Resilience is not about being tough but about balance

Maybe it's just coincidence that resilience is trending during these troubled times, but it does seem to have become the buzzword du jour. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant examine it in their best-selling book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy, which is one of hundreds of similar titles online.

But today's concept of resilience is not the old-fashioned idea of being tough enough to bounce back after the bad stuff in life. Today's resilience is about how we respond to experiences such as trauma, divorce, bankruptcy, joblessness or a death in the family.

Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist meditation guru, put it to me this way: "Our habit is to view challenging situations as if we are a victim and we have a problem. What if instead of a problem, we perceive stress as a signal to call on our resourcefulness, our intelligence, care and courage?"

I have more than just an academic interest in the subject. In the space of four months this past year, my parents died; my partner and I separated; and I had a health scare.

"Any one of those life changes would be enough to make someone trip, if not fall", was a constant refrain from friends. They were surprised by how resilient I was in navigating these choppy waters.

I was too.

Wondering where that newfound resilience had come from, I asked Brach, who told me that resilience is not a fixed trait, that it can be learnt. You can develop resilience and you can lose it as well.

Struggling through those awful months, I felt buffeted by loss, grief and anger. Initially, I saw myself like the towering pecan tree in my backyard - tall, stately, with a very shallow root base - and vulnerable to collapse in a storm.

Through a daily meditation practice I had started six months earlier, I witnessed the shift Brach described. I became more like a weeping willow, with far-reaching roots and a yielding flexibility. Willows rarely topple in the wind as they are the ultimate go-with-the- flow type of tree.

Resilience, it dawned on me, was more like balance than toughness. As I discovered with yoga, I can easily do what's called the tree pose (balancing on one leg) on some days; those are the days when my body can make the constant recalculations and readjustments necessary to remain steady. Other days, I fall over like, well, a dead tree. That tends to happen when I'm ill, angry, distracted or tired.

Over time, however, I've developed better ways to deal with what irks me and my toppling days are fewer.

My journey to resilience began through serendipity. Soon after my mother died, I was browsing at a local bookstore when I picked up the Mindfulness Journal. Author David deSouza, a co-founder of the meditation website Satorio, wrote: "You're going to form the habits of mindfulness and meditation."

I would need to set an intention, he said, and be consistent in doing my homework. As he told me in an interview: "Meditation results in subtle, almost unnoticeable positive changes in our behaviour, adding up over time. It helps you to identify the cause and effect of your emotions and actions, giving you the insight to say, 'I am behaving like this because I am stressed, angry or hungry.'"

The homework was easy: Ask myself when I wake up, "How do you feel this morning?" and then give myself a grade from 1 (bad) to 10 (excellent). Record my exercise: Did I walk, do yoga, anything else? Then the big question: "What are you grateful for today?"

DeSouza said that it is uplifting, even on a bad day, to find something that will allow you to end the day on a positive note "and to then drift into a restful sleep".

The day my father died, I was grateful for the support of my siblings, the peace that I hoped dad had found, and the chocolate ice cream neighbours brought over.

Finally, the little book asks gently: "Did you meditate? For how long?"

DeSouza is gentle but firm about this: "Meditation teaches us that nothing is permanent and during dark times, provides the knowledge that we will see the light again."

In the midst of all this, I saw my new circumstances as an opportunity to change, to move in a new direction.

It turns out that the secret to my resilience was what Brach knew all along: "Resilience grows when we become intentional about bringing our best to difficult life seasons."

That is guidance we all could use in these dark days.


• Steven Petrow is an American journalist and author.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Resilience is not about being tough but about balance'. Subscribe