Scrubbing the shower stall this morning, I bring my attention to the lines of grout, making my way square by tiny square. These days, my thoughts slip too easily into a repeating loop: work tasks, family concerns, my community, my relationships; losses, and fear. So, this morning, I clean with the intent to pay attention. My cleaning is no act of reverence; no amount of work will make this particular shower beautiful. But simply cleaning today is as good a practice as I know to bring me down to earth. Other days, I leave the house for the woods, desperate, it seems, for exertion on these rocky trails, finding calm in my hard steady breaths as I climb. In both activities, I am feeding my resilience, my ability to live and, in fleeting moments, to even thrive.
Resilience is the mainspring to well-being. Having resilience allows us to tap into tested capacity for overcoming, moving through, or adapting effectively to challenges. As Sharon Salzberg writes in her new book, Real Change, Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, “Resilience is something that accretes over time as we develop a habit of courageously responding to or being with pain without freaking out.” It is true, as well, that personal resilience, even faithfully tended to, is hard to sustain outside of a sense of belonging and mattering in a community. I am deeply grateful for the people in my life who remind me that I matter. In turn, my resilience takes on meaning when I can extend what I am trying to provide to myself—less judgment or a measure of compassion—to others. A friend who lives by herself in a part of her city with violence all around her tells me that she doesn’t feel alone, despite her fears and pandemic-driven isolation, because of her community of neighbors. She visits with them in the backyard; she talks with them on her walks; they shop for one another; she and they together are stronger.
All that has been learned about resilience tells us that it can be cultivated through intentional action by anyone, even those endowed with a less than optimistic outlook. And, yet, promoting a focus on personal growth in this moment feels oddly uncomfortable. I find myself wrestling with a sense of urgency, to remind colleagues (and myself) to breathe; to notice what is good and to savor it; to find themselves in their bodies and treat them well; and to use strategies for avoiding personal “rabbit holes” of negativity. At the same time, the press of the current sociopolitical environment, extreme climate distress, and daily confrontation with lives threatened and lost due to virus, bias, and ancient structural barriers looms larger and larger. How in the world does a focus on “self-care” matter in light of these realities?
It is common to believe that self-focus and self-care equate to selfishness. Too often, out of habit, deep-seated belief, overwhelm, and time urgency, we place attention on our own well-being last or ignore it altogether. And, clearly, a sole focus on the self, without deep regard for the responsibilities we share with others, can be destructive. But, we cannot give what we do not have. As parents, clinicians, teachers, activists, citizens, we are called on to think deeply, empathize with humility, offer sustenance, and pour energy into solutions. We need to figure out how to get the shopping done, monitor school, soothe feelings, recognize and foster growing autonomy, and get everyone to bed on time. We need to listen deeply, teach creatively, engage tens or thousands to work on causes, vote, bring food to others, call our relatives, and get to bed at some point. Having awareness of and a commitment to foster personal resilience is an avenue to become unstuck from habitual thinking and acting, to finding courage to “take one small step toward the unknown, toward acting without depending on an immediate result,” as Salzberg writes. Buoyed by resilience, we are more able to use our creativity to confront and work with problems without losing connection to ourselves or engagement with others.
These days, I stumble and struggle, then return to my resilience practices, humbled and with gratitude. I am reminded of the need to keep things simple, perhaps to strive for holding on with as much grace and forgiveness as I can muster rather than expecting tremendous growth. Mindful presence helps me quiet my mind, to slow my breathing, to focus just on what I am doing in this moment. I am better able to notice reality, especially when struggling internally with situations that evoke strong emotion. The unwieldy beliefs that contribute to my tension and anxiety are more easily revealed. When I remind myself of what is true right now, rather than what my emotions and creative wild mind are telling me is true, I feel free, lighter; a little joy seeps in the corners of what was so serious. I see what is good and find new possibilities.
I’ve come to rely on “everyday resilience” practices, those things that can be easily incorporated into daily life. I recognize that building resilience is not about what I do “on the side” of my life, when there is time. It is about awareness, attitude, and willingness to create small spaces for activities that renew, engage, and are grounding.
Even if you don’t have a formal meditation practice, everyday events offer endless opportunities to bring forth relief and clarity. In a break between Zoom meetings, after each homework assignment, or before rejoining the family after work, there are moments for short mindfulness practices. Used regularly, these create capacity for awareness of the moment and the ability to accept current experience without judgement. Simple mindfulness practices bring brief pauses in the rush of activity—to rest, to appreciate, and to mentally regroup. These mini breaks increase attention, produce calm, and protect against reactivity. In addition to mindful cleaning, some examples include:
- Martin Boroson’s one-moment meditation: Focusing on the breath with passing attention to thoughts, returning again and again to the breath when the mind wanders, gives a framework for learning to detach from the lure of distraction and to realize the power of starting anew, with self-compassion.
- Pema Chödrön’s practice of three conscious breaths: This practice creates a pause to fully concentrate on breathing for three full breaths, allowing them to wash through the body, releasing attention from thoughts and emotions.
- Mental noting, from Gil Frondsal: By privately naming or labeling thoughts that arise, we interrupt their ability to mindlessly distract. Mental noting allows awareness of patterns of thoughts, making room for choice of response over ingrained habit.
Anything that involves movement, connecting body with breath—and for me, with the air and elements of nature—is relaxing, energizing, and grounding. This might include
- Stretching for five or 10 minutes between calls or classes
- Being outside to feel the sun; walking around the yard or around the block
- Going out with the dog into the weather and feeling it, accepting it, even enjoying it rather than imbuing it with negative labels and thoughts about what is tolerable.
Maintaining social support, proven to increase resilience, also takes intentionality:
- Visits, in one form or another, can be scheduled and held to be as important as daily demands
- Texts offer random moments of levity and gracious support, both essential for resilience
- Establishing an accountability partner motivates action within a context of giving and taking encouragement.
The shower cleaned, I feel quiet satisfaction. I notice thoughts arise about having to do this again, over and over, and the attendant feelings of mild discouragement and annoyance. I let them go in favor of the current reality. We are pulled with great force toward the unknown future. Taking wise action, uncertain of outcomes, for our families, our students, our clients and communities, the country, and the world has to be done. It is easy to contrive stories laced with worry, conflict, helplessness, or failure. And some of them may come true. Also true is that in this moment, there is good to be found; strength and creativity to be tapped; useful action to be taken. Embodying our own resilience, breath by breath, points the way.
Elizabeth Whitney, MSW, LICSW, a 2015 graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology, is Associate Professor of Practice and Assistant Director of Field Education at Simmons University School of Social Work. Most recently, Elizabeth designed and led development of the SW@Simmons Field Education Lab, an innovative course using simulations with live actors in an online environment. Prior to joining the Simmons faculty, Elizabeth focused her career on integrating recovery-oriented practices into behavioral health services through design, implementation and leadership of innovative services; training and consultation; and development of tools and work processes to sustain changes in attitudes and practices. Her experience includes comprehensive clinical, psychiatric rehabilitation, and support services for adults with behavioral health issues.