In science, resilience is the ability of a material to return to its original state.
It's different for people, though. When something happens to us, we're changed – however subtly. We become older and wiser. Or maybe we keep doing the same things over and over, expecting them to have different results and being disappointed each time.
A friend, who is a Buddhist teacher and therapist, defines resilience as the capacity to be at ease with things as they are. Which is not to say that things are always comfortable or always to our liking, only that we don't deny it or struggle with it or reject it. We find ease where we are.
In my mind, I keep relating it to buoyancy. We stop sinking and learn to float.
To be resilient requires an understanding (and acceptance) of impermanence; it requires non-attachment to those things that are not permanent – people, possessions, ideas, circumstances. It also requires an understanding of interdependence, or karma, the sense that everything is relative. This terrible, horrible, very bad day has causes and conditions, some under our control and others very much out of our control.
To be resilient sounds a lot like being enlightened. Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind, one that sees suffering as impersonal, as a fact of life, as an opportunity to open our hearts to others who also are suffering and, maybe, to find ways to ease their suffering (and ours).
Resilience also is a state of mind or a habit of thought, one that sees the circumstances that swamp some people as a step on the path, not the end of the path. Life goes on after life-altering events, but it goes on differently. The mind the recognizes that different is just different, not better or worse, not right or wrong, not fair or equal, is the one that returns more quickly to a place of ease.
"Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, we face a variety of obstacles that test our strength, our faith, our patience. Often, we watch, helplessly and hopelessly, as we become slaves to international corporations, slaves to our bosses, to our friends and family, to time. But we don't have to endure this bondage. We can set out on a path that allows us to reconnect with a tremendous inner potential for openness, warmth, and wisdom. Doing so, however, requires taking a fresh view of whatever circumstances we face, whether that involves chronic illness, childhood pain, relationship difficulties, or the loss of a job or home. Although the message I was taught was inspired by a man who lived 2,500 years ago, it remains as fresh today as it was back then."... Look at your life. Look at the ways in which you define who you are and what you're capable of achieving. Look at your goals. Look at the pressures applied by the people around you and the culture in which you were raised. Look again. And again. Keep looking until you realize, within your own experience, that you're so much more than who you believe you are. Keep looking until you discover the wondrous heart, the marvelous mind, that is the very basis of your being."
How do we do this?
We can start with the breath.
Breath is impermanent, impossible to hold on to for very long. It's impersonal – everybody does it – but it's interdependent. Smog, smoke, perfume, choices you make and that are made for you affect your breath. Impermanence. Non-attachment. Interdependence. Starting with the breath and moving out into the world.
Breath is one thing; life is many things. Maybe I can understand and accept that each breath is impermanent, is a wisp and a whirl of air. But my body? My house? My family and friends? Surely they have more substance.
The Buddha said, in the Prajnaparamita sutras,
So you should view this fleeting world --A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Can we really live that way?
What would that look like? How would it feel different from our current state?
Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes about experiencing a hurricane when she was living on the Rhode Island shore. The winds roared and the trees bent and cracked. Then the eye passed over, and within minutes things were calm before picking up again. Beck muses about what it's like to be a pilot caught in a hurricane, subject to the terrible stresses from the buffeting wind.
“From birth to death, we're caught in this swirling of winds, which is really what life is: an enormous energy moving and changing. … There is this enormously powerful thing we call our life, and we're somewhere sitting in the middle of it in our little plane, hoping to make it through without being hurt,” she writes.
Suppose that instead of being in a plane, we were in a glider in the middle of the hurricane, without the control and power that an engine provides. We're caught in the sweeping winds. If we have any idea that we're going to get out alive, we're foolish. Still as long as we live within that enormous mass of wind, we have a good ride. Even with the fear and terror, it can be exhilarating and joyful – like riding a roller coaster.
We live like the pilot in the plane, focused on the controls, trying to avoid being buffeted by the gale-force winds. In trying to save ourselves, we don't notice anything else, she says.
But the man in the glider can enjoy everything – the lightning, the warm rain, the scream of the wind. He can have a great time. What will happen in the end? Both men die, of course. But which one knows the meaning of life? Who knows joy?… No one can know what life is. But we can experience it directly. Only that is given to us as human beings, But we don't accept the gift; we don't experience life directly. Instead we spend our lives protecting ourselves. When our protective systems break down, then we blame ourselves and others. We have systems to cover up our problems; we're unwilling to face the pain of life directly. In fact, when we face it directly, life is a great ride.
When we try to hold things together, we suffer tremendously when they fall apart. When we accept their impermanence, we can appreciate the glorious, auspicious interdependence that we witness as life.
How do we learn to do this? Taking things not just day by day but breath by breath, watching the inhale and exhale, relaxing into the space that knows what is happening, that feels the wind but is not blown off course by it.