Meditation includes a collection of techniques and benefits, and today I’d like to look at it through the lens of resilience.
While many people like to jump straight into the deep end, I am personally drawn to opportunities for incremental learning, so I have come to think about how meditation can provide a skill-building path toward increasing resilience.
Here are four skills that progressively build on each other and all contribute to our resilience.
Skill 1: Beginning again
I think the best place to start, as a beginning meditator, and to keep coming back to in every practice, is finding our anchor.
What’s an anchor?
The anchor is a present-moment sensory experience that is accessible and calming to pay attention to.
The classic anchor is the breath, feeling it enter and exit the body. An alternative anchor is touchpoints, feeling where the body is in contact with the cushion or chair, where the fingers are in contact with one another, etc. Other anchors may include sound or taste or movement.
While we have the intention to focus on our anchor, sooner or later (probably immediately), distractions arise.
A couple of common distractions for me are judgments about how I think the meditation is going or rehearsing for some imaginary future interaction.
Distractions provide the opportunity to practice kindly and gently returning to our anchor, over and over again. When we notice our attention wandering away from our anchor, we smile internally, to reinforce the moment of success when we noticed, rather than fret about how we got distracted, and then we begin again, resting our attention on the anchor.
Three wonderful keys to resilience come from this phase.
- We learn the magic of beginning again,
- We discover this replenishing stillness that we can come home to whenever we need to, and
- We develop a kinder and gentler inner voice.
Skill 2: Cultivating benefits in the present moment
At this stage, we can try a variety of techniques that help us calm our minds, relax our bodies, and cultivate beneficial attitudes like gratitude and compassion and patience.
Generally, these techniques include a physical gesture (like a small smile or resting our hand on our heart), phrases (“at ease in the world”), or visualizations (mountain or lake or tree) specifically chosen to evoke a desired response.
With practice, these beneficial states become second nature, and we find ourselves spontaneously feeling more joy in everyday life. We start to crowd out our natural but unhelpful human negativity bias with equanimity and wellbeing. We become more resilient because we simply feel better, more of the time.
Skill 3: Acknowledging unwanted experiences as they arise
We will still run into pain, physical and emotional, in life and in meditation.
We didn’t invite the pain, but it is nevertheless part of our present moment experience.
When this happens we can practice unpacking the pain into the physical sensations, the thoughts, the emotions, and the urges to react. We can rely on our familiar anchor, to ground ourselves and avoid spinning out.
The skill we are building is the ability to honestly see the way things are right now without adding to our suffering by what we do next. We learn that it is OK to be nice to ourselves even when we don’t like whatever is happening. We discover a pause and choice-point between stimulus and response, between our urges to act and how we ultimately do act. Learning to separate our pain, as it really is, from the thoughts that we pile on top of it, alleviates much of our suffering.
We become more resilient because our pain can come and go, without our making things worse unnecessarily.
Skill 4: Making room for future unpleasant experiences
In some meditation practices, we preemptively invite an unpleasant experience as the focus of our attention.
For example, last night I was led through a meditation where I intentionally visualized a time when I held a belief that turned out to be wrong, so I could practice self-compassion and openness.
In these practices, we purposely visualize a difficulty just so we can practice working with it skillfully. In order to do this safely, without overwhelming ourselves, it’s important not only to choose a difficulty that isn’t too difficult but also to have built the skills of the first three phases.
We can toggle between the difficulty we have chosen to work with and our anchor as much as necessary, thus pacing ourselves appropriately. To the degree that we are ready, we can experiment with turning toward the challenging experience, getting curious about it (in the special way that we have been practicing all along), learning from it.
The beauty of this phase is that we build a trust in ourselves to be OK, even with the really tough stuff. We get to where we are not so terrified of the pain and difficulties that are a part of life, because we have practiced working with them constructively.
This opens up doors for us!
The things we can do when we’re not too afraid!
Our hearts and minds and behaviors open up to the pursuit of what we really care about even though we know that we will encounter unpleasant experiences along the way — disappointment, rejection, failure, dissonance, vulnerability — the kinds of unpleasant experiences that we used to avoid by escaping in possibly harmful ways. We come to recognize the dangers of caring deeply, yet still choose to move toward what we truly value.
We can learn and grow and hurt and heal and love and laugh. And, we can tap into our inner resources along the way by continuing to come home to our anchor.
I think it is helpful to think of these skills as a progression, but the truth is, at least in my experience, that they don’t cleanly come to us in levels, allowing us to master one before moving on to the next.
In reality, I think many of us are first drawn to meditation because we are already looking for some pain relief, and so we start working on skills 3 and 1 simultaneously. This may be changing as meditation is becoming more accepted as a self-care practice like exercise and nutrition.
Regardless of how we start, I think if we keep practicing, and have good teachers, we fill in the gaps and continue to grow all four skills that are key to our resilience.