Think for a moment what has pushed you off balance recently? The attacks in London and Paris? The lingering effects of the U.S. election? News about the ongoing impact of climate change? Some trouble your child is experiencing? From one perspective, the stories about these things are simple statements of facts but at the same time they had a profound impact on you emotionally. They pushed you not just out of your comfort zone but off balance to the degree you feel it physically. In moments like how do you react? It might be by swearing, catching your breath or sitting down. Those are signs that your rhythm and balance are being challenged. Another and potentially more important question is how do you respond? If you find yourself lingering in confusion or feeling out of sorts it is because you haven’t yet been able to bounce back to your place of balance. That skill is called resilience and the good news is that we can develop it through understanding and practice but if we want to develop it, we need to be clear what it is.
Without a specific definition, we might inadvertently think it is the same as flexibility or agility and while the three have aspects in common, they are distinct. Unlike flexibility, resilience literally means “to bounce back” and has a specific direction. It might be closer to agility but agility means “to be quick or nimble”. It also lacks a direction but if you think about bouncing back there must be a place you are bouncing back to and a reason you are not there to begin with.
As we talk about the three domains that constitute each of us, we can see that resilience can be thought of physically as an aspect of the body, linguistically or emotionally. In the body, the place we are returning is center or balance. We need resilience when we have been pushed off balance by a physical blow or push or it could be our body’s reaction to news or an emotion. Linguistically, resilience allows us to return to a balanced place of thought. We could call it a mental center from which we can consider various possibilities. If we receive news of impending difficulties, it allows us to think of alternatives rather than remaining stuck in our first interpretation.
Emotionally, resilience allows us to move back to the center of emotions which is acceptance. Acceptance means “I acknowledge things are the way they are”. It does not mean I like them, endorse them or want them to be that way but only that I understand the situation as it is. In acceptance, we are free from resentment (the story that “it shouldn’t be this way” or “this isn’t fair”) and from resignation (“nothing I do will make any difference so why try?”). It gives us access to the emotions that move us forward such as ambition, enthusiasm, hope. We tend to confuse acceptance with “knuckling under” or “going along with it” and so don’t pay much attention to it but active acceptance is a powerful emotion and one we will need to become resilient. But like all emotions, we have the opportunity to understand it better, befriend it and employ it as a tool.
Using these ideas, one can view resilience as a skill and something to practice if we want to build it as a competence. We can exercise in ways that increase our ease at balancing physically, we can practice quieting the mind and we can strengthen our emotional resilience through acceptance.