Resilience is Not a Luxury: It is Critical to Our Survival
By Fleet Maull
During these times of great uncertainty and anxiety, I believe we need to begin a serious conversation about resilience. Resilience is simply no longer a luxury. It's becoming essential and even critical to our very survival… in much the same way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a global voice for peace and nonviolence, has said that compassion is not a luxury, that it's actually critical to our very survival in the highly complex, interdependent world in which we live today.
I would say that resilience is even more foundational, because in order for us to respond with our innate capacity for compassion, kindness, and altruistic behaviors, we need to be in a resilient place. It really depends on our moment-to-moment levels and reservoirs of resilience. When we're not resilient, we will often find ourselves getting triggered into fear and survival-based behaviors rather than being able to access our best self – our more compassionate, kind, altruistic self. However, by focusing on cultivating greater physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resilience, we can not only survive, but learn to thrive in the face of adversity. As leaders, we need to model this and maintain our ability to act in a responsive-relational rather than reactive-survival mode. At this time more than ever, we need resilient leaders able to inspire everyone’s confidence in their ability to face adversity and especially our ability to do so together.
We are in the midst of the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have infected one-third of the world’s population at the time and killed more than 50 million people. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. As of this writing (March 17), the virus has spread to at least 140 countries, infecting more than 197,298 people and killing more than 7,950 worldwide. The U.S. declared a national emergency in response to the pandemic on Friday, March 13, as coronavirus cases and the death toll continues to rise in the U.S. with 5,988 verified cases and 100 deaths spread across 49 states, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
We are living in extremely challenging times, to say the very least, and we are all experiencing anxiety and fear to one degree or another with the threat-monitoring mechanisms of our nervous systems on high alert. Just hearing or reading the words coronavirus or COVID-19 likely triggers our amygdala, the warning bells in our brain’s limbic complex, that alert our brain and nervous system to any kind of threat, initiating the fight or flight response. Whether we realize it or not, our neurobiological systems, which have not evolved all that much from the age of large predators, are in full threat alert mode assuming the worst, imagining a saber tooth tiger at the mouth of the cave. Since first priority for any species is survival, our brain has evolved to pay much more attention to threats of any kind than any other experiences, a phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Our memory faculty is designed to remember threatening and other negative experiences with considerable clarity and detail and to store such experiences automatically in long term memory. Positive experiences, on the other hand, do not stimulate robust memory activation and are not stored in long term memory unless held in short term memory, a different set of neural networks, for a period of 12 to 20 seconds. Thus, as Dr. Rick Hanson has stated, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” This results in an implicit memory (expectations, beliefs, default strategies) that spins our perceptions and assumptions to the negative.
This is all occurring in a social-cultural environment where most of us have been living with insufficiently managed high levels of stress and even chronic stress to one degree or another resulting from the inescapable stressors of modern, urban living. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard medical researcher coined the term relaxation response in the late 1970s pointing to an ability to self-regulate the nervous system’s threat response that we have unfortunately unlearned as modern humans. Fortunately, we have seen a tremendous upsurge in interest in various body-mind disciplines for relearning the relaxation response and better managing stress like mindfulness and yoga. Unfortunately, it is mostly the more privileged among us who have had access to learning these skills and large segments of our modern societies still lack information and methods for effective stress management.
Even among those of us fortunate enough to have embraced disciplines like meditation, yoga, tai chi and so on, the impact of this global COVID-19 pandemic is nonetheless incredibly stressful and anxiety provoking… how much more so for those less prepared to deal with not only uncertainty but a significant threat of illness and death for themselves and their loved ones. This current pandemic is revealing a lot of the fissures in our society, including those driven by privilege and lack of access to resources for the less privileged in our society. Hopefully, this will be a wakeup call inspiring all of us to exercise leadership in making the benefits of mindfulness more widely and equitably available in our society.
As leaders, we can prepare ourselves and others not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of these extreme challenges. What we are all going through together with the current global Covid-19 pandemic and the specter of an existentially threatening change emergency is potentially traumatic, to say the least. Confronted with these sources of traumatic distress, we can either allow ourselves and others to be traumatized or we can actually learn to thrive in the face of such adversity and boost or evolve our individual and collective functioning to a higher order of positive adaptation and thriving. It is up to each of us as mindful leaders to take responsibility for our own resilience, growth, and evolution and to support others in doing the same.
There are a lot of common sense things we can do to become more resilient, and they're all enhanced by mindfulness. I'm going to offer self-regulation practice and mindfulness-based resilience building exercise at the end of this article. Mindfulness practice by itself enhances our immune response and our overall physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resilience. For the past several decades, I’ve been exploring a deeply embodied approach to mindfulness practice activating our innate capacity for interoception or interoceptive awareness, the body’s capacity to feel itself, so to speak from the inside out, which in my experience provides access both to new levels of grounding and a physiological basis for flow states. Increasing our interoceptive awareness enhances both emotion regulation and resilience.
