Undeniably, sooner or later, we all have to deal with life’s realities — those hard surprises and “unknowns” that can literally change everything in less than a nanosecond.
Imagine you’ve just been fired. Many of us would react to this situation in at least some of the following ways:
“I should have seen this coming.”
“I’ll never find another job in this economy.”
“Am I going to be homeless?”
“I’m a failure.”
Reactions like these reflect a fear-based survival framework for viewing the situation: We filter the external facts through the internal lens of thoughts, feelings, beliefs and body sensations. In this way, our fear creates our reality, locking us in anger, powerlessness, and blame.
Recontextualizing and Reframing
People are not afraid of things, but of how they view them. — Epictetus
It’s understandable why we might react from fear when facing challenging situations. Mindfulness, however, is a powerful tool that offers the opportunity to make a radical shift in orientation.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our awareness to what we are experiencing in the present, both internally and externally, without judgment (Kornfield, 2009). It is a wakeup call to become conscious of the ways we perceive and respond to life’s situations.
Here’s a traditional, easy-to-follow mindfulness exercise (Klau, 2009). Mindfulness takes time to develop. It is an ongoing process. Be kind and compassionate to yourself as you follow these instructions.
- Sit in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed.
- Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
- It’s natural for your attention to become distracted. When that happens, simply return to your breath.
- While focusing on your breath, allow your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and body sensations to enter your awareness as you perceive the external situation.
- Now ask yourself: What are the facts of the situation? What are my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and body sensations? How am I responding?
With practice, this exercise can bring us to our calm, reflective center. This safe haven, in which we can rest and see more clearly, holds and contains everything arising for us in the present. From here, it is possible to deconstruct, recontextualize and reframe our original fear-based feelings and reactions, honoring and embracing them without being their victims. (This discussion shares much in common with neuroscientist and clinician Dan Siegel’s work on the concepts of “differentiation” and “integration,” which he views as the key to well-being.)
For example, let’s return to the original situation, where you’ve just lost your job. Rather than automatically reacting with fear, mindfulness helps you realize and accept: “The only fact about this situation is that I don’t have my job right now. Everything else— my self-judgment, my fear, my blame, my anger, and the tightness in my body— is my feelings.”
We don’t have to meditate to practice being mindful. There are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives. As we become increasingly mindful, we can begin to respond from a place of freedom and choice.
In other words, we can act with resilience.
Mindfulness and Resilience
As we become more mindful, we broaden and build several inner resources that help us strengthen our resilience (Fredrickson, 2001). These include:
- Compassion. You hold the intention not to judge yourself or others. You are mindful of your self-talk. However, if you do judge yourself, you don’t judge yourself for judging. You are kinder and more supportive. If mindfulness brings the wisdom to see clearly, then compassion brings a loving heart (Neff, 2011).
- Acceptance. You increasingly accept the facts, which you can distinguish from feelings. Acceptance isn’t about giving up. It is having the strength to let go of control and stop fighting reality.
- Openness. You’re progressively open to viewing even the most difficult situations as opportunities for growth. You trust that they have something to teach you, and you expect to learn.
- Creativity. You draw on your power to visualize and create the results you desire. At the same time, in the spirit of acceptance, you are not attached or fixated upon your own expectations.
Living resiliently is more than just “bouncing back.” It is about shifting our perceptions, changing our responses, and learning something new. For example, a resilient response to losing our job might recontextualize and reframe the situation in any of the following ways:
“I’m going to breathe deeply and take things one step at a time.”
“I may not like it, but this is the way it is. My first step will be to file for unemployment.”
“I’m not going to play ‘the blame game.’ It’s not my boss’s fault or mine.”
“I’m sure that there’s a lesson or two for me to learn from all this.”
“It would be easy to get ‘just another job.’ I’m going to find one that I’m truly passionate about.”
Living resiliently represents a whole new way of being and doing. It isn’t just for the hard times — it’s for all times. Empowering us to live, love, and work adventurously in the face of change, it builds a well from which we can draw for the rest of our lives.