I obsess about people. I was born with what my granny called her “what makes people tick?” gene – why does someone think, feel, or act how they do? In my younger years I repeated what people said on TV, moved my face and body exactly as they did, in the hopes that their experience would magically transmit into me. I acted in plays, determined to embody my characters down to their very thoughts.
My need to understand I believe came from a need to feel a visceral part of this tribe we call humanity. Curiosity, to me, became a reverent practice of empathy – first toward others and eventually toward myself.
Scientifically, “resilience” is understudied, despite centuries of philosophers pondering the strength of human spirit. Resilience is hard to study because it is hard to quantify. What does it mean to say that a person is resilient?
What Does it Mean to Be Resilient?
This is a question I have found myself repeating. I founded the non-profit Feet on the Ground in 2016 with another YTU teacher Samara Andrade. We both worked with trauma-exposed populations and desired to better educate yoga professionals on the implications of trauma in the body.
With our background in international work, we also had a common drive to reshape the way peace-builders think about psycho-social support in conflict-affected communities. With these goals in mind, we began teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga Trainings and leading workshops for peace-builders about the physiology of trauma & yoga-inspired practices for trauma healing.
Three years later, we are running our first research series to test the efficacy of our methodology in building resilience and reducing trauma symptoms. To develop the series, we could no longer avoid answering the question – how do you measure resilience?
We’ve looked into it, and it turns out that Very Intelligent Folks who study resilience can’t even agree on what it is! Some believe resilience is when a person is little-affected by difficult situations. Others quantify resilience by how quickly a person is able to recover. Still others study “how hard” a person feels it is to bounce back, in a general way.
So one problem we have in the resilience community is that we are all thinking about it differently. Layer on top the difficulty in quantitatively measuring the above definitions, and you start to get an idea of why it is such an esoteric question.
What Neuroscience Adds to the Resilience Conversation
The magic of neuroscience is that in just the last 10 years we have learned so much about the brain and the way it controls how we think, feel, move, and act. The first time I got my hands on a neuroscience article I felt like I was eight again, in my basement singing with Julie Andrews, except this time she turns to me and tells me exactly why she thinks a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!
In neuroscience, I found the answers to so many of my old whys. We can see now, for example, an fMRI scan of someone’s brain activity while they are moving through a stress response. We know better than ever the areas of the brain that control our body’s emergency response system, that detect safety and danger, that process grief or fear.
We know too how these areas develop and change in response to how we were raised, how we are treated, and so much more. Unlike Descartes, we don’t have to sit around pondering mind-body dualism. His theory is rubbish and now we can prove it!
I think of resilience as a person’s ability to weather the rise and falls of their body’s response to the world around them. Our bodies are actually born with an innate capacity for resilience. We are born to move through stress, grief, fear, each at our own pace and in our own way. Resilience is something we all have the capacity for, but also something that has to be fostered.
The Role of Compassion in Resilience
In my work, I have found that the key to fostering resilience is compassion, and the key to compassion is education. Many of us are taught to feel ashamed of our natural response to difficult situations.
Sadness, anger, or fear are seen as the opposite of strength and resilience. In fact, I have experienced that the ability to acknowledge and move through these “less than ideal” emotions is itself resilience.
In our surveys, we ask participants if they are able to feel compassion for themselves when experiencing difficulty. In this way, we observe a person’s ability to feel self-compassion in difficult times as an indicator of resilience, but we can also teach students to cultivate resilience by consciously practicing compassion.
Intentional compassion is largely missing in the fitness community, and I don’t think it’s because people aren’t trying to practice it. I believe it’s because everyone has an 8-year-old Emily inside them with the need to understand why.
We have an innate desire to know ourselves, and it is almost impossible to cultivate self-compassion when “how we are” contradicts what we or society think “we should be”. Therefore I believe that the deepest root of compassion, and therefore resilience, is knowledge.
How Knowledge Shapes Resilience
Resilience is something you can build, one why at a time, one breath at a time.
I know this in my bones. While I have worked in trauma-affected communities for several years, I did not discover this magic sauce until I began incorporating neuroscience education into my teaching.
The feeling in the room is palpable, when someone hears for the first time an answer to their why that is not their own mind saying “because I’m broken.” When you offer a student an answer to their why, you open a gateway to compassion. You offer them the possibility that there is in fact nothing wrong with them.
This is because a fact is not an opinion, so it is not subject to the same scrutiny to which our judgemental minds default. I have seen remarkable change in refugees, survivors of assault, and even everyday humans who come to my studio classes, when I teach them why, scientifically, it is practical to be self-compassionate.
You create your own recipe for resilience, using the building blocks inside you. You do it by integrating compassionate knowledge into your study of yourself and your teaching to others.
Because of this, I hesitate to offer any single practice as one that “builds resilience.” What I can offer is my favorite version of the well-known (and well-studied) Loving Kindness Meditation.
Among other things, this meditation has been shown to increase activity in the insula, the part of the brain responsible for processing empathy toward yourself and others. By itself this meditation cannot do much – but integrated into a widespread effort to cultivate self-compassion, it may just help you give your body the space it needs to regulate against all odds.
Loving Kindness Meditation:
Find a way to sit or lay comfortably. After allowing your body time to settle in, consider these phrases as aspirations (not necessarily how you already feel). Repeat them to yourself, either out loud or in your mind:
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be safe
May I live a life of ease.
Now imagine someone you care for, picture them in your mind and repeat:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you live a life of ease
Call to mind someone you have a slightly challenging relationship with. It is important not to choose your archnemesis! (Maybe an in-law or someone who cut you in line?)
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you live a life of ease
Finally, call to mind humanity as a whole. If this is challenging you can think about your own community, whatever that means to you.
May we be happy
May we be healthy
May we be safe
May we live a life of ease
Notice any physical sensations that may be present inside you, and think of one thing about yourself for which you are grateful. Hold this feeling close to your heart as you take a few breaths, just being with yourself.
Related Article: Melanie Burns on Teaching in Prisons
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