in the field of psychology have tried to establish specific criteria that constitutes a baseline for resiliency.
Conclusion: There is no one trait or collection of specific traits for everyone that embodies the ability to rise above the fray. A consensus from various experts and scholars suggests that resiliency includes (but is not limited to) the following attributes: persistence, will power, flexibility, endurance, and adaptation.
Shifting from the perspective of left brain data analysis to the right brain symbolic learning approach, I found that metaphors excel when words fail to explain the entre picture. A metaphor I have come to embrace on this topic goes like this. Resiliency is comprised of three bones: A Backbone, a Wishbone, and a Funny bone. A closer look at the metaphor reveals that the Backbone of resiliency includes courage, stamina, persistence, and will power. These attributes first come to mind when someone hears the word resiliency. The Wishbone is best symbolized by the attributes of faith, vision, imagination, creativity, and a meaningful purpose in life, which are also essential aspects needed to overcome any crisis. All the stamina and will power will in the world will only get you so far in life. More is needed to stay “above the fray.” While a sense of humor may seem intuitively obvious, the Funny Bone includes more than smiles and laughter. It also includes the ability to laugh at yourself (self-deprecating humor), the ability to see the big picture, and the desire to build, nurture, and sustain healthy relationships.
An Alchemy of Resiliency Skills
There is no one coping or relaxation technique for everyone, but there is ONE technique that works for each person. For Cindy it was nature therapy. Addictions come in all varieties. For Cindy, it was her addiction to technology. She could never be without her smart phone (she called it her “second brain”). To escape from the cacophony of the digital world and maintain a sense of sanity, Cindy has established a new routine and refers to it as “healthy boundaries.” Once a slave to technology, it now it serves her. Every day, Cindy makes a habit of disconnecting from the digital world and connecting with the natural world twice a day. Cindy starts each day with a pre-dawn walk at her local park. She loves to watch the color of the clouds change from purple to pink as the sun rises over the mountains. She takes delight in watching the herons, osprey, egrets, and pelicans start their forage for food. She says, “Nature has a wonderful way of putting all of one’s problems into perspective.” In this time away from the digital world, Cindy reclaims her personal sovereignty and all is right in the world.
Resources and References:
Achor, S. & Gielan, M., Resilience is about how you recharge, not how your endure. Harvard Business Review. June 24, 2016
Seaward, B.L., Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water, HCI, Deerfield Beach. 2007.
Seaward, B.L., Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward, Whole Person Books. 2013.
Seaward, B.L., The Road to Wellness. WELCOA. Omaha, NE. 2014.
Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water
To walk the human path is hard,
To stay put is not an option.
At times my head is filled with doubt,
Then I hear these words aloud,
Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water.
I walk each step in search of truth,
My quest brings both joy and sorrow.
Light and dark dance unified,
Yes! Balance is the key to life.
Again I hear these words aloud,
Stand like Mountain, Flow Like Water.
We come to earth to learn to love,
A lesson we must all master.
To know and serve the will of God
Is not a task for a chosen few.
We must east answer the call to love,
Stand like mountain, flow like water.
— Brian Luke Seaward