Physical Resilience: We can increase our overall physical resilience by making improvements to our diet, exercise routines, hydration, breathing (oxygen intake), and quality of sleep, as well as by avoiding or moderating the intake of substances like sugar, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, etc. Many of us, in fact, do not drink nearly enough water or breathe properly. We can bring mindfulness to bear on each of these dimensions of physical fitness and resilience by making mindful choices and also by increasing the beneficial impact of the activities themselves… mindful eating, mindful exercise, mindful breathing and so on.
Mental Resilience: To enhance our mental fitness and resilience, we need to challenge ourselves mentally. Learning a new language or doing crossword puzzles and other cognitively challenging games are classic examples of activities that enhance mental fitness. Mindfulness practice itself has demonstrated very significant benefits in terms of cognitive health.
Emotional Resilience: Increasing our emotional fitness and resilience has much to do with the quality of our relationships and our ability and willingness to experience and share our emotions in healthy ways. The relationship between mindfulness, emotion regulation, emotional balance and emotional intelligence (EI) is very well established and the embodied approach to mindfulness practice I’m recommending further enhances both interoceptive awareness and emotion regulation as mentioned above. The practice of mindful listening is perhaps one of the most foundation skills for high-quality relationships that support emotional resilience.
Spiritual Resilience: The spiritual dimension of our lives has to do with a felt sense of connectedness intra-personally (with ourselves), interpersonally (with others) and trans-personally (with a greater dimension that gives our lives meaning and purpose). It has to do with all the ways in which we create and maintain connection and meaning and purpose. Spiritual distress occurs when we begin to experience isolation and/or feelings of meaninglessness. Mindfulness practice directly enhances our capacity for creating meaning and experiencing connectedness. Practicing mindfulness with others, engaging with sangha or community directly supports connection, wellbeing, healing, and resilience in many ways.
Three Resilience Building Practices:
- Take a more embodied approach to your basic mindfulness of body and breathing practice, exploring your capacity for interoceptive awareness. The entire body is sensory, inside and out, from head to toe and all the way down to and including the bones. Exploring this inner landscape of physical sensation and energy flow will more deeply anchor your attention and practice in nowness while also enhancing your overall wellbeing and resilience.
- Try straw breathing, a simple self-regulation breathing practice that directly engages the relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. You can use this practice anytime, anywhere. I use it continually during travel, work, and teaching. You can do it with or without the straw. Here’s how you can do it anywhere without a straw. You can do this practice in any posture with your eyes open or closed. Begin by establishing a felt sense of embodied presence, connecting interoceptively with your body and breathing. Then begin inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips as if exhaling through a straw or somewhat like whistling… in through the nose, out through pursed lips (or through an actual straw if you like). Then begin counting along with your breathing in this pattern to assure that your exhale is longer than your inhale, ideally twice as long… in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Keep it comfortable. The idea is to relax. You could be breathing in a 3, 4 or 5 count and out a 6, 7, or 8 count; whatever works well for you. Continue for several minutes until you feel the relaxation response shifting your physiological, mental and emotional state to a more calm, centered and balanced state. If you ever feel any discomfort, dizziness or disorientation with this or any other breath regulation exercises, stop immediately and let your breath return to normal.
- Try the Safe, Resourced and Connected exercise that I adapted with permission from my friend Dr. Rick Hanson’s work. Begin by taking a few minutes to establish a felt sense of embodied presence, connecting interoceptively with your body and breathing through basic mindfulness of body and breathing practice. When you are ready, with this embodied presence as the foundation, engage in these three contemplations in a progression as they are ordered, repeating the following statements to yourself repeatedly long enough to actually feel the described qualities within your mind-body system.
- Right here, right now, I’m safe. Right here, right now, I’m safe (physically and emotionally safe). Right here right now, I’m safe, I’m okay.
- Right here, right now, I’m resourced (my basic needs are met). Right here, right now, I’m resourced. Right here, right now, I’m resourced… safe and resourced.
- Right here, right now, I’m connected (bring to mind your loved ones, close friends, team members and feel your connection with them). Right here, right now, I’m connected (I have people in my life, people who have my back). Right here, right now, I’m connected (part of an interdependent web of caring human beings).
Continue the practice as long as you like, breathing these qualities into your body and nervous system, such that you allow yourself a moment of actually feeling “safe, resourced and connected.” Even 30 seconds on each, will begin countering the negative bias and reconditioning your implicit memory in a positive direction.
Fleet Maull, PhD, CMT-P is an author, meditation teacher, executive coach and social entrepreneur who works at the intersection of personal and social transformation. He founded Prison Mindfulness Institute and Windhorse Seminars and co-founded of the Engaged Mindfulness Institute and Upaya Chaplaincy Training. He is an acharya (senior Dharma teacher) in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and a roshi (Zen master) in the Zen Peacemaker Order. Acharya Maull is the author of Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good and Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull. He specializes in mindfulness-based resiliency training with business and nonprofit leaders, prisoners, correctional officers and other public safety professionals and training mindfulness teachers in trauma-sensitive approaches to sharing the practice and facilitating mindfulness-based interventions